HistoryIn April 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in the service of Charles I of Spain, arrived in Cebu during his voyage to find a westward route to the Indies . He persuaded Rajah Humabon and his wife Humamay, to pledge their allegiance with Spain. They were later baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos and Juana. Magellan presented the Santo Niño to the newly-baptized Queen Juana as a symbol of the alliance. To her husband Carlos, Magellan presented the bust of the "Ecce Homo", or the depiction of Christ before Pontius Pilate. He gave an image of Our Lady to the natives who were later baptized with their rulers. However, Magellan died later on April 27, 1521 in the battle that took place in Mactan, , leaving the image behind. In its new environment, among sun-loving people, the image stopped to be a Christian symbol. After some vain efforts on the part of the natives to destroy it, as legends say, it endured its new setting and prevailed to become a pagan idol. The Cebuano natives revered the Image of Santo Niño as Bathala. They most probably blessed the image with oil or offered sacrifices to the Santo Niño while invoking for His assistance in times of difficulties, reliefs in their necessities or consolations in their adversities.
In those unaccounted years, the Image became part of Cebuano life. And this is probably why when asked about the Image, as it was found in 1565 by the Legazpi expedition in one of the village houses, the natives refused to relate it to the gift of Magellan. They said it was there at the beginning, since ancient times.
Writer Dr. Resil Mojares, also in a1980 paper, said that the claim of the 1565 Cebuanos that the Image was native and ancient in the land was probably because they were afraid to admit that it was a Spanish property or else it would be taken away from them.
The natives’ version of the origin of the Santo Niño is in the “Agipo” (stump or driftwood) legend about magical driftwood caught in the fishhook of an ancient native fisherman. Everytime he throw it away, it reappeared until decided to keep it. Then, oi! The fish catch became so plentiful for the fisherman that day. The agipo, brought to the settlement, would later manifest its powers to the people – guard the people’s harvest, protect them from pestilence.
Writer Mojares says this legend of the magical driftwood would only be natural to the folk mind. “The folk mind cannot completely conceive of a God that is manufactured in a workshop somewhere in a country called Belgium but it can believe that a God can rise out of the sea and bring on the rains by being submerged again in it”.
Thus, the unaccounted 44 years of the stay of the Image in the hands of the natives is part of Philippine history. The Sto. Niño, as writer Joaquin put it, “connected, he linked, he joined together our pagan and our Christian culture; he belonging to both.”
Many years later in 1565, Juan de Camus, a mariner of the second generation of Spanish Colonial campaign under Don Miguel Lopez de Legazpi found inside a pine box an unscathed Image of the Santo Niño. The adorable image believed to be of Belgian origin stands roughly at 30.48cm tall, wearing a loose velvet vestment, a gilded neck chain and a woolen red hood. It is carved from wood and coated with paint. The image holds a golden ball, a replica of the world in the left hand, and the right hand is slightly raised as a gesture of blessing.
Deeply impressed by this discovery, Camus presented the Image to Legazpi and the Augustinian priests. They were so humbled by the significance of the finding of the image that in solemnity, the image was carried in a procession to a provisional chapel. Legazpi then ordered the creation of the Confraternity of the Santo Niño de Cebu with Fr. Andres de Urdaneta as its head. A devotee of the Child Jesus himself, Legazpi installed a festivity in commemoration of the finding of the Holy Image. Although the celebration still survives until today, Pope Innocent XIII moved the celebration to the Third Sunday of January so as not to conflict with the 40-day celebration of Easter.
Presently, the Image is dressed like a royalty with its ornate decorations, including a sash adorned with old Castilian coins and a Toison de Oro (Golden Fleece) with a ram pendant reputedly given by King Charles III in the 17th century, the image now stands in grandeur that continues to captivate the hearts and souls of his fervent devotees.
Stories of the Miracles of the Señor Santo Niño spread like wildfire in the Seas, placing Cebu as the Cradle of the Santo Niño devotion in the Philippines. His devotion spanned to the nearby island-provinces of the Visayas, then advanced to the north to as far as the Ilocandia and reached down south in Mindanao.
The Basilica Minore del Santo Niño built on the very same spot where the image was found on April 28, 1565, housed the statuette of the Santo Niño. Originally made out of bamboo and mangrove palm, the Santo Niño Church developed into a fortress where ardent devotees from all walks converge for thanksgiving or supplication to the Child Jesus, whom they have venerated through the centuries. With the increasing number of devotees flocking the Church of Santo Niño, Pope Paul VI elevated its rank as minor basilica with all rights and privileges accruing to such conferment for the Quadricentennial celebration of Christianity in the Philippines.
Numerous miracles have been wrought by the power of the Santo Niño. It is said that a voluminous book is needed to contain all the attestations and testimonials of the goodness and mercy of the Infant Jesus of Cebu. Considered as the prime of all Christian relics in the Philippines, the image of the Infant Jesus continues to shine as the lodestar that attracts the hearts of the Filipino people.
Meanwhile, the Visayans continue to manifest affection with the Santo Niño, who, not only during his feast day, but all year round have come to pay homage to a Gift, so simple yet profound.