Jan 03 2012
This article was also published in Cebu Daily News on January 14, 2012.
Approximately of the same height and featuring basically the same characteristics, the similarities between the Mechlin statuette and the original Santo Niño de Cebu cannot just be disregarded. (Photos from The Louvre and from Google Images)
In September 2009, the Louvre acquired an early 16th-century statuette depicting Jesus as an infant. It is said to be the only one of its kind in French museums and only a dozen similar statuettes from the same period are currently known to exist in the world.
What makes this statuette more interesting is that it closely resembles the Santo Niño de Cebu, another statuette of the infant Jesus currently enshrined at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. The Santo Niño de Cebu was one of the devotional images that were brought by Ferdinand Magellan during his voyage to circumnavigate the globe. According to Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the expedition, Magellan gave the image of the infant Jesus to the wife of the local chieftain after the natives were baptized to the Roman Catholic faith. Two other images were also given: A bust depicting Jesus crowned with thorns and a fully-carved image of the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus.
The statuette measures approximately twelve inches tall without the socle or the pedestal. The Santo Niño de Cebu also measures the same. Studies along with comparisons with other known similar statuettes trace the provenance of the Louvre piece to Mechlin or Mechelen, one of the major centers of art in the historical Southern Netherlands, now a Dutch-speaking city and municipality in the province of Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium. When one of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s men found the Santo Niño in an unscathed house on April 28, 1565, he described it as similar to those made in Flanders, the Early Modern Period term for Southern Netherlands.
Details of the Mechlin statuette. (Photo from The Louvre)
The Mechlin statuette and the Santo Niño de Cebu share basically the same features and style along with the other known similar statuettes that originated from Mechlin — pudgy, curly hair, rounded eyes, slender lips curved in a slight smile, standing on one foot, the right hand raised in blessing while the left hand holding a terrestrial globe. Another striking characteristic is the weak chin. He is depicted nudely because he embodies man. He is God that became man, the salvation of mankind.
The Mechlin statuette and the Santo Niño de Cebu share basically the same features and style along with the other known similar statuettes that originated from Mechlin.
There is a very high probability that the Santo Niño de Cebu could be one of the many images of the infant Jesus that were also produced in Mechlin. An identifying mark would be three pales (Mechlin’s coat of arms) at the underside of the statuette or right under the foot since guild regulations during that time required the sculptures to be inspected and marked before being sold. However it would be practically impossible to perform such an inspection at a highly revered antique image encased in bulletproof glass. The Mechlin characteristics however are obvious enough to conclude a step higher the Santo Niño de Cebu’s exact provenance.
What was the main purpose of these devotional images of Jesus being depicted as an infant? According to the Louvre, by the end of the Middle Ages the Mechlin workshops began specializing in the mass production of statuettes intended for private devotion. Most were depictions of the Virgin Mary but the infant Jesus is very rare and there were only a few dozen of it. It is said that the nuns who kept an image of the infant Jesus cared for it like an actual child.
Perhaps Ferdinand Magellan or one of his men acquired the Santo Niño from our modern day version of a religious shop selling statuettes of the infant Jesus that were crafted from Belgium?