As the 21st of October approaches, devotees of the Black Christ of Portobelo dressed in their purple robes and “mandas” can already be spotted on their pilgrimage to the small but now universally famous town on the Atlantic coast. Rest assured as we get closer to the date of the festivities hundreds, even thousands, will join them from all over the country and, indeed, all over the world.
This seems a good time for me to discuss a subject that I’ve been investigating for a long time and it has to do with the “Black” imagery surrounding the figure of Jesus Christ and also his mother, whose Black image has also been venerated throughout the centuries in many parts of the globe. The versions of the origins surrounding the many Black Christs in different parts of the Catholic world seem to have comparable histories and seem to start out the same way.
Each story has three parts – how the Nazareno (El Naza, as he is affectionately known in Panama) was headed from Spain where he was sculpted by a Spanish artisan, the arrival of the statue, the refusal of the statue to leave the village, and its veneration. The most well-known story recounts how the Christ was being carried, by ship, to Colombia or Peru and, due to foul weather the crew was forced to disembark in Portobelo. Whenever the ship tried to weigh anchor and continue its proposed course, a mighty storm would whip up to prevent it. After several attempts, the Spaniards in charge of the image decided to leave it in Portobelo, and since then he remains there a fixed and venerated figure.
One thing is clear about the image of the black Christ in his different manifestations all over the world: the color of his skin marks the intended racial identity of the image and is not a consequence of his creator’s whim. The justification for his “dark color,” for instance, crops up again and again. Of the Black Nazarene of Manila which arrived in Manila in May 1606 it says:
“The Black Nazarene refers to a life-sized, dark colored statue of Jesus Christ that was brought to the Philippines from Mexico by the first group of Augustinian Recollect friars sent by Spain. This statue was carved by an Aztec carpenter. Jesus is depicted genuflecting under the weight of the Cross that he bore during his Passion.”
This reasoning has been used very often to, in my opinion, detract from the original focus of these images: that they appeared at a time when the masses of poor people of the world, particularly people of color, needed the support and comfort from a God they could relate to.
Just look at the story behind the Black Christ of Esquipulas, Guatemala that says:
“According to the official Internet Web site of the Black Christ of Esquipulas, it began in 1595 when a very devout youth called Quirio Cataño carved an image of the Crucified Christ at the request of the indigenous population of Esquipulas. The natives wanted a dark image, like the color of their skin, but since there was no wood so dark, they accepted the one young Cataño gave them. Tradition says that between night and morning the image turned completely dark, like a miracle of the Lord to please his children of the town of Esquipulas.”
We do not want to get into debates over the original racial identity of Jesus Christ, as this subject has been sufficiently covered throughout history and you may look for yourself all over the web. We do want to emphasize, however, that many of the Black Christ images and images of the Black Madonna were intended to be of Black personages of African origin and not merely blackened images with European features.
Scholars have studied this unique aspect of the Black Christ and Black Madonna images found throughout Europe and the western hemisphere over the centuries. A good example to support this more afro-centric explanation for these sacred images are the explanations given by Czech scholars for their Black Madonna of Breznice (Prague).
“This is one of those Black Madonnas whose skin color might have been attributed to the Byzantine style, candle smoke, or the ‘saponification of the white lead’ in the paint, were it not for her halo. It reads: “Nigra sum sed formosa filie ier(usalem).” That means: “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem.” This quote from the Song of Songs can be found on or near many Black Virgins. It and the red and white ring on her thumb mark Mary as the bride of this love poem and the bride of God. But more than that, the quote in the halo marks her as a Black Madonna. No one can “renovate” such a Madonna and say, ‘She was meant to be white and is more beautiful when white.”
In grand part the ever mounting popularity of the Black Christ of Portobelo seems to be his distinctly African features and, even more importantly, his suffering demeanor which identifies him with the poor, afflicted and marginalized people of the world. He unequivocally fits the bill for being the real Patron Saint of Panama since his very semblance speaks to the daily battle for racial acceptance, an existence that constantly calls for peace amongst the real people of Panama.
His identity with the poor and afflicted, in fact, have extended beyond the national borders and people from all over the world now come to venerate this miraculous manifestation of the Holy One of Israel. He truly is miraculous and has been credited with thousands of healings and benefits.
If you want to study this theme further, we urge you to go to some very well documented sites like Interfaith Marian Pilgrimages and other sites you may Google for a truly rewarding investigation. Our favorites include the histories behind the Black Madonna of Windhausen, Germany and Peña de Francia, Spain. Check them out.
This story continues.