COTANGENT – By Daphne Cardillo
June 24, 2009. At the second floor of the main building of Hotel Alejandro in Tacloban are displayed several icons of the Santo Niño that have been part of the religious tradition of the people of Tacloban and Leyte since Christianity was introduced in this part of the country. Entitled Ladawan Han Santo Niño Ha Mga Tawo, the exhibit is in celebration of the National Heritage Month 2009, the 3rd Leyte Heritage Festival and the Tacloban City Fiesta.
On studying the icons, one can observe the cultural and historical expressions of the people at a particular period while retaining the essence of their religious homage to the Santo Niño. The outer trappings of the icons changed over time, probably owing to the availability of materials and the level of sophistication of the persons who designed the images.
The early statues marked as Folk Images of the Santo Niño are made of wood and the robe simply painted in deep red and decorated with black ethnic prints. The head does not wear any crown and the left hand carries a globe while the right hand is in the act of bestowing a blessing.
In my observation, the earliest image on display is the one made of solid wood block dated circa 1800s. The two sides of the base are carved with what looks like a horn of a bull which reminds me of the horned altar in the days of King Solomon of the Old Testament.
Another folk image of the Santo Niño of later date is the one from Bato, Leyte and designed for a private residence. The icon is set in carved wood over three feet wide and forming an altar, painted in earth colors and now embedded with gold leaf. Viewed from a little distance, the altar looks like a façade of an old church with both sides rising to the top and where the Santo Niño stands in a small room.
Contemporary representations of the Santo Niño that were mostly done in the succeeding decades of the 1900s have become more elaborate. The Santo Niño is now dressed in velvet or any rich clothing material with gold-thread embroidery, hair made of jusi, and boots made of beaten metal. Now carved from either solid wood or solid ivory, the image is further decorated with gold leaf, metal ornaments, or semi-precious stones.
The Santo Niño has also taken a royal character in contemporary times with the addition of a crown on the head and a scepter on the right hand. A replica of the Santo Niño El Capitan done in the 1970s even has the image stand on an almojadon (pillow) on top of a globe peaña (pedestal) thus further elevating the symbol of that object of religious devotion.
A few of the icons displayed are each placed inside a virina (glass dome case) giving a more sacred feel to the image as it appears to be in a different dimension, the thin glass creating a transparent wall and protection. While a few icons are in varied aspects; a welcoming Santo Niño, a sleeping Santo Niño, one carrying the cross as in the Passion of Christ, and another depicting as The Good Shepherd.
Of more modern image of the Santo Niño displayed are pre-war photo prints and the recent digital print on canvass. An image is even done on a ceramic plate, courtesy of modern technology. And while the Santo Niño sculptures are mounted on high wooden boxes, a few watercolor paintings of the Santo Niño on paper and canvass hang on the walls.
Seeing these Santo Niño Icons in various trappings and aspects made me hope that we have not made God in our own image, and that these icons are simple representations of our historico-cultural heritage while keeping our spiritual devotion to an immutable God meaningful and alive. The old religions with their diverse devotional images are long dead but the spirit of the Christian God who manifests his power through his people has made the single image of the Santo Niño live through history and cultures.