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The Santo Niño de Cebu and Its Pagan Origins

Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.

Sinulog by @sulong_caracoa on Twitter

Sinulog by @sulong_caracoa on Twitter

If you visit the Philippines, you will discover that most homes, business establishments, and even private and government offices keep a little baroque-style statue of a boy king somewhere.

The image stands on top of a circular base pedestal, clothed with rich fabrics in red (symbolizing shed blood to save humanity) or sometimes green (for luck), wears golden jewelry such as a gilded neck chain, and bears Spanish imperial regalia including a gold crown while holding a scepter and globus cruciger (a globe with a cross on top, symbolizing the Christian conquest) in his hands.

This figure was brought by the Spaniards and is known as the Santo Niño de Cebu, the oldest surviving Christian relic in the Philippines.

But way back in the pre-Spanish period, similar wooden idols were placed on multiple areas of the community by the early inhabitants of what is now the Philippines and were venerated as guardians, protectors, and pagan idols.

The Lianito Idol

The Animist people of the Visayas region worshiped a time god known as Kanlaon or Laon, equivalent to the creator god Bathala of the Tagalogs. He was the supreme deity in the Visayan pantheon, but a relatively distant creator to the people.

In order to bridge the gap, the ancients had mediators like elemental diwatas (minor deities) and anitos (ancestral spirits) who are supposed to dispense blessings and abundance on a family or society.

These Anito spirits are usually an old ancestor who was known to have lived a virtuous life when they were alive. They were venerated after death much like the origins of household elves in other cultures.

Houses in the pre-colonial Visayas carry a larawan (image) or tawu tawu (idols) made out of wood, stone, gold, or ivory whom the family pays homage, in remembrance of the dead. They are offered food, flowers, and pag-anito (worship) daily to ensure a continuous flow of blessings upon them.

Pre-colonial liantio idols, and the wooden bulul idols of the Ifugao.

Pre-colonial liantio idols, and the wooden bulul idols of the Ifugao.

When the head of the family dies (mother or father), everyone in the village will help to make an idol. They will carve out a child-like image, usually androgynous to further symbolize gender-neutrality and always depicted smiling.

They would call it Lianito—the collective embodiment of the ancestor spirit of a family and territory.

Then they would dress the doll and adorn it with gold and would place the image among the other idols. Some families had a hundred idols, each representing an ancestor.

The Lianito idols are very similar to the Bulul of the Ifugao people of Northern Luzon, who placed them on farm fields to guard the rice crops.

Bululs are used in ceremonies associated with rice production and healing. They are incorporated with fertility symbols such as the mortar for the female and pestle for the male, or sometimes depicted with loincloth for males and wrap skirts for females known as "tapis".

Although the form varies, the bulul is commonly represented as seated on the ground, with arms crossed over its upraised knees. Genuine antique bululs are somewhat rare and expensive but there are commonly manufactured souvenir replicas sold for tourists today.

The Baptism of the Cebuanos by Carlos "Botong" Francisco

The Baptism of the Cebuanos by Carlos "Botong" Francisco

Baptism and Betrayal

The original image of the Santo Niño de Cebu was a gift from Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian chronicler and one of the scribes of Ferdinand Magellan, who gave it to Hara Humamay—the royal consort of Rajah Humabon—the chieftain of Cebu in 1521, as a token of friendship and allegiance to Spain.

The queen, originally named Amihan (Northeast Monsoon), converted to Catholicism and was baptized with a new Christian name "Juana", after Joane of Castille and Aragon, mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

She was the daughter of Rajamuda Lumaya or Sri Lumay—originally a native prince of Sumatra, that was sent by the ruling maharaja in Indonesia to establish a forward base in the Philippine islands, but later rebelled from his superiors to build his own kingdom.

The captain on that occasion approved of the gift which I had made to the queen of the image of the Infant Jesus, and recommended her to put it in the place of her idols, because it was a remembrance of the Son of God. She promised to do all this, and to keep it with much care.

— Antonio Pigafetta

According to the Spanish scribes, Queen Juana loved the image so much that as she received the figure, she was overjoyed and wept, bathing the statue with her tears as she is hugging it.

After her baptism, eight hundred other Cebuanos were also baptized and were given an image of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix, and the Ecce Homo (a bust of Jesus before Pontius Pilate).

But contrary to popular depictions of this historic event, the rulers of Cebu might not have been kneeling in front of the Europeans, but rather sitting in an elevated silk cushion in a very dignified position, which was typical for the royalties of Southeast Asia at that time.

It is very possible that the Europeans themselves were actually the ones kneeling in front of the native rajah and his consort; to show respect, form a bond, and communicate that they could be trusted.

But did our ancestors truly embraced Christianity out of religious devotion, or did they merely participated in the rites out of curiousity? This narrative of our ancestors quickly converting easily, submitting themselves to the new religion within just days of meeting the Europeans is kind of biased in favor towards colonialism. We don't know for sure what motivated the pre-colonial Visayans because this friendship between the Spaniards and Rajah Humabon quickly disintegrated.

— Kirby Araullo, historian

Queen Juana by Manuel Panares

Queen Juana by Manuel Panares

But the Spaniards underestimated the power of the animist faith, as it is deeply ingrained within the people.

A few days after the conversion, Magellan was shocked to discover that the king and queen still kept their pagan idols and was astounded to realize that not only Animist shrines present in every home but can also be found in fields and even in gravesites.

Perhaps the queen readily accepted the Santo Niño because it looked more regal and refined unlike the wooden larawans with tusks that looked old and grimy.

Magellan went on to become Humabon's champion and battled against Datu Lapu-Lapu of Mactan island and got himself killed.

The Spanish forces retreated back to Humabon, unaware that the repudiation of the newfound faith has already started among the Cebuanos, abandoning Catholicism in favor of the old religion.

On May 1, 1521, Humabon ordered the massacre of the Spanish survivors by poison during a banquet feast. Some of them—Pigafetta included, escaped back to Europe in a hurry and nothing was documented about what happened to the Santo Niño image.

Limasawa by Derrick Macutay

Limasawa by Derrick Macutay

The Rediscovery

The next Spanish expedition arrived on April 27, 1565, again to gain a foothold for a colony to trade spices, and this was led by Miguel López de Legazpi. He found the natives hostile and fearing retribution for Magellan’s death.

After a failed attempt for peaceful colonization, he opened fire on Cebu and burnt the coastal towns down destroying 1,500 homes and possibly killing five hundred native people.

In the ruins of this destruction, a Spanish mariner named Juan de Camuz, who was also a soldier in Legazpi's fleet found the image of the Santo Niño in a pine box of a burnt nipa hut.

The anniversary commemorating the rediscovery of the Santo Nino of Cebu is known as kaplag (finding). Painting by Manuel Panares

The anniversary commemorating the rediscovery of the Santo Nino of Cebu is known as kaplag (finding). Painting by Manuel Panares

The survival of the statue was seen as a sign of a miracle by the colonizers.

Camus presented the image to Legazpi and the Augustinian priests, but the natives refused to associate it with the gift of Pigafetta and Magellan, claiming it had existed there since ancient times.

A possible explanation has been hypothesized that the image of the Santo Niño may have been introduced through traders from China—speculating that a Chinese artisan may have reproduced the images brought from Franciscans who visited during and after the time of Marco Polo in the late 13th to early 14th century.

There is no disputing there were Chinese traders because the Visayas islands were the trading ports and economic centers before the colonialism.

Its rediscovery was later construed as an auspicious sign by Legazpi to continue subjugating Cebu and the entire archipelago for the Spanish crown.

A church to house the Santo Niño was built on the spot where the image was found, originally made out of bamboo and mangrove palm. It was reconstructed later and claims to be the oldest parish in the Philippines—built (out of simpler materials) before the San Agustin Church in Manila.

The Santo Nino Church in the 1800s.

The Santo Nino Church in the 1800s.

At about two arquebus-shots from the Spanish town of Santisimo Nombre de Jesus,(thus called because an image of the child Jesus, of the time of Magallanes (Magellan) had been found there, and was held in great reverence by the Indians), is a village of the natives belonging to the royal crown, with about eight hundred Indians. The commander Miguel Lopez de Legazpi exempted this community from paying tribute; for they had always taken sides with the Spaniards, and had helped them.

— Miguel de Loarca, Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas 1582

Artist unknown

Artist unknown

The New Rain God

According to historian Nicomedes Marquez Joaquin; when the Spanish conquistadores came once more 44 years later, they discovered that there was a new god in the pantheon of the Visayans.

The new deity is in the form of a child whom they call Santonilyo—obviously a corruption of the Spanish title.

Santonilyo is the child deity of good graces who was worshiped as a rain god for four decades since the Spanish first arrived.

Fray Gaspar de San Agustin wrote about it in his 1565 book “Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas", that during drought, the ancient Cebuanos would bathe the image in the sea.

This practice of immersing the sacred image is also mentioned in Santo Niño’s Gozos (prayer hymn) published in an 1888 novena.

Therefore, Santonilyo is both an old god and a new god to the Visayans.

However, Santonilyo's fame is already widespread among the other islands of the Visayas, reaching as far as Mindoro, Panay, Negros, Bohol, Siquijor, Samar, and Leyte.

The name Santonilyo is also mentioned by Felipe Landa Jocano—anthropologist and author of "Filipino Value System", as one of the Upperworld deities, along with Ribung Linti (the god of thunder and lightning) who assisted Tungkung Langit (the supreme god of Panay) in the creation myth known as the Sulod epics.

Santonilyo by James Claridades, based on a character in the TV show "Indio", played by child actor Kyle Jimenez.

Santonilyo by James Claridades, based on a character in the TV show "Indio", played by child actor Kyle Jimenez.

The Legend of Santonilyo Agipo

In connection, there is also an existing local legend that Santonilyo was said to have reached the islands when a fisherman caught a piece of agipo (a stump or driftwood).

It is told that long before the coming of the Spaniards, a native went out to sea but could not catch any fish the whole day.

Finally, he felt a weight in his net and brought it in only to discover that it caught nothing but a piece of driftwood. Dismayed, he threw it back into the sea.

Soon after, he felt another tug in his line but realized that it was the same piece of wood.

Over and over he would catch the agipo and then dump it back to sea, only to catch it again.

Tired and angry, he decided to keep the driftwood in his boat. Like magic, fish flocked towards his boat and he returned to his village with a bountiful catch.

The natives soon discovered that this piece of wood had other magical powers. They could use it as a scarecrow to keep the birds and animals away from drying grains.

In times of drought, they only had to immerse it in the sea and the rains would come.

It was then that this agipo became an idol in their pantheon. Like the venerated Holy Child, Santonilyo is also prayed for graces.

And so the Lianito idol also became called Lisantonilyo, merging the two words together.

The usual scene during the "Fiesta Señor".

The usual scene during the "Fiesta Señor".

Patron of Cebu

The image has historically attracted devotional worship in the Philippines.

Processions are made, with numerous Filipino pilgrims touching or kissing the foot of the image's stand.

Today it is housed in the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, after receiving papal recognition on April 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI and Canonical Coronation of the statue that raised the church to a minor basilica status on its 400th anniversary in the place where it was rediscovered a few feet away from the cross erected by Magellan himself as a sign of Spanish conquest.

There is an annual feast every third Sunday of January, followed by dancing in the streets known as the Sinulog Festival, where a Sinulog Festival Queen competition also attracts the Filipinos' love for Beauty Pageants—representing Hara Humamay and her fascination with the Catholic image.

Today, it is the grandest and the most well-known festival in the Philippines, which is a week-long celebration with preparations made a year prior.

Sinulog is a type of traditional ritualistic dance performed by the natives during processions (while carrying torches known locally as sulog, hence the name) in early colonial times—even possibly during the peak of Santonilyo's worship, in honor of the figurine as well as their anitos and diwatas.

Sulog also means 'to move like water current', describing the Sinulog dance's 'two steps forward-one step backward' motion.


But in all honesty, the religious meaning of the holiday slowly began fading because, for the younger generations now, it only means partying in the streets while getting drunk.

In one traumatic experience, my friends and I were almost crushed by a stampeding crowd so I stopped going to these events after that.

Only the recent pandemic seemed to put an end to the rowdiness of its festivities, but I'm sure we'll pick up where we left off after this is all over.

According to Alonso de Mentrida, who wrote the "Vocabulario de la Lengua Bisaya-Hiligueina y Haraya de las Isla de Panay" in 1637, and Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, the author of "Diccionario Bisaya-Español" in 1851; this particular icon was given the name "bathala", the general name for icons of animistic spirits.

Bathala is of course a name known to be the creator god of the Tagalogs and the Bicolanos, also called Batala of the Pampangos, and the Badla of the Mandaya tribes of Davao.

But the modern Cebuanos call him simply as "Señor Santo Niño".


Long Lost Twin

There are few other images around the world considered to be similar to the Santo Niño of Cebu; like the Infant Jesus of Prague in the Czech Republic, the Santo Niño de Atocha in Madrid, Spain, the stolen Santo Bambino di Ara Coeli in Rome, Italy, and the Santo Niño de Palaboy of Mexico.

But the most popular theory is that it has an identical twin known as the Santissimo Gesu de Malines a.k.a. the Infant Jesus of Mechelen (a former part of Southern Netherlands) now displayed in the famous Louvre Museum in France.

It is believed that both statues originated from the same European source: Belgium. According to a hagiography based on a vision of Teresa of Avila—a 16th-century mystic and saint, the Santo Niño de Cebu image was originally produced particularly by Flemish artisans.

Both the Mechelen statue and the Santo Niño de Cebu are the same height at approximately 30 cm (12 inches) tall, having similar characteristics such as the standing pose, naked body, hand in a blessing gesture, and golden globes.

The facial structures and expressions are almost exactly similar to one another with the following exceptions:

  • In published photographs, the Mechelen statue looks frontal and towards in a direct line, while the Cebu statue looks in a downward direction to the devotee.
  • The Cebu statue's fingers lean to the left, while that of the Mechelen statue points to the right. The original wooden fingers however point upwards when the golden glove is removed.
  • The Mechelen statue's hair is sculpted all the way close to the neckline, while the Cebu statue looks like it is only up to the earlobes.
The Infant Jesus of Mechelen, and the original Santo Niño de Cebu given by Pigafetta.

The Infant Jesus of Mechelen, and the original Santo Niño de Cebu given by Pigafetta.

Heritage worker Ernesto Chua tried to ascertain if the image venerated at the Basilica shrine is the original one by interviewing different personalities.

The research revealed that during the colonial period, the image of the Santo Niño was painted black, like the many darkly hued icons in many parts of the country such as the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, Our Lady of Good Voyage in Antipolo, and the Virgen de la Regla in Lapu-Lapu City in Mactan.

Perhaps this was a way to make the natives relate to the image and to draw it closer to the brown people. Even in Europe, dark Marian images are venerated as well.

According to writer Rosa Tenazas, it was a certain friar of the convent of Santisimo Nombre de Jesus who painted the image black in the early 19th century.

During World War II when the Philippines was occupied by Japanese and American troops, a bomb fell on the Santo Niño church (before it was a basilica) but did not explode.

The image was found unscathed, hanging near the altar, and the Augustinians then brought the image to the Redemptorist convent for safekeeping.


By the end of the Second World War, the image was restored to its original color.

An Augustinian priest asked a Belgian nun of St. Theresa’s College to wipe clean the face of the image. By accident, part of the black paint was scraped off, revealing the original fair complexion.

When the image was returned to the church after the war, the Augustinians commissioned anthropologist Dr. Mimi Trosdal to restore the image to its original color and scraped off the black paint between 1948 and 1949.

Because of the original icon’s antiquity, only replicas are used during the fluvial parade and the foot procession held a day before the Sinulog Mardi Gras.

Security also comes to play as the original image is adorned with precious stones and real golden jewelry, which is why the shrine is enclosed in bulletproof glass.

Pagan or Christian?

The pagan legacy of the icon is on full display and the Santo Niño may also have taken mythical status by this time.

The Santo Niño became the official patron of Cebu, much like Santonilyo was the idol and deity of graces before the mass conversion to Catholicism.

The belief is so strong that the Church in the Philippines needed to clarify that it is not a representation of a saint that intercedes to God, but rather of God himself—specifically, Jesus Christ.

Regardless, the vendors outside the Basilica del Santo Niño will readily tell you that the Santo Niño is a patron and will bring good fortune.

During Sinulog season, some religious Filipino parents dedicate their children to the Santo Niño and choose to dress them up with princely-looking costumes based on the image's garb.

I've also seen one trending video circulating online of a small statue of the Holy Child that allegedly "danced" in a basin full of water while being "bathed".

The people gathered around, cheered, and cried believing they witnessed a miracle firsthand. But I can't validate or invalidate these claims, as the video already managed to get a lot of positive and negative reactions.

The name Santonilyo may have been clear from the start as evidence of the influence the Catholic religion had on pagan beliefs. But I think it's more on how pagan beliefs influenced Catholicism in the Philippines.

As most people refused to accept, Catholicism retains some practices that are distinctly pagan in origin.

Filipinos are indeed Christian in religion, but Pagan in practice.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with being Pagan or Christian, as long as we fully understood why we do the things we do. Lest we risk becoming hypocrites and prone to errors, we must first learn before submitting ourselves to an activity or practice.

Faith is good, but let's not confuse it with "blind faith".

I don't think it's an issue whether the Santo Niño owes its popularity to the pagan idols or the Rain deity of the early polytheist Filipinos.

Because other than being a religious icon, it's also a cultural one which is why this little figure made of dark wood, venerated as miraculous by many Filipino Catholics, is so easily accepted and loved by Filipinos still to this day.


Philippines of Old: Santonilyo,

Santonilyo: God of Blessings,

Santonilyo and the Cultural Appropriation of Santo Nino,


Santo Nino de Cebu: The Eternal King of the Philippines,

The Story of Parian sa Sugbu,

Paganism in Cebu,

Historian Kirby Araullo, youtube/user/TheKirbyNoodle

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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