The image of the “Holy Infant of Prague” dates back to around the year 1500. The great St. Teresa of Avila was known to have had a very tender devotion to the Christ Child, and encouraged this devotion among her nuns. Princess Maria Ana Manriquez de Lara of the Royal House of Spain was a relative and close friend of the Saint, and it is believed that St. Teresa may have given the little statue of the Infant Jesus to the princess as a gift.
Still, there is another story, a legend, that is not widely known, but well worth telling, of the statue’s Spanish origin, and how it ended up in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic...
A Spanish noblewoman, Dona Isabella Manriquez de Lara, had travelled to Nuestra Caseta to visit a girlhood friend who had only recently lost her husband. On her return trip home, she stopped to get out of the carriage for a while. There was a clearing in the woods and on entering, she was surprised to find what looked like an abandoned castle or monastery. Once inside the gate she realized that it was not abandoned at all. Behind the tall stone wall was a cloister with a door almost completely hidden by the many vines growing around it. Dona Isabella knocked on the door which was opened by an old man dressed in a brown habit, with a white beard, and looking very much like a hermit of ancient times. He seemed to have been expecting her, and invited her to come in and take some refreshment with him. He then took her to visit their little chapel, and showed her the image of the little Nino Jesus.
“This little Santo Nino Jesus”, he said, “is your gift for the dowry of your daughter Senorita Maria Ana who is to marry the Czech nobleman Vratuslav of Pernstyn. This Santo Nino Jesus shall bring peace to the Czech nation which has been torn apart with religious strife and war.” Then the Friar related to her this story:
“About one year ago we had with us a friar, Brother Joseph of the Holy House. He was a hard worker, his faith was very simple, and his greatest devotion was to the Holy Child Jesus. He confided to us that he would often plead with Our Little Lord in prayer that one day he would be allowed to see Him in Person. One afternoon as Brother Joseph was scrubbing floors, a small boy unexpectedly appeared, standing there before him. He remarked to the good brother that he did his work very beautifully. Then he asked him if he also knew how to pray, especially the Hail Mary, and could he recite it for him? Brother Joseph stopped his work, folded his hands in prayer, and began reciting the Hail Mary as the child had requested. At the words, “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”, the little boy suddenly interrupted, “I am He!”, and then he disappeared. Brother Joseph thought he heard a voice saying to him, “I will return, and you will make a waxen image of me just as you see me.”
In anticipation, Brother Joseph gathered together the materials needed to make a waxen image, and waited for the day to arrive. When the Little Jesus finally did return, the Brother was ready for Him with his wax and his tools. He worked for many long hours, molding and carving, when at last the little image of the Santo Nino Jesus was completed. Very pleased with the result and beauty of his work, and smiling to himself, the weary Brother rested his head on his workbench, and closed his eyes... This was how the friars later found him, and the beautiful statue of the Child King beside him. The angels had taken the soul of good Brother Joseph to be with His Beloved Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom. Later that night the soul of Br. Joseph appeared to one of the friars and he said to him:
“This statue must be given to Dona Isabella Manriquez de Lara as dowry for her daughter who will take it with her to Bohemia. The image will become known as the Infant Jesus of Prague by many nations. He will bring Grace, Peace and Mercy to the people of Bohemia, that land which He has chosen for His own, and He will be to them their Little King.”
Dona Isabella returned home with the statue of the little Infant Jesus, and as the friar had predicted, her daughter, Princess Maria Ana Manriques de Lara did marry Vratuslav of Pernstyn, and brought with her the image of the Holy Infant to their home in Prague.
As incredible as this story may seem, there is still more to the mystery of the origin of the little Santo Jesus. One day while Dona Isabella was in prayer before the little image, she felt an overwhelming need to return to the old monastery and thank the elderly friar. She and her coachman set out, and had no trouble finding the clearing in the woods, but there was no evidence anywhere that a monastery had ever even existed...even the local peasants who had lived there all their lives assured them that they had never known of the existence of any monastery in those parts!
Years later, when Princess Maria Ana’s own daughter Polyxena was to wed Zdenek of Lobkovice, the statue was once again given as a dowry gift from the mother to the daughter. Polyxena treasured the Santo Nino, but upon the premature death of her husband, she decided to make the gift of her Little Jesus to the Carmelite Monastery, and the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague saying, “I hereby give you what I prize most highly in this world. As long as you venerate this image you will not be in want.” – Her words have proven to be very prophetic.
At the time of Polyxena’s kind gesture, the monastery was in great need. It had not fared well since the end of the Thirty Year War. The Emperor Ferdinand II had removed his court from Prague to Vienna, and without his support, the friars were often without even the necessary food to survive. So, it was with childlike trust that they welcomed the arrival of their little Infant King, and were particularly devoted to Him. Twice a day they would gather in front of His image for special devotions, asking for His help, and He did not disappoint them. A generous gift of two thousand florin arrived from the Emperor who had heard of their plight, and he promised to continue sending a monthly stipend that would more than sustain them. The words of Princess Polyxena held true, “...you will not be in want.”
This devotion to the Holy Infant of Prague continued throughout the centuries and the faithful have always been rewarded with miracles of conversion, cures and prosperity. One great devotee to the Holy Infant of Prague was the Carmelite priest, Fr. Cyril of the Mother of God (1590-1675). He had been suffering for many years from severe interior trials, and it was only through the intercession of the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague that he was finally permanently delivered of this suffering. In recognition, he dedicated the rest of his life to promoting this devotion to the Infant Jesus, and it was to Fr. Cyril that the Little Jesus revealed His promise to all who practiced this devotion, “...the more you honor Me, the more I will bless you.”
In appreciation for the many favors received, the faithful, wishing to recognize the royal status of the Child Jesus, arranged for a coronation ceremony. The statue was crowned by the bishop of Prague in April of 1655. A new tradition was also begun which continues to this day; that of clothing the statue in royal robes which are changed several times a year depending on the different liturgical colors proper for the time on the Church calendar. The Infant’s wardrobe consists today of more than 50 “dresses”, along with many golden ornaments and chains, all of which were gifts from grateful devotees over the centuries.
Why, we may ask, did the Holy Infant choose to come to the city of Prague? The history books tell of the great battle of White Mountain near Prague, where on November 8, 1620, enemy forces gathered, determined to overthrow the Holy Roman Empire. Though greatly outnumbered, the Catholic army led by Emperor Ferdinand II refused to admit defeat. They called on the help and protection of the Blessed Mother of God, and their battle cry became, “Maria! Maria!” After only one hour of fighting, the victory was won, and the great church of Prague was renamed Our Lady of Victory. Is it no wonder then, that it was here that the Infant King chose to set up His Dominion with His Mother Victorious?
In September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited the church of Our Lady of Victory in the Czech Republic. Kneeling before the miraculous statue of the Holy Infant of Prague, he placed a golden crown upon its head. (A crowning by the reigning Pope represents the highest honor the Church can pay to an image of Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary.)
In his prayer Pope Benedict asked the Holy Infant for, “the gift of unity and harmony for all families”, then turning to all those present, and to the entire Church of the world he said, “The figure of the Child Jesus, the tender infant, brings home to us God’s closeness and his love. We come to understand how precious we are in his eyes; because it is through him that we in our turn have become children of God. Every human being is a child of God and therefore our brother or sister, to be welcomed and respected. May our society grasp this truth! Every human person would then be appreciated not for what he has, but for who he is, since in the face of every human being, without distinction of race or culture, God’s image shines forth.”
To the children whom he addressed as, “the future and the hope of humanity!” Our Holy Father affirmed, “...you are greatly loved by the Child Jesus...return his love by following his example: be obedient, good and kind. Learn to be, like him, a source of joy to your parents. Be true friends of Jesus, and always turn to him in trust. Pray to him for yourselves, for your parents, relations, teachers and friends, and pray also for me... I bless you from my heart and I invoke upon all of you the protection of the Holy Infant Jesus, his Immaculate Mother and Saint Joseph.” (Prague, Sept. 26, 2009.)
In April 2012 the Church commemorated the solemn anniversary of the 357th year since the official Coronation of the Holy Infant of Prague as King over all. May each one of us also choose to make Him “King” of our hearts, that He may rule over our families, over our countries, and over the entire World. “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us.” (1 John 4:16)
Holy Infant of Prague, bless us all!