The Child of Prague

09-02-2006

Prague's Church of Our Lady Victorious on Karmelitska - or Carmelite - Street is home to one of the most revered images in the Roman Catholic world, the Bambino di Praga, or Child of Prague. We'll come to the famous statue in a moment, but first let's find out a little about the Church of Our Lady Victorious, and its troubled history.

"We are just sitting in front of the main altar. There you can see in the middle a small icon, which was on the chest of a fanatical priest during the Battle of the White Mountain. He asked the Spanish general simply to attack Prague."

Says Dr Vaclav Cilek, a geologist by profession, but also an expert on the history of Prague's churches.

After the defeat of the Protestants during the Thirty Years War, the formerly Lutheran church was given to the Roman Catholic Carmelite Order. Indeed the Victory in the church's name refers to the part believers say the Virgin Mary played in the 1620 Battle of the White Mountain. Its violent past is still visible today. Dr Cilek continues.

"If you look around the icon, what do you see? You see armoury, you see guns, you see shields. You see the instruments of war. Imagine in our contemporary world putting in a church the image of rockets, of tanks. I talk about this church as a highly problematic, half-dark place in which this figure of little Jesus is shining.

"The figure of the Infant Jesus of Prague has a long history. Very probably, or maybe, it was created in Spain around the times of St Theresa of Alvila. Through the family de Lara it got to Prague and later, in the middle of the Thirty Years War, it was donated to this church."

But it wasn't all smooth sailing for the Child of Prague, which at one point was rescued from possible oblivion by a Carmelite priest.

"When the wax figure was given to the church, the original people were replaced by newcomers, and this small figure was thrown away behind the altar and forgotten. When the Carmelites returned they had big problems, the church was half destroyed, they didn't have any money.

"But then one of the priests, Father Cyril, found the figure and started to worship it and that was a situation of change for the whole monastery."

Devoted Roman Catholics from around the world are drawn to the Czech capital by the Bambino di Praga, which by the way is called Prazske Jezulatko in Czech. They believe many graces, blessings, favours and miraculous healings have been received by those who have petitioned before the Infant Jesus. That tradition has a long history, says Dr Vaclav Cilek.

"It was associated with miracles I think from two or three weeks after it came, and since then - although it is quite common in all other destinations - it has been the duty of the local priest to keep a book of miracles.

"So that means if a miracle happens he must make an entry and usually two witnesses have to sign it. So through the centuries they have been collecting the miracles and they see the structure of the miracles."

As for the actual figure of the Infant Jesus itself, it is around 30 centimetres high and is made of wax.

"Maybe there is some mystery hidden in it, because the central part of the wax may contain some wooden container with something in it. It was never studied and it's likely to never be studied."

What about the costumes that the Infant of Prague wears? How often are they changed? What's the significance of different costumes?

"This is part of the Baroque tradition. The Infant Jesus of Prague has received altogether around 300 costumes. Some of them are made by Empress Marie Theresa for instance, others were sent in the 19th century by Chinese Catholics, others by people from Vietnam.

"Many costumes came from noble families all over central Europe, even as far as Sweden and so on. I'm not sure how often they change the clothes.

"But what is the symbolism behind it? It's a figure that is old and new, still something is happening. Maybe just the idea that it is a figure with clothes gives a feeling of personality, which is alive, which has at least some sort of needs.

"But even the figure of the child is a strange one. There are a number of legends in the Middle Ages and even later about the small child, little Jesus, travelling somewhere. It has no support in the Bible, of course.

"But just imagine, a small child who is the king of the world is travelling soft and vulnerable in some strange countries...behind this image is in fact some religion but a lot of poetics."

The Child of Prague is, as I say, one of the most revered figures in the Roman Catholic world. It is especially well known in some countries, which sometimes have their own particular traditions regarding the Infant; in Ireland for instance there is a tradition of putting a copy under a hedge, or burying it in the garden, as a solicitation for good weather.

Before Dr Vaclav Cilek and I end our visit to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, he explains how the Child of Prague's popularity spread around the world.

"Copies of Little Jesus were sent to the Philippines, to Brazil, to Latin America, even to Ireland and elsewhere, copies made of china, made of wood - or simply printed - are distributed all over the world.

"Several years ago a head of the Catholic Church in the Philippines came to Prague, and he said that the Infant Jesus of Prague helped to unify the Philippines, which are located on 2000, or I don't know how many, small islands."

Would you say for some people in the world it's the...strongest symbol of Prague?

"For Roman Catholics it might be, together with Charles Bridge, maybe the strongest symbol of Prague, yes."

09-02-2006