The Black Nazarene: Morphed from Aztec and Mayan gods’ image?

  • Reading time:12 mins read

Ever since I accompanied my mother in my youth to visit – and kiss the foot of – the Black Nazarene figure in Quiapo Church (and suffered several nightmares for it), it had been a big mystery for me why that image of Jesus Christ was black-skinned .

After all, the images of Jesus in the minds of most Filipinos, including mine –– actually depictions by Renaissance artists commissioned by the Vatican –– were that of a bearded Caucasian, just like the blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter in the first Christ movie I saw, “King of Kings”.

The mystery deepened for me when I learned later in life that medieval Spain had been among the most racist of European countries, partly because of its wrath in having been conquered by the black-skinned Moors from North Africa in the 8th century. Despite its declarations that all men are equal in the eyes of God, there had been a legacy of institutional racism in the Catholic Church. Why, the Jesuits, up to the 18th century, not just owned African slaves, but also traded in slaves.

So many that there are books on it.

Why would the Catholic Church in the Philippines have an object of veneration –– its annual procession attended by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos risking life and limb –– a black-skinned Jesus Christ in this country where there is such an underlying strand of racism, where schoolchildren normally bully a dark-skinned classmate and refer to him in the pejorative “negro” and “egoy” (the “e” pronounced as in elephant)?

The Catholic Church in the Philippines, realizing the incongruity of the Messiah depicted as black-skinned, spread the explanation that it was due to a fire on the galleon that brought it here it from Mexico that charred its originally white skin. Another explanation was that the image had darkened because of the smoke from the countless candles put in front of it by devotees for three centuries.

Anyone who has actually seen the image would dismiss those explanations as garbage. If it had been in a fire, the image would have been damaged, looking charred like charcoal, in contrast to the smoothness of the sculpted Nazarene’s face and its sculptural flawlessness.

Dark wood

The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene (Quiapo church), the keeper of the image, has officially declared over the past several years that the dark color was made by a Mexican sculptor who used a dark-tinted wood.

So why would a Mexican sculptor depict Christ as black-skinned, known to be the distinctive attribute of Black Africans whom Europeans considered as an inferior race and enslaved for centuries? Why would the Spanish-dominated Catholic Church in the Philippines encourage the veneration of a Black Jesus in the biggest religious procession in the country held by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos every January?

Information in a recent column — carefully written to avoid offending religious sensibilities — by Gemma Cruz Araneta drove me to a research path that led me to an incontrovertible conclusion why this Nazarene statue is black. Araneta knows of which she speaks — she is an expert and possesses deep interest in Mexican culture, having lived there for more than 20 years during the martial law regime.

Araneta pointed out that one of the principal deities of the Aztecs (also called the Mexica , which ruled the central American region — Mesoamerica — before they were massacred by the Spanish conquistadores) was a black-skinned god of commerce and travel, “Yacatecuhtli.”

Left, image of Aztec god Yacatecuhtli into the Black Christ (right)

Araneta wrote:

“In the Fejervary-Mayer Codex, a very rare manuscript on deerskin that survived the iconoclastic Spanish conquest, there is an elaborate profile of Yacatecuhtli with an exaggeratedly large nose looming over a red mouth; that was probably why he was also called Señor de la Nariz (Lord of the Nose). Behind this black figure is a large X signifying the trade routes, well-trodden paths with footprints along the X. Yacatecuhtli’s arms are outstretched, as if directing traffic on the busy crossroads of commerce.

“The early Spanish missionaries cleverly made use of some local beliefs and practices with remote similarities to the Catholic religion to facilitate the conversion of the natives. Because of his outstretched arms, the Aztec god Yacatecuhtli must have looked like the crucified Christ, even if he was black. So, he was one of the local deities that were purposely made to morph into Jesus Christ.

“King Philip II was probably apprised of this efficient amalgamation of pagan and Christian (now called syncretism), so he commissioned a famous sculptor to make a life-size Christ on the Cross. In fact, he ordered three. . . but we do not know whether they were originally black or were blackened through time. . . The image sent to a town (that was the center of its colony, New Spain) never reached its intended destination. According to legend, it was sent by river transport, securely tied to a raft, but along the way, a terrible typhoon swept it to Otitlan, a remote town in Oaxaca (in Mexico).

“Since the miraculous arrival of the life-size crucifix in 1597, it was called El Señor de Otitlan; dark as Yacatecuhtli, it has held the townspeople in its thrall for six centuries.”

Araneta’s description of how the El Senor de Otitlan is venerated is almost exactly the same as how Filipinos venerate the Black Nazarene, especially in the Traslacion procession every year: “They flock to the image, wipe flowers . . . towels and handkerchiefs on its feet and body, pleading for miraculous cures . . . safety from physical harm, endurance and fortitude, a happy life after death.”

Mayan god

What Araneta did not discuss was that it wasn’t only the Aztec god Yacatechutli that the Spanish missionaries morphed into Jesus Christ’s image but also another Mesoamerican deity, the Mayans’ Ek Chuaj, who was depicted as black-skinned. The Spanish missionaries cleverly introduced in 1595 its statue of the Black Christ in Esquipalas, which had been the sacred site of Ek Chuaj, also known as Ek-Kampulá. They, thus, very successfully confused the Mayans that the god of their civilization was really the Messiah.

The Black Christ of Esquipulas in Guatemala has become the most venerated Catholic image in South America, and visited by hundreds of thousands of Christians in Central America. Even Pope John Paul 2nd paid a visit to its basilica and called it the “spiritual center of Central America.”

The reality that emerges is that, starting in 1597, and in the early part of the 17th century, the Spanish missionaries concocted a clever scheme to convert to Catholicism the pagans of Central America by confusing them that the gods they had been venerating since antiquity, Yacatechutli Ek Chuaj, was the Jesus Christ of Christianity. To convince them more easily, Jesus Christ –– in that era believed by nearly all of Christianity to be a Caucasian, as depicted by Renaissance artists –– was depicted as black-skinned as they and their gods were.

The Black Christ: one in Panama, the other in Manila

To understand how this all led to the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, we have to realize that the widespread notion that we were colonized, politically and religiously, by Spain is false. As it were, we were “ruled” from “New Spain” Mexico. What worked in the conversion of Central America to Catholicism –– the depiction of Christ as black-skinned –– was exported to that far-flung colony, whose inhabitants had the same skin color as the Mesoamericans, the Philippine Islands.

Revealingly, the official website of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene basically agrees with this explanation of why the Black Nazarene is black. The website’s history section, which narrates how the Black Nazarene statue came to the Philippines, says:

“The statue . . . was brought across the Pacific Ocean in the hold of a Galleon which arrived in Manila from Mexico at an undetermined date. They brought with them a dark image of Jesus Christ…. The dark portrayal of Christ reflected the native culture of its Mexican sculpture: (emphasis mine).

Thus, the image of the Black Christ — similar in facial features to that of the Black Nazarene –– is a common idol in central America, all supposedly also having miraculous powers.

There are a number of churches devoted to these “Cristos Negros” that are centers of worship, among them: the earliest and most famous Cristo Negro of Esquipulas in Guatemala; the Cristo Negro shrine in Arena Blanco in Honduras ; that in Chalma, one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in Mexico, with more than 2 million visitors each year, and with the Cristo Negro there morphing from another Aztec god Ostoc Teotl; the Cristo Negro in Portobello, Panama; the Cristo Negro of El Sauce in Nicaragua and the Cristo Negro in Arena Blanco, Honduras.

Most of these Cristos Negros started emerging in the last decade of the 16th century. According to the website of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, the image was brought to the Philippines in 1606, venerated in huge processions in January.

The Spanish missionaries who invented the Black Christ image merely did what the early Christians did when they spread the Catholic religion in the Roman empire. Instead of depicting the Jewish rabbi as a dark-skinned, black-haired man, just a bit taller than the average Filipino man and similar in looks to an undernourished modern Palestinian, they depicted him in the common image of the Roman gods Jupiter, Neptune, Dionysus, even the sun god Apollo — regal, tall, with Caucasian features.

In Central America obviously, the Spanish missionaries took the tack of making Christ look like the Aztec and Mayan gods. The natives, barely out of the stone-age in those godforsaken islands as were probably estimated, would accept any image of Christ as they were, after all, also dark-skinned.

And other than a fuzzy image of an all-powerful god Bathala, we didn’t have the gods the Aztec and Mayans developed in their more developed civilizations. That is the reason that the veneration of the Black Christ had really not caught on throughout the country. The most popular Christian images are those of the Virgin Mary and the weird-looking Santo Nino.

For many reasons, it was really only in the 1980s or 90s that crowds in the Black Nazarene procession grew as mammoth as they have been in the past few years.

I suspect it was media that encouraged Filipinos to join this mammoth display of superstition that was a diabolical invention of Spanish friars, glorifying the event as an “affirmation of faith” and casually reporting as fact devotees’ claims of miracles and prayers answered. I remember one devotee interviewed a few years back saying: “Two years ago, after joining the Black Nazarene (procession) I got my wish for an Innova. Now I’m praying for a Fortuner.”


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