Although I like to think my spirituality as always been Catholic, my background is still rooted in Protestantism. I don’t always understand nuances of cultural Catholicism. One reminder of this appears in almost every church I go to—sometimes in the nave or a back corner, sometimes right night to the Mary statue in the front. A tiny, odd reminder that I’m missing out on something.
I call him Little Polish Baby Jesus.
The statue’s real name (which I always have to look up) is the Infant Jesus of Prague. I don’t know how Prague turned to Poland in my mind, but this statue is thought to originally come from Spain around 1340. Statues of Infant Jesus dressed in fancy regalia were popular all over Europe in the Middle Ages. The phrase “infant Jesus” actually refers to any depiction of him before the age of 12 (Jewish adulthood). Infant Jesus statues grew popular among European nobility in the 1300s. He was often depicted carrying a globus cruciger symbolizing dominion or a bird symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Because this style was popular with nobles, they tended to dress up their statues in fancy regalia as a way to honor Christ and show his reign over the earth (as well as the devotees’ wealth and reign over their kingdoms).
In the 1550s, a Spanish noblewoman, María Manriquez de Lara y Mendoza, married a Czech nobleman and brought this particular statue with her to Bohemia. Some claim that the woman’s mother, Dona Isabella, received it as a gift directly from St. Teresa of Avila. Princess Polyxena von Lobkowicz gave the statue to the Discalced Carmelite friars in 1628.
The friars placed the statue in the oratory of their monastery and began special devotions to Jesus in front of it. Carmelites novices professed their vow of poverty in front of it. The Thirty Years War disrupted daily devotions there as the novitiate transferred to Munich. In 1631, the monastery was plundered and the statue was thrown in a rubbish pile behind the altar.
In 1637, a priest found the statue with its hands broken. He placed it back in the oratory and began praying. He claimed to have heard a voice say, “Have pity on me, and I will have pity on you. Give me my hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.” Since then, the Infant Jesus statue has remained in view in Prague and draws lots of devotees. Nobles have donated elaborate vestments (changing with the liturgical calendar) of ermine, lace, silk, and gold embroidery as well as jeweled rings. Pope Benedict XVI donated a gold crown with eight shells of pearls and garnets in 2009. The annual Feast of the Infant of Prague celebrates when the Swedish army lifted its siege of the city in April 1639.
In the end, I just don’t get the popularity of the Infant Jesus of Prague in 2016 America. There aren’t that many Czech descendants around here, I imagine. I’m missing some cultural component that makes it click. I’ve never prayed to the Infant Jesus (although time being as it is, I understand the orthodoxy). This particular depiction just makes me think of a child playing dress-up, one that looks far too white and far too well-dressed to be Jesus.
The Little Polish Baby Jesus, who came from Spain, went to Prague, and defeated the Swedes, reminds me that sometimes, I’m just out of my cultural realm. And that’s ok. It’s not all about me. I don’t have to understand every revelation and love every devotion. Everyone, with their own personal and cultural baggage, has to work out their own path. We’re going to need different tools. He helps someone, hopefully, to draw closer to Christ—to reflect on Jesus’ humanity and innocence and divinity and dominion and blessings.