Quiapo Church has become a pilgrimage site for the religious, because it is the house of the allegedly miraculous Poong Itim na Nazareno, or Black Nazarene. This is Christ carved from black wood, clad in regal red garments with gold embroidery and carrying a cross. An old legend says that the image is black because it is the only object that survived a galleon fire as it was being transported to Manila. Oddly enough, the image has actually survived fires, natural disasters, and even bombings during the Second World War
During the Pista ng Itim na Nazareno (Feast of the Black Nazarene), devotees flock to the narrow streets of Quiapo and fling towels at marshals, who wipe it on the image and throw it back into the crowd. They believe that these towels become blessed. This procession lasts hours — sometimes an entire day — and is notorious for pickpockets and accidental injuries. It has been criticized as a celebration of idolatry, where people believe that the Divine lives inside the image, instead of the image only representing the Divine. Devotees believe that the Black Nazarene is, in itself, miraculous. I’m unsure if this is because it is carved in the image of Christ or because it is charged with the folk belief of thousands. Either way, the Church seems fine with it, considering it to be a celebration of faith.
I have seen the image only once, when I decided to visit Quiapo. Past stalls brazenly selling fabricated diplomas near the train station, I went through the tightly-packed alleys of merchants with tables displaying dildos and pirated DVDs. Right outside the church, people sold religious items like rosary beads and holy medals; they also sold brass amulets (anting-anting), love potions (gayuma), and abortifacients (pamparegla) made from strange roots and herbs. The brass amulets had multiple uses: protection from bullets, good fortune, and even invisibility. A large triangular amulet sold for 3,000 pesos, but ask any of the vendors there and they would say that they aren’t selling these items because gifts of God must not be sold. The payment you’d give them would be called “donations” or “alms” so that they could keep doing God’s holy work.
The Black Nazarene rested in a glass box, with his knee jutting out so that people can come and kiss it or wipe themselves on it. The air in that small anteroom was musty and thick. I remember seeing old people on their knees — mostly cripples — muttering in a trance-like state. Even I felt a wave of spirit crash on to me and I fell to my knees: but maybe this was just the spookiness of that room, which also housed dead people in small boxes. It wasn’t a place of reverence, but a place of terror; it felt as if there was a suffocating presence there. An old man approached the image and began scratching his back on the knee, no doubt to alleviate some back pain with holy power. It reminded of that biblical anecdote where a sick woman touched Christ’s robe; even though he was surrounded by a crowd, Christ felt power flow from him. He did not chastise the woman, instead saying that her faith had healed her. Is it the image, or the belief that the person has for the image’s power that grants them supernatural indulgence? Does the Divine reside in the image or does the Divine work through it? If I destroyed the Black Nazarene, would I have committed a sin against the Divine, or would I have only closed one of its doors to the world?
Explaining religious belief by calling it mass hysteria does not make it any less threatening. There is power here that we can’t articulate, yet it is something that we have understood intuitively for centuries. In the recesses of our dark, cavernous psyche there lurks an ancient spirit we have hidden away, that shows its face in our nightmares and takes over us when we are overwhelmed by our passions. It is much older than us: we might as well treat it with respect.
- Gonsalves, A.A. (n.d.). Understanding the Fierce Devotion Behind the Black Nazarene. Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene [Online]. Retrieved from: http://www.quiapochurch.com/understanding-the-fierce-devotion-behind-the-black-nazarene/
- Lagdameo-Santillan, K. (2018). Feast of the Black Nazarene: Superstition, Idolatry, Fanatic Faith? Pressenza [Online]. Retrieved from https://www.pressenza.com/2018/01/feast-black-nazarene-superstition-idolatry-fanatic-faith/
- Tubeza, P. (2013). Quiapo priest: Filipino devotion to Black Nazarene not idolatry. Philippine Daily Inquirer [Online]. Retrieved from https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/337495/quiapo-priest-filipino-devotion-to-black-nazarene-not-idolatry