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Straight Answers: Infant of Prague

My grandmother has always had a statue of Jesus as a child dressed up like a little king with a crown. She even has different outfits for him which are very elaborate. Can you tell me anything about this?

— A reader in Dale City

From the description given in the question, the statue is one of the Infant of Prague. First, devotion to the Holy Child Jesus is a longstanding tradition in our Catholic spirituality. The early Church Fathers, like St. Athanasius and St. Jerome, had a special devotion to the Holy Child Jesus. Some of the later great saints, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Therese of the Child Jesus (the Little Flower), St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Teresa of Avila, helped popularize this devotion to the Holy Child. (As an aside, St. Teresa of Avila traveled with her statue of the Holy Child when she visited other convents.) In the 1300s, sculptures of the Holy Child usually made of wax or wood also grew in popularity. Keep in mind that even though the Gospels do not relate much information regarding Our Lord’s childhood, “the hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus by the most ordinary events of daily life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 533). 

The devotion to the Infant of Prague originates in the mid-1500s. In 1556, Maria Manriquez de Lara of Spain married a Czech nobleman named Vratislav Perstyn. She brought with her the statue of the Holy Child (which would become the Infant of Prague sculpture), standing about 18 inches in height. (Another tradition holds that the statue came from a monastery in Bohemia and was obtained by Dona Isabella Manriquez who presented it as a wedding gift to her daughter, Marie Manriquez, and son-in-law, Vratislav Perstyn.) In 1587, Maria then presented the statue as a wedding gift to her daughter, Princess Polyxena Lobkowitz.

Before continuing, there is a pious legend about the origins of the statue: In southern Spain, the Moors attacked a Carmelite monastery, and only four monks were able to escape. One of them, named Joseph, had a special devotion to the Holy Child. Once when working in the yard, a child appeared to Joseph, and asked to pray with him. Joseph prayed the “Hail Mary,” and at the words, “blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” the child said, “That is I.” Joseph knew he had seen the Holy Child and tried to reproduce the image. He tried for years with little success to make a likeness, until one day the Holy Child appeared again. Jesus said, “I came to show myself again to you, so that you could finish the sculpture according to my likeness.”

Joseph immediately started working, and when he finished, the Holy Child vanished. Being very tired, Joseph fell asleep, never to wake again in this life. The Holy Child came to take his friend to his heavenly home. Whether historically true or not, it is a wonderful story; if it is not true, it ought to be. 

In 1628, Princess Polyxena gave the statue to the Discalced Carmelites at the Church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious in Prague. She said, “I am giving you what I most esteem of my possessions. Keep the sculpture in reverence and you will be well off.”

In 1631, Swedish troops invaded Prague, and ravaged the Catholic churches. The Carmelites were forced to flee the Church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious. The Swedish troops desecrated the church, damaged the high altar and cast the statue into a pile of rubble, breaking its arms and fingers.

In 1638, the Carmelites were able to return to Prague and to their Church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious. Although they were impoverished, they remembered the words of Princess Polyxena. Father Cyril found the statue of the Holy Child buried in the ruins of the church. He cleaned the statue and placed it in their oratory for veneration.

One day, while he was praying before the statue, he heard the Holy Child Jesus say, “Have pity on Me, and I will have pity on you. Give Me hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor Me, the more I will bless you.” Father Cyril knew that he had to find a way to repair the Infant’s hands, but he and his religious brothers had neither the skills nor the financial means to do so. Therefore, Father Cyril implored the help of the Blessed Mother to come to the aid of her divine Son. Once again, when Father Cyril was praying before the image, the Holy Child spoke to him: “Place Me near the entrance of the sacristy and you will receive aid.” Father Cyril immediately complied. In just a few days, and man came to the sacristy after Mass to offer help. His donations paid for the repair of the statue. Moreover, the monastery would never face poverty again.

Miracles began to occur. (The early miracles were recorded in a book by P. Emerich, published in German in 1736 and Czech in 1749.) And with the miracles came numerous pilgrims.

In 1641, an altar was built where the statue was enshrined, and then in 1644, a chapel was built. The nobility began to support the devotion to the Infant of Prague, including King Ferdinand (Austria- Hungary), King Charles Gustav (Sweden) and Bernard Ignatius (Lord of Martinic). On Jan. 14, 1651, on the occasion of a special procession of the statue from the Church of the Virgin Mary Victorious to various other parishes, Bernard Ignatius presented a gold crown embellished with precious stones which was placed on the head of the statue.

In 1648, the Archbishop of Prague officially approved the devotion to the Holy Child Jesus under the title, “The Infant of Prague.” On April 4, 1655, Archbishop Josef Corta, acting on behalf of Cardinal Harrach III, solemnly coronated the statue of the Infant of Prague, with both crown and orb. In 1741, the statue was set in another chapel, where the images of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph are on either side of it, and images of the Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit are above it, all together showing the human and divine families of Jesus. As best one knows, at about that time the statue also began to be dressed in very elaborate clothes.

Since then devotion to the Infant of Prague has continued to increase, especially in Italy, Spain and countries connected with Spanish colonial rule. The devotion inspires one to meditate on Our Lord’s childhood and kingship. Despite various disturbances and wars, the statue has remained protected. Moreover, numerous miracles have been linked to this devotion.

A novena prayer, offered especially Dec. 17-25, is as follows: “Dearest Jesus, Little Infant of Prague, how tenderly you love us. Your greatest joy is to dwell among us and to bestow your blessing upon us. Though I am not worthy that you should help me, I feel drawn to You by love because You are kind and merciful.

So many who turned to You with confidence have received and had their petitions granted. Behold me as I come before You, lay open my heart to You with its prayers and hopes. I present to You especially this request, which I enclosed in Your loving Heart: (request).

Rule over me, dear Infant Jesus, and do with me and mine according to Your holy will, for I know that in Your divine wisdom and love You will arrange everything for the best. Do not withdraw Your hand from me, but protect and bless me forever.

I pray You, all-powerful and gracious Infant Jesus, for the sake of Your sacred infancy, in the name of Your Blessed Mother Mary, who cared for You with such tenderness, and by the greatest reverence with which St. Joseph carried You in his arms, help me in my needs. Make me truly happy with You, dearest Infant, in time and in eternity, and I shall thank You forever with all my heart. Amen.”

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who devoutly take part in the pious exercises of a public novena before the feast of Christmas or Pentecost or the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (Enchiridion of Indulgences, No. 34).

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2005