17th-century Black Jesus Christ wooden statue found in harbor after sailors toss it from ship to calm storm

Tracey Folly

Its origins are a mystery: here's what we know.

The statue is known as the Black Christ, or Cristo Negro. It is a life-sized cocobolo wooden statue of Jesus Christ located in Iglesia de San Felipe, a Roman Catholic parish church in Portobelo, Panama (not to be confused with Iglesia de San Felipe de Jesus in Mexico City).

Cristo Negro appeared on the shores of Portobelo's harbor one day, where local fishermen rescued it from the water and installed it in a small church. The Black Christ was moved from the small church to Iglesia de San Felipe after it was built in 1814. The church is also known as the Black Christ Church, for obvious reasons.

One theory about the statue's origins states that the 17th-century idol was bound for the Americas from Spain aboard a Colombian ship that docked at Portobelo to ride out a storm. Once it landed in Panama, the statue seemed to refuse to continue on its journey. Every time the sailors tried to leave the port, a storm prevented their departure.

Finally, the superstitious sailors allegedly tossed the Black Christ overboard into the harbor, shipping container and all. The storm ended, and the ship left without the statue, but is the story of finding the Cristo Negro floating in the harbor true?

No one knows for sure, but Smithsonian has this to say about it:

According to one legend, the life-size statue of the Black Jesus Christ was found floating in the ocean in the 1600s. Others claim it was built in 1814, at the same time as the Roman Catholic church where it has since resided: Portobelo’s Iglesia de San Felipe, better known as the Black Christ Church.

The statue is no less impressive whether constructed in the early 1800s or discovered by fishermen in the 1600s despite a 200-year gap in the timeline.

Every year on October 21, Portobelo holds the Feast Day of the Cristo de Portobelo. After changing the robe on the statue, and a two-hour mass, they parade the icon through the streets until midnight in what has been called a carnival-like atmosphere.

The eighty men charged with carrying the Black Christ all wear purple robes, shave their heads, and walk barefoot. They sway as they walk, carefully timing their steps, three steps forward, two steps back.

In the following video, you can see the throngs of people filling the streets during the festival. Some people with illnesses or disabilities come to the festival to pray for a cure.

A few faithful can be seen crawling on the ground while others drip hot wax from lit candles on their backs. Others crawl while carefully balancing lit candles in each hand.

What do you think? Comments are welcome.

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