THE INFANT JESUS OF PRAGUE
by Ann Ball
Devotion to the Child Jesus under the title "Infant Jesus of Prague"
is over three and a half centuries old. The devotion originated in
Spain, spread to what is now Czechoslovakia, and from there to all
parts of the globe. Replicas of the original statue dressed in royal
priestly vestments are to be found in thousands of churches and
private homes. In the United States, there is a national shrine in
honor of the Christ Child under this title in Prague, Oklahoma.
In 1556, Maria Manriquez de Lara brought a precious family heirloom,
a statue of the child Jesus, with her to Bohemia when she married the
Czech nobleman Vratislav of Pernstyn. The statue of the child is
eighteen inches tall, carved of wood, and thinly coated with wax. The
left foot is barely visible under a long white tunic. The statue
stands on a broad pedestal, and there is a waist-high silver case
which holds it upright. The left hand holds a miniature globe
surmounted by a cross, signifying the worldwide kingship of Christ.
The right hand is extended in blessing in a form usually used by the
Supreme Pontiff; the first two fingers are upraised to symbolize the
two natures in Christ, while the folded thumb and last two fingers
touch each other to represent the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Since 1788, there have been two jeweled rings on the fingers of the
statue. These were gifts of a noble family in thanks for the
miraculous cure of their daughter. The head of the image has a wig of
blond human hair. Old carvings and pictures indicate that at one time
the wig may have been white. In 1655, the statue was solemnly crowned
in a special coronation ceremony. The crown was presented by the
supreme burgrave of the Czech kingdom. The original garments worn by
the statue when it arrived in Bohemia are still preserved. Since the
great cholera epidemic of 1713, however, the garments of the statue
have been changed with the liturgical season. The wardrobe of the
Infant of Prague resembles liturgical vestments.
There are a number of sets of vestments belonging to the statue which
are of artistic and historic importance, including sets presented in
thanksgiving by Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Ferdinand. Today,
the nuns from St. Joseph's Church in the Mala Strana quarter of
Prague enjoy the privilege of clothing the Infant in keeping with the
ancient custom. At the time the change of vestments is made, numerous
devotional objects such as medals, pictures and rosaries are touched
to the statue to be distributed to all parts of the world.
Princess Polyxena Lobkowitz inherited the statue of the infant from
her mother. She had a great devotion to it, honoring it highly in her
own home. On the death of her husband in 1623, she determined to
spend the rest of her life in works of charity and piety. She was
particularly generous to the Discalced Carmelites of Prague. Their
monastery had been founded by Emperor Ferdinand II. After the emperor
moved to Vienna, the monastery, having lost its wealthy founder and
patron, fell on hard times, often not even having enough to eat. (At
that time, cloistered monasteries depended heavily on donations for
their daily needs.)
In 1628, Princess Polyxena presented her beloved statue to the
friars, telling them, prophetically, that as long as they honored the
Child Jesus as king, venerating His image, they would not want. Her
prediction was verified, and as long as the Divine Infant's image was
honored the community prospered, spiritually and temporally.
However, when the devotions relaxed, it seemed as if God's blessing
departed from the house.
The statue was set up in the oratory of the monastery, and twice
daily special devotions were performed before it. The novices were
particularly devoted to the Holy Infant. One of them, Cyrillus of
the Mother of God, was suffering interior trials. After prayers to
the Child Jesus, he found a sudden relief from his worries and became
the greatest apostle of the Holy image.
During the Thirty Years' War, the novitiate was moved to Munich,
Germany in 1630. In 1631, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, an
inveterate foe of Catholicism, invaded, and many inhabitants of
Prague fled, including all of the Carmelites except two who remained
to protect the monastery. The enemy took possession of the monastery
in November of 1631, and the house was plundered. The image of the
Infant was thrown in a heap of rubbish behind the high altar, where
it lay forgotten for seven years.
In 1637, Father Cyrillus returned to Prague. The monastery had
suffered many reverses in recent years, and the city was again
overrun with hostile troops. The prior of the community called the
monks together to offer prayers. Father Cyrillus remembered the
favors formerly received through the intercession of the Infant, and
he asked permission to search the monastery in hopes that the statue
might have been left behind when the monastery was plundered. At last
the statue was found, and Father Cyrillus placed the dusty little
image on an altar in the oratory, where the long-forgotten devotions
were renewed with vigor.
One day, after the other monks had left the oratory, Father Cyrillus
remained kneeling in front of the statue for hours, meditating on the
divine goodness. In a mystical ecstasy, he heard the statue speak
these words: "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!" Startled, the priest looked and noticed for the
first time that the statues hands had been broken off. He went
immediately to the prior to beg him to have the statue restored. The
prior, not having the same devotion or understanding as Father
Cyrillus, excused himself by saying that the monastery was too poor.
Shortly thereafter, a wealthy and pious man came to Prague and fell
ill. Father Cyrillus was called to the dying man, who offered
financial help to repair the statue. The prior, however, used the
donated money to buy an entirely new statue instead of having the old
one repaired. On its very first day, the new statue was shattered by
a falling candlestick. To Father Cyrillus, this was an indication
that the wishes of the Infant must be fulfilled literally.
The sorrowing priest took the damaged statue to his cell, where he
prayed through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin for the money
to repair the statue. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he
was called to the church, where he found a noble lady waiting for
him. She handed him a considerable amount of money and then
Happily, Father Cyrillus took the money to the prior and again
requested the repair of the statue. At last, the prior agreed,
provided the repairs did not exceed a certain amount. Unfortunately,
the estimates were too high, so again the statue was not repaired.
Interiorly, the priest heard a voice telling him to place the statue
at the entrance of the sacristy. He did so, and soon a stranger came
and noticed the broken hands of the statue. The stranger offered to
have the statue repaired at his own expense, an offer that was
At last the repaired statue was placed in the church. A pestilence
was raging in Prague at the time, and the prior himself nearly died.
He vowed to spread the devotion of the Infant if he were cured.
Shortly thereafter, he ordered a general devotion to the Infant, in
which all the friars took part. At last the Infant had won the hearts
of the Carmel of Prague and become a cornerstone of their devotion.
In 1641, a generous benefactress donated money to the monastery for
the erection of an altar to the Blessed Trinity with a magnificently
gilded tabernacle as the resting place for the miraculous statue,
which was then exposed for public veneration In 1642, a baroness
financed the erection of a handsome chapel for the Infant which was
blessed in 1644 on the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, which
has remained the principal feast day of the miraculous Infant ever
since. In 1648, the Archbishop of Prague gave the first
ecclesiastical approval of the devotion when he consecrated the
chapel and gave permission to priests to say Mass at the chapel
altar. In 1651 the Carmelite general made a canonical visitation to
the monastery to examine matters regarding the devotion. The statue
was solemnly crowned in 1655.
In 1741, the statue was moved to its final magnificent shrine on the
epistle side off the church of Our Lady of Victory. It became one of
the most famous ,and popular shrines in the world. In 1739 the
Carmelites of the Austrian Province made the spread of the devotion a
part of their apostolate. The popularity of the little King of Prague
spread to other countries in the eighteenth century. Pope Leo XIII
confirmed the Sodality of the Infant of Prague in 1896 and granted
many indulgences to the devotion. Pope St. Pius X unified an
organizing membership into a confraternity under the guidance of the
Carmelites which increased the spread of the devotion in our own
century. Church authorities have canonically established a U.S.
national shrine to the Infant Jesus of Prague at Prague, Oklahoma.
Excerpt from the book "A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals," by Ann
Ball, published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday
Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana 46750. Also online in the Catholic
Marketplace on CRNET.
The electronic form of this document is copyrighted.
Copyright (c) Trinity Communications 1994.
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