The little hamlet of Portobelo has an impressively large church – but then again, it houses an impressively large collection of stories. So impressive that in October of every year pilgrims head for its doors, crawling down roads on bloody hands and knees, dressed in ornate purple robes. Other pilgrims come carrying heavy crosses, or whipping themselves, or perhaps dripping hot wax on their bodies. They come to venerate, seek forgiveness, or if in particular need, to solicit a miracle. The come to worship Nazareno de Portobelo, the Black Christ.
|The Nazareno de Portobelo is credited with many miracles.|
Many stories involve this statue’s arrival in Portobelo. One I particularly like suggests that a ship carrying the Black Christ in a crate as deck cargo was trapped by a storm in the town’s harbour. The skipper tried several times to leave the bay, but each time his ship was driven back by the ferocity of the tempest. On the fifth attempt, just as it seemed all was lost, the crew flung the heavy crate over the side to lighten the load. The storm stopped! Fishermen rescued the obviously miraculous statue and carried it to their church. As they did so a deadly plague that had gripped the Caribbean coast lifted!
|The date of the statue’s arrival is uncertain – some date it at 1658. It was almost certainly carved in Spain and arrived in Portobelo on a ship.|
It is said Panama’s poor and needy hold the statue in particular veneration. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes and the like come seeking forgiveness. But it is also said that woe visits those that seek divine intervention but fail to live-up to their promises before God. One story has it that a poor man promised to paint the church if only the Black Christ would deliver him a winning lottery ticket. Immediately upon leaving the church he bought a ticket and WON! But not only did he not paint the church, the following year he returned and prayed for another winner! Rushing outside he bought a new ticket. On the way home he was killed in traffic accident – in the dead man’s pocket was the WINNING TICKET!
|Pilgrims wear ornate purple robes; some arrive carrying heavy crosses.|
Apparently, on the evening of October 21 every year, thousands come to Portobelo to watch as the Black Christ parades around the town. Carried on the shoulders of 80 strong men moving to a loud, strong musical rhythm, they take three quick steps forward, two back. The atmosphere is carnival like. At exactly midnight the statue is carried back into the church. Another story suggests that any attempt to return the Black Christ to the church earlier than midnight is refused. Approaches to the church doors result in the statue becoming heavier and heavier until forward progress is rendered impossible!
|Above left: a pilgrim kisses a makeshift shrine along the way. Above right: another displays his abject piety through a symbolic display of self-harm|
|But woe be to those that make false promises to the Nazareno de Portobelo – you might end-up under a bus.|
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