Text and images by Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy
Puebla, Mexico, where I am spending the winter, is the center of veneration for a fascinating folk saint called Santo Niño Cieguito, or The Holy Blind Child.
You can see him in churches and public shines all around Mexico, his empty eye sockets evocatively dripping blood. He holds a cross and, often, a pair of glass eyes on a platter.
You also find his traces at flea markets, antique stores and esoteric shops, as you can see in these objects I've collected over the years:
The original, miraculous statue of Santo Niño Cieguito can be found, flanked by angels, in a small shrine at Puebla's Capuchin convent.
His jewels and the votives on his altar attest to the many miracles he has performed.
Here is a lovely vintage, hand-colored photograph of him displayed where the capuchin nuns sell their delicious cookies.
Santo Niño Cieguito's story traces back to 18th century Morelia, Mexico, when a thief or a heretic (depending on the version or the story) desecrated a statue of the Niño Dios, or the holy infant Jesus.
Niño Dios are an important part of everyday life in Mexico. Many people keep one at home, and they are dressed up in new outfits and brought to church to be blessed every year on Día de la Candeleria, which I was lucky enough to be in town for this year.
You can purchase a great variety of handmade costumes for him at shops around the city.
Niños Dios are also a frequent sight in churches, in the arms of other figures
Or displayed alone.
Santo Niño Cieguito started his life as an ordinary Niño Dios (albeit one with emerald eyes) in the arms of a statue of the Virgen las Misericordias (Virgin of Mercy) at a convent of the same name in Valladolid, Morelia. On August 10, 1744, a man attended mass and hid in the church after it closed in order to rob it. Around midnight, he began his work. But when he approached the statue of Mary to steal her jewelry, "the evildoer heard deep in his conscience the cry of a child that seemed to come from the image of the child Jesus." (1)
The man covered the child's mouth to stop its cries but, still feeling its gaze, he threw it into his sack. He fled to a mountain hideaway, but the child continued to cry. When he tried to remove the Niño's emerald eyes, it shed tears of blood.
When the church fathers realized the robbery had taken place, they called the authorities, who were able to track down the thief and recover the stolen goods. The perpetrator made a full confession, and reported the miracle he had witnessed. When the Niño was returned to the temple, the father superior sent him to the Capuchin Convent in Puebla for restoration and protection.
The abbess of this convent decided not to replace the eyes, but to leave his eye sockets empty in respect for the miracle of the crying of the blood. The statue was given the name Santo Niño Cieguito, The Holy Blind Child, and adorned with the symbols of the passion of Christ, hair, a crown of thorns, a cross, and a tray with two eyes commemorating his desecration and the outrages to which he had been subjected.
Here are a few statues of Niño Cieguito, on view in in the convent church directly adjacent to the shrine housing the original. The first one seems to be a vera sacrum--or true copy-- with the same miracle working abilities as the original
As suggested by the many milagros and petitions left for him.
In Mary's arms in the same church, we see one more Santo Niño Cieguito, presumably meant to evoke the genesis story of the folk saint.
As I spent time in Puebla, it became clear that my imagination was not the only one piqued by this blind baby Jesus. Artist José Antonio Álvarez Morán, as part of an exhibition entitled “Santo Niño Turista” (Holy Child Tourist) at the San Pedro Museum of Art, exhibited a project documenting the donation of his hair to the convent to be made into a wig for the miracle working statue:
I imagine that traditionally, this not only a great honor, but also an act that calls down the positive attention of the saint.
Unfortunately, this exhibition is no longer on view. If you are in Puebla, you can, however, visit the Santo Niño Cieguito vera sacrum at the beautiful Templo Conventual de San Joaquín y Santa Ana. You can also visit the original--thank you, Hyperrdulia!--at a shrine found to the right of the the church entrance. Just look for an unassuming doorway with nuns selling baked goods. I highly recommend the large brown cookies as well!
- Imagen del Niño Cieguito que se venera en el templo de Capuchinas (informational pamphlet sold at the shrine)
- La Historia del Santo Niño Cieguito, El Color de Lafe
Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based writer, curator, photographer and graphic designer. She is the creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series, and was cofounder and creative director of the recently shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Her books include Death: A Graveside Companion, The Anatomical Venus and The Morbid Anatomy Anthology (with Colin Dickey). Her work explores the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, and the objective and subjective. You can see her Tedx talk--Death as You've Never Seen it Before--here.