The Black Christ Festival of Portobelo

Every October 21, pilgrims from all over Panama arrive in Portobelo to partake in this festival, which honors a miracle-giving. 1.5 meter high statue of the Black Christ housed in the Iglesia de San Félipe. After the sun sets, the statue is paraded down the streets, while pilgrims bedecked in purple robes and thorned crows dance and drink until the wee hours.

This life size wooden image of Christ was found on the shores of the town’s harbor and retrieved by fishermen. It was initially housed in a small church and venerated. After Iglesia de San Felipe was built, the statue relocated and installed there. One legend says that the statue was carved in Spain and during the 17th Century. It was carried in a Colombian vessel to be installed in the New World. Due to a storm, the sip was forced to dock at Portobelo, and when the ship was scheduled to depart, a sudden storm set in, preventing the ship to set sail. This happened repeatedly. Attributing this phenomenon to the statue, the superstitious sailors threw the box containing the statue into the sea and thereafter the storm subsided, and the ship moved on.

This life-size statue is adorned with a robe that is changed twice a year; once during the Festival of the Black Christ when the robe is red or wine, and during Holy Week when it is purple. All robes are donated by devotees usually anonymously, and once changed they are not reused. As per tradition, all the gowns which have adorned the statue, and which are changed, are now preserved in the Museo del Cristo Negro (Black Christ Museum), which is located in San Juan de Dios Church which is located behind the Iglesia de San Felipe.

The statue is venerated by people from all parts of Panama, and several miracles have been attributed to Cristo Negro, also known as “El Nazareno”. It is a tradition that pilgrims adorn themselves with purple robes similar to the one that adorns Cristo Negro. Also, during the pilgrimage, some people walk about 53 miles from Panama City, others 22 miles from Sabanitas, and a few of them even crawl the last mile, on their hands and knees, seeking blessings at the Shrine.

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