black_christYou’ve heard of mystical places and religious shrines where many people have been reported to have received healings. But did you know about the Black Christ statue in the tiny city of Portobelo, on the coast of Panama where there has also been claims of healings? On October 21 of each year, the famous statue is bought from the church into the city for the Black Christ Festival. Thousands of people flock from all over to gather around the statue in hopes of receiving a blessing.

Beginning around the second week of October up to the week of the 21st when the culmination of the festival begins, community folks are all clad in purple and maroon carrying their offerings in bundles on their heads and backs in preparation for the arrival of the Black Christ statue. It is Panama's most revered religious figure, and the festival is by far the biggest event in Portobelo.

On the day of the festival, mass is called at 6 p.m., and at exactly 8 p.m., about 80 men remove the statue of the Black Christ from the church to begin a four-hour parade for the carnival-like celebration. The men carrying the heavy statue have freshly-shaved heads, wear purple robes and step barefoot to lively music. They believe it is an honor to be chosen to bear the Black Christ. At exactly midnight on the same day, the statue is returned to the church on the sore shoulders and aching muscles of the same noble men.

Oronike Odeleye, administrative director for tour company Taller Portobelo Norte, has been taking groups of artists, scholars and the arts-interested public to Portobelo to attend the festival for the last 10 years. Upon first seeing it, she was shocked at how lifelike the statue was.  “His expression of pain is so tactile, so emotive.  It's very moving to see in person," said Odeleye.

It is uncertain when the statue first arrived to Portobelo. Some historians say that it was around 1658 when the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ, who some call the Saint, came to the city. Most historians agree that it was carved in Spain and arrived ashore on a ship to Portobelo, but the details of its arrival have remained a mystery. When the Black Christ first arrived in Panama, there was a devastating plague on the country’s coast, and by some accounts, the plague skipped over Portobelo and continued in other areas. This caused many to believe that the statue had healing powers.black_christ_peeps_1

As word about the powers of the Black Christ spread among the slaves, freed blacks and others, people started flocking to Portobelo to fall before the statue, and they have been coming by the thousands ever since expecting miracles. Some chose to walk the 53 miles from Panama City to Portobelo which takes about three days. To show repentance, some even crawl the last mile on hands and knees in worship of the Black Christ, sometimes called the Nazareno of Portobelo. The worshippers take off their decorated purple robes and lay them on the church steps where the statue is housed. The purple robes are expressions of divine faith and representations of repentance for wrongdoings.

The poor, the sick and the troubled pray before the ornately decorated robed statue of the Black Christ in hopes of positive change in their lives. Some people allow themselves to be spattered with hot wax from burning candles black_christ_guysripped on their bare backs as an act of repentance. Some lug huge wooden crosses over their shoulder in homage to the Black Christ.  During the procession, hundreds of pilgrims wearing purple march behind the statue carrying candles to show reverence for the annual sacred occasion. The Black Christ holds a special place in the hearts of many Panamanians, and many people are overcome with emotions upon encountering the statue.

The life-sized effigy depicting Christ carrying the cross is normally housed at the Iglesia de San Felipe church on a podium beside the altar. The church’s altar is adorned with gold images depicting various emblems of the crucifixion, including nails, instruments of torture, and the dice the Roman soldiers cast for Christ’s robe. The displays of 63 of the robes donated by Panamanians for the statue, some of which are more than 100 years old can also be found at this church. The Black Christ robes are changed twice a year, and each is used just once. The sacred statue is adorned with a red wine–colored robe when it is brought out of the church to the community for the Black Christ Festival. BlackChristPortobello

Even though it is a serious religious holiday for many, Odeleye believes that the festival is more secular than sacred. “It was at first unusual for me (to see) how much drinking and partying goes on at the festival. I initially expected it to be quiet, serene and introspective.  It is, in fact, more a celebration of the life of Christ than a memorial to his death," explains Odeleye.

“There are tons of parties, food vendors, beer stands and craft vendors all blasting music and partying in the days leading up to the main procession," says Odeleye.  "It's a great taste of Panamanian party life in that it's mostly about being with friends and enjoying yourself. . . then there's the religious part. . . then it's about partying some more!”

This year the same one-of-a kind spiritual spectacle will take place in the tiny community of Portobelo, where festival-goers will eat, drink and be merry as festivities and musical celebrations go on all through the night. People from all over Panama and South America will make the religious pilgrimage, and others will come as spectators, reporters and photographers. The festival is a photographers dream as there are many opportunity for unique candid shots.

The curious will also come all the way from the United States and Europe to witness the Black Christ Festival, many for the first time as the crowd continues to grow each year. You do not have to dress in purple or adhere to any religious denomination to take part in the Black Christ Festival. This is not a festival just for people of African descent. It is for anyone wanting to get a unique glimpse into the indigenous Panamanian culture. The mysticism in the air coupled with the spiritual energy in the people makes this sacred festival a phenomenal spectacle that should really be a 'UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Event." 

Even though the festival is not a "black-only" event as people of all races attend, Odeleye believes that it is extremely significant for black tourist to see the reverence given to a black image of Christ.  "It's important that we see our own image in that of the Divine.  The Black Christ Festival is a great way to get in touch with your inner spirit while also enjoying the street festival," she says.

If you do plan to attend, be prepared for jammed roads and people camped out everywhere, because an estimated 50,000 people descend on the small city of Portobelo. It would be wise to come early to go the 6 pm mass because the church will be packed. But getting there early and having to wait a while to witness the full ceremony will be well-worth your time. This worldly event is like nothing else. For more information, visit www.tallerportobelonorte.com.