Infant Jesus of Prague or in Czech – Pražské Jezulátko (in Latin: Jesulus Pragensis) is a small wooden statue with a layer of coloured wax sculptured into a standing child representing Jesus Christ as a young child.
The statue is displayed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious and Saint Anthony of Padua in the Lesser Town in Prague (Karmelitska Street number 9) in walking distance from the Malostranske Namesti (Lesser Town Square) and the beautiful Vrtba Baroque Garden.
I walked by the church many times, always admiring the Christmas nativity display in front of the church and having a coffee outside the main steps. But it wasn’t until recently I finally made it inside the church and to the little museum upstairs. Like many before me, I walked up to the Infant Jesus of Prague and in silence admired the display, looked up all the dedications and read the prayer to the statue.
The Legends of the Infant Jesus of Prague
The statue comes originally from Spain, where it was probably made around the mid-16th century. Legend has it that Jesus miraculously appeared to a monk in his childhood form, and based on his appearance, the monk modelled this statue.
According to another legend, the statue was owned by Saint Teresa of Jesus, the founder of the Carmelites Order, who was very religious. She gave the statue to her friend, whose daughter was preparing to travel to Prague. However, these legends are probably not based on actual events.
History of the Infant Jesus of Prague
What we know for sure, is that the statue was brought to the Prague Carmelite monastery in 1628, when it was donated to the Carmelites by the widowed noblewoman Polyxena of Lobkowicz, who said, ‘Look after it and honour it and you will do well.’
Polyxena herself received the statue and brought it to Prague in 1603 to celebrate her second marriage as a wedding gift from her mother, the Spanish noblewoman Maria Manrique de Lara y Mendoza, a court lady to the Spanish queen. The statue was initially displayed in the chapel of the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague Castle.
Shortly after the statue was donated to the Carmelites Order, it started to be attributed with miraculous powers.
The statue was lost for a few years when in 1631 the Saxons invaded Prague and the Carmelites had to leave the monastery. The church and the monastery treasures, including the statue were either taken or discarded as rubbish. When the monks returned in 1637, the statue was found and displayed again.
The Bohemian Emperor Ferdinand II even ordered the Czech Chamber to pay the monastery a pension and supply the monks with food paid by the royal court.
Many people, including prominent nobles of the emperor’s court such as General Don Baltasar Marradas I Vich, began to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious on Lesser Town, where the Infant Jesus statue was displayed. In 1648, the statue saved the monastery from being plundered by Swedish soldiers, because a military hospital was set up there.
In 1655 the statue was crowned by the Bishop of Prague, which is a ceremony that still continues once a year in May.
The statue was originally displayed in the little chapel on the left as you enter the current church. By 1741 the statue was so popular that the little chapel wasn’t sufficient (as people waiting to see the statue were blocking the entrance to the church) and the statue was moved to its current position, which is halfway in the middle of the church.
The statue was becoming so popular, that the Bohemian Empress Marie Terezie donated a specially made dress to the Infant Jesus of Prague in 1754. You can see the dress on display in the church museum.
Unfortunately, the empress’s son Josef II abolished monasteries, shortly after he became king in 1780 and the church and monastery fell into decay. After about 100 years, the monastery became active again and around 1879 a lot of fundraising had to be done to restore the Infant Jesus of Prague statue as it was badly in need of repair.
Description of the statue
The 47-centimetre-high sculpture (including a two-centimetre wooden base) is carved from wood covered with possibly some sort of cloth or canvas, and the outer surface is modelled from coloured wax.
The wax surface is very fragile, so the statue is displayed in a silver case that extends under the clothing down to the waist to protect it from damage.
The statue shows Jesus as a child of several years old, dressed in a long flowing shirt, with both bare feet peeking out from under the hem. The lovely face is very finely modelled and framed by medium-length wavy hair.
The Infant Jesus has his right hand raised in blessing, and in his left hand, he holds a terrestrial globe crowned with a cross, symbolizing that the whole world rests in his hands.
He always wears a royal crown on his head and a pectoral cross on his chest. These royal insignia express the faith in Jesus’ divinity shared by all Christians.”
The dressing of the statue
The statue is always dressed in different clothes based on the season. This follows the idea that like a priest at the altar changes into clothes of a colour appropriate to the liturgical season, the statue changes its clothes too. There are four main colours that are used.
the colour of glory, purity, and holiness – for solemnities, Easter and Christmas seasons
the colour of blood and fire – for Holy Week, Pentecost, and Holy Cross days
the colour of penance – for the Lenten and Advent seasons
the colour of life and hope – for the liturgical in-between times (this is the most common colour)
Changing the Clothes of the Statue
The wardrobe of the statue consists of around three hundred outfits, but not all of them are usable. Most of the clothes are gifts of gratitude from various people from around the world.
Part of the Infant Jesus’ wardrobe can be seen in a freely accessible museum in one of the church towers. The task of dressing the Infant Jesus is entrusted to the Carmelite Sisters of the Infant Jesus from Zbraslav (Prague 5 district), who help the Carmelite friars take care of this pilgrimage site and the statue.
The actual dressing of the statue
The first layer of clothing is an undershirt, which looks like a tunic. It is a white cloth skirt with openings for the arms or short sleeves. Sometimes, it is decorated with simple embroidery or lace. The undershirt is put on over the head and fastened or tied at the back.
A coloured shirt is worn over the undershirt. It has a similar cut to a child’s shirt with sleeves and is also fastened at the back. The front of the shirt is richly decorated, often with patterns that incorporate Christian symbolism. The lower edge of the shirt is finished with lace or other decoration.
A little cloak is worn over the top, which matches the shirt in colour and pattern. The left side hangs loosely over the shoulder, while the right front side is folded over the blessing hand, making the lower part of the cloak visible. Decorative fabric is used on the left side on the front, and on the right side on the back.
However, some cloaks are draped over the shoulders without folding, so the pattern is only on the top side. The lining forms the back. The decoration is focused on the top side parts. The edges of the cloak are decorated similarly to the lower edge of the shirt.
Finally, a necklace and bracelets are put on the hands and neck, if they are not part of the shirt. Lace is usually used on the necklace as well. A royal apple is placed in the left hand of the Infant Jesus, and when the statue is placed back in the case the crown is attached above his head.
The statue crown and jewellery
In the past, the statue and its altar were adorned with numerous small jewels that came from the offerings of visitors and believers. The most valuable jewel was a now-lost copy of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Equally significant are the gilded silver box and the Baroque crown.
The first crown from 1655, donated by Bernard Ignác Jan of Martinic, was probably lost. The current crown, which adorns the Infant Jesus, was made between 1810 and 1820.
In addition to this crown, the Infant Jesus has another one from 1767, both made by Prague goldsmiths. The crown is not placed directly on the statue but is attached separately just above the Infant Jesus and the statue is placed underneath.
On September 26, 2009, during a visit to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, Pope Benedict XVI donated a new third golden crown to the Infant Jesus.
Devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague
Even today, hundreds of visitors from dozens of countries around the world come to the statue every day. Many people who have prayed before it have allegedly received miraculous and unusual answers. People ask for help, healing, peace and many return to give thanks.
Similar statues and Copies
The Infant Jesus of Prague is not the only devotional statue of the small Jesus. There are hundreds of copies of the Infant Jesus of Prague and altars dedicated to him.
Among the oldest Central European variations, slightly different from the Infant Jesus of Prague, is the Gothic statue from the Bavarian National Museum in Munich or the Salzburg Infant Jesus.
A practically identical statue, a kind of “twin” of the Infant Jesus of Prague, also from the first half of the 16th century, is the Mechelen Infant Jesus exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.
The Cebu Infant Jesus, the oldest and most revered Christian relic in the Philippines, which Fernão de Magalhães gave to his friend Rajah Humabon of the island of Cebu shortly before his death in 1521, is also very similar in type. However, none of these statues is an exact copy of the Infant Jesus of Prague, they always vary slightly.
World-famous are the non-European copies of the Infant Jesus of Prague created in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as those in the Philippines or Argentina. Pope Francis, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, honoured it on the altar of the cathedral in Buenos Aires.
Inspiration in the literature
The Infant Jesus of Prague inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to write The Little Prince, his most beautiful book.
Paulo Coelho visited the church when he was travelling in Czechoslovakia with his wife in 1982. “I prayed to him to become a writer,” Coelho recalls. “The statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague had poor clothes at that time. I promised that if he fulfilled my desire, I would return to Prague and bring the Infant Jesus of Prague a new outfit.” He returned with the clothes in 2005, when he had sold 200 million books.
The mystery of Infant Jesus of Prague’s disappearance
As I was researching the background story of the Infant Jesus of Prague I came across this fascinating story of the statue being lost and found again in the 20 century. I listened to the old radio recording so that I could find out more details and this is what I’ve discovered.
In 1961, the statue was lost during a robbery at the Church of Our Lady Victorious. Although it was later found, the circumstances of the crime and the temporary loss of the statue remain unresolved.
On the night of August 1, 1961, liturgical objects were stolen from the church including the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague with its clothing and all its jewels and valuables. There was only one witness called Pavel Gallo, who worked in the church as a sacristan for almost 20 years.
He testified that he saw two men and said that one of them knocked him out with a candlestick. It was a bit suspicious that Gallo had neither bruises nor bumps on his body. The police tried to take fingerprints, but since so many people came to the church to visit the Infant Jesus statue it was impossible to eliminate who these two men were.
The sacristan later remembered that the thieves pulled him into the sacristy with a knife in his back, where they forced him to drink communion wine, which to me sounds even more suspicious and made up. Gallo also claimed, that the man spoke in a strange Slavic-German language, which also sounded a bit fishy to me. The police dog was able to track the perpetrators’ footprints through the garden to the hill slope, and from there over the wall to the Petřín Park Gardens, but then the trail was lost.
Based on the examination of the church, the detectives concluded that the perpetrators had to know the place well. The locks on the church and courtyard were not broken; only the lock on the door to the staircase leading to the rear wing was damaged.
The story gets even more tangled when a certain doctor – Mrs. Zajícová responds to the police plea for the stolen artefacts to be returned. Mrs. Zajicova said, that she had the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague at home, but because the statue didn’t have its clothes or crown she didn’t recognize it at first. She also claimed that it was her patient Pavel Gallo who had hidden the statue with her, claiming he had saved it from the thieves. The detectives later found the clothes in Gallo’s apartment.
Gallo admitted to removing the clothes from the statue to convince the thieves that the wax figure itself had no value. He claimed that he hid the statue while drunk and forgot about it. Since none of his statements made much sense a proposal to prosecute Pavel Gallo for theft under Section 193 of the Criminal Code was filed in October 1961.
Unfortunately, despite intensive investigations and the verification of dozens of individuals, the real culprits (if they ever existed) were never caught. The stolen items (apart from the statue) were never found. In November 1961, the Prague Municipal Prosecutor’s Office dropped the criminal charges against Pavel Gallo for lack of evidence. The case was never closed, only the Infant Jesus of Prague was returned back to the church.
From what I could find, Pavel Gallo, originally from Slovakia, was until then a very trusted person and a devoted Catholic, abstinent, who did not associate with family or friends. He would always tell the history of the Infant Jesus of Prague to people who visited the church. He apparently even made a replacement transport box for the statue and sold copies of the statue to other churches, mainly in Moravia and Slovakia. It all points to Gallo being somehow linked to the robbery – I think that perhaps he agreed to stage the robbery with other people so that he could keep the statue for himself, whilst his accomplices took the rest of the valuables.
How to visit the Infant Jesus of Prague
The Church of Our Lady Victorious and Saint Anthony of Padua is in the Lesser Town in Prague (Karmelitska Street number 9) in walking distance from the Malostranske Namesti (Lesser Town Square).
You can get the tram 22 that stops just outside the church – a stop called ‘Helichova’ if you are travelling from Malostranske Namesti.
If you are travelling from the opposite direction (from Ujezd) it’s better to get off at Malostranske Namesti and walk back or take the tram for one stop.
The nearest underground stop is Malostranska on the A Metro Line.
The church is open every day from 8.30 am until 6 pm Monday to Saturday and until 7 pm on Sunday. The museum, where you can see the different clothes belonging to the statue is open Monday – Saturday 9.30 – 5 pm and Sunday 1 pm – 6 pm.
The little souvenir shop on the side of the church is open at the same time as the museum.
Entrance to the church and the museum is free and donations are very welcome.
During good weather, there is also a coffee cart, where the shop staff make great coffee and all the proceeds go back to the church. There is outdoor seating, so you can sit outside the church and enjoy your coffee.
PIN THIS GUIDE FOR LATER
This blog post was originally written on 31 August 2023 and last updated on 31 August 2023