Church and Museum of the Black Christ
The large white church near the Portobelo ruins is the Iglesia de San Felipe, which is still in use. It dates from 1814, but its tower wasn’t completed until 1945. It’s famous as the home of the life-sized effigy of the Nazarene of Portobelo, better known as the Black Christ.
The effigy, depicting Christ carrying the cross, normally resides on a podium to the left of the altar, but it is brought out to the center of the church for the Black Christ Festival (Festival del Cristo Negro), by far Portobelo’s biggest event.
The handsome altar of the church 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. Small wooden carvings ringing the walls depict the stages of the cross.
Behind this church is the recently renovated Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, home to the new Museo del Cristo Negro de Portobelo, which displays several of the robes donated by Panamanians for the festival, some of which are more than 100 years old. It’s well worth a visit. Among the more famous robes is the one donated by the champion boxer Roberto “Manos de Piedra” (literally, “hands of stone”) Durán.
The Black Christ figurine’s robes are changed twice a year, and each is used just once. The statue is adorned with a red wine–colored robe for the Black Christ Festival held each October 21. This is changed to a purple one for Holy Week. Many of the robes are donated anonymously. Some are simple and others are quite ornate, done up in gold trim and the like, and cost thousands of dollars to make.
If this museum is locked, walk over to the museum at the aduana and ask the attendant to open it for you.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition