Infant of Prague

church shop

It may seem excessive to travel to the centre of Europe to check out an old Irish tradition, but we hope you’ll agree that this shows the dedication of your team here at Roaringwater Journal!

Robert and infant

The Infant surveying a visitor from Ireland at the Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague

Prague, in old Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), is a beautiful historic city, once considered the cultural and economic hub of Europe. The architectural integrity of the medieval centre presents unparalleled vistas by day and by night.

Cathedral at night

The tourist trail in Prague takes you past palaces, cathedrals and embassies, through crowded squares and across ancient monumental bridges over the Vlata River. But no visitor from Ireland could miss the Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious located in Malá Strana – the ‘Lesser Quarter’ of the city. Why? Because that’s where you will find the original Infant of Prague – a statue which is ubiquitous in every traditional Irish household. 

The traditional Irish parlour invariably includes an Infant of Prague

Nowadays the Infant – a 45cm high effigy of the Christ Child dressed as a king fashioned in waxed wood – is displayed in a glorious shrine of gold, glass and marble, but it has a long and complex history.

big infant

head detail

In 1556 Maria Manriquez de Lara, a Spanish princess, was engaged to Vratislav Pernstyn, a Czech nobleman and brought with her to the marriage the statue, a family heirloom which was said to have been made in Spain by a friar who had a vision of Christ as a king. 

Christ as King – images based on the Prague statue

Maria passed on the statue to her splendidly named daughter Polyxena, who was married to Baron Zdenek Vojtech Popel de Lobkowitz, Great Chancellor of the Kingdom, Knight of the Golden Fleece, and Prince of the Holy Roman EmpirePolyxena gifted the statue to the Carmelite Monastery and the adjoining church in Prague, stating “I bring you my dearest possession: honour the Infant Jesus and you shall never want.” The friars attributed miracles and blessings to the statue, which became an object of veneration.

the real infant

The chapel in the Church of Our Lady Victorious where the Infant is now venerated

During the Thirty Years War which devastated much of central Europe between 1618 and 1648 the monastery and church were sacked and the statue was broken and thrown on a rubbish heap. The Infant was forgotten until its remains were found by a Father Cyril many years later. The hands were missing and Fr Cyril heard the Infant say, “Have pity on Me, and I will have pity on you. Give Me My hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honour Me, the more I will bless you.” The statue was repaired and in 1655 the Infant was given a coronation and placed in the Carmelite Church where it has remained to this day, looked after now by an order of nuns who ensure that the statue wears vestments appropriate to the religious festivals. On every first Sunday in May a copy of the statue is carried in procession through the streets and re-crowned, implying perhaps that the Infant is now the centre of a seasonal custom.

dress detailExquisite detail of the vestments worn by the Infant on the day of our visit

We were surprised to find Prague so full of tourists – and of shops selling souvenirs for tourists. Prominent among these souvenirs are Infant of Prague statues: there are shelves, cabinets, whole shops full of them – just as there are in Ireland.

Gracious Jesus

Christian Shop close

Quite how the connection between the Infant, weddings and the weather has come about I’m not sure but there’s no doubt that an Infant of Prague statue is essential to an Irish wedding – to ensure good weather… Variously, you have to put your Infant of Prague outside the house, or outside the church – or even bury it in the garden to make certain that it won’t rain on the big day. I’m sorry that Finola and I were unaware of this custom at the time of our own wedding – but we were fortunate anyway in having a very good day (in every respect).  I have been told by Infant of Prague experts that’s it’s important to knock the head off the statue for maximum efficacy! Perhaps that’s some sort of confusion over the original statue having lost its hands?

wedding photo

Have a look at this Irish wedding photographer’s site

But it’s not just weddings: in Ireland the Infant of Prague is considered to bring good luck in many ways. Small coins are often kept under the statue to make sure that the house ‘never runs short of money’ and, in keeping with the older traditions of cures and miracles having been attributed to the Prague effigy, the Infant is also a bringer of good health. The presence of the statue over every Irish hearth seems to be as essential as a St Brigid’s Cross

coaster

10 thoughts

  1. Fascinating story, Robert. What I don’t understand, though, is why the Infant of Prague has become so important in Ireland. Is it equally important in other Catholic countries. I live in Canada and have never heard of it before, although I didn’t grow up Catholic. Thanks.

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    • That’s one key bit of information that I haven’t found yet, Devron. No doubt someone went to Prague and came back with a little statue, but why it then caught on to such an extent is a mystery. Does anyone out there know the answer?

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  2. This is such a fascinating story – it needs to be read several times. And how interesting to hear about removing the head- that would explain why so many seem to be headless. Great to see the original too, in situ – extraordinary.

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    • Yes, Amanda, I was delighted that we could visit the original statue and to learn more about its history. I was particularly impressed by the names of those involved!

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  3. This is so interesting! My grandparents came from Ireland to the US and brought the Infant of Prague custom with them. My grandmother, an excellent seamstress, made different garments for different seasons for her statue. My parents had a ceramic statue, like the ones you show in the photos, on the mantle. It always had a five-dollar bill under it, but I never knew the significance until now.

    Liked by 1 person

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