The Manuelito figures are without parallel in Cusco

I unwrapped the tissue that completely covered the small figure. I didn’t know what to expect; perhaps a small saint, a trinket from the beautiful city of Cusco. I had begged for a doll, one from a local artisan.

At last the tissue fell away. I was overcome as I saw the exquisite doll nested in the wrapping. It had beautiful brown eyes and out reaching hands. I fell in love. I thought how it would become a part of my crèche.

I wondered at the craftsmanship, the perfect toes, the lovely fingers. Who created wonderful items like these? I wondered again at the workmanship of this fine piece, having myself created porcelain dolls when I was younger. It was the work of Eliana Valencia Farfan, who sells her wares at various markets during the year, including the famed Santurantikuy market. I began my search for artists.

The Niño Manuelito(Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
The Niño Manuelito(Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

I found the famous Antonio Olave Palomino. He worked in plaster and wood, made pottery and find objects of art. Richard Varr described him as “surrounded by angels.” Varr goes one to describe his shop, “He sits amid paint-splattered carving knives and a bevy of brushes alongside open jars of muted and earthen-toned pigments. Four unfinished, slender wooden sculptures sit on his workbench — precisely shaped figurines soon to look like the shiny, gold-leafed saints, virgins, and angels on the shelves around him.

“He works quietly and seemingly contented in his studio and gallery along a narrow street in the San Blas Quarter, a popular neighborhood of artists and craftsmen centered by the San Blas Church (Cusco’s oldest) with its gilded silver altar and massive biblical and conquistador-inspired oil paintings from the Cuzco School art tradition.” (Reference)

It was sad to hear that Olave was one of the many famous artists who had died in 2016. He was best known for his creation of the “child of the spine” , his image of Q’alito melding with the Christ child to become the iconic Manuelito of Cusco. Although there is some controversy about the origin, La directora de Patrimonio Inmaterial del Ministerio de Cultura, Soledad Mujica, said, “A pesar de que su origen puede rastrearse hasta el virreinato español, otras versiones sitúan la historia contemporánea de Manuelito en 1975, cuando delegados de la comunidad de Vilcabamba llegaron al taller de Antonio Olave, uno de los artesanos más conocidos del Cusco en el siglo XX. Según la Asociación Inkaterra, los comuneros le pidieron restaurar una imagen de madera del niño Jesús que había sido rescatada de las profundidades de un abismo.

Olave escuchó la historia de Q’alito, un pastorcito que se clavó una espina en un pie para consolar a un amigo que pasaba por el mismo percance, y “quedó tan impresionado con el cuento que se convirtió en su inspiración para crear a Manuelito, la imagen de un niño Jesús con una espina en el pie en recuerdo de Q’alito”. (Reference)

The image has become so popular that according to Cusco native Patricia Carrasco, “In the San Blas area of Cusco you can find the “Niño Manuelito” in every souvenir store but the “Niño Manuelito” is actually one of the few authentic Cusquenian souvenirs you can buy. I literally don’t know any Cusquenian family that does not have a “Niño Manuelito” in their home.” (Reference)

Gazing on my beautiful porcelain doll , I thought of the words I had read in Ita Inkaterra, ‘El Niño Manuelito is characterized by having a white or coppery complexion and by his rosy cheeks, glassy eyes, teeth made with the quill of a condor feather, wavy hair, a mirror palate and, in some cases, thin crystal tears . The artisans use wood and clay to work with techniques that have transcended generations. (Reference)

My doll may not have teeth made with condor quills, or glass tears, but it was precious beyond words. I placed the boy Child in the manger of my crèche and hoped that he would be treasured by many generations of my own family.

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