Broken statues of baby Jesus inundate restorers ahead of the feast day

MEXICO CITY – It’s Maximinio Vertiz’s busy season. Dozens of beloved but worn and broken Baby Jesus figurines will pass through the hands of this 49-year-old artisan, restoring them in time for their annual pilgrimage to the church for a Candlemas blessing.

Holding a spatula with a steady hand, Vertiz undertook this meticulous task one day earlier this month. He retouched the holy statue’s eyes while blocking out the busy street market in downtown Mexico City where he worked. More than 20 other figures lay on his workbench, waiting for his repairs.

Similar scenes played out in the stalls around him as rows of busy artisans used paint and tools to breathe new life into these beloved infant figurines. Some of their owners stood nearby, anxiously waiting to take them home, where they would be dressed in specially made saint costumes for Candlemas. The Catholic feast day, which marks the end of Christmas celebrations, falls on February 2 and commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple.

Most of the characters – often passed down from generation to generation – spend the Christmas season in nativity scenes displayed in homes. They are placed in nurseries at midnight on Christmas Day and families celebrate the occasion by wrapping the statue and rocking it while singing a lullaby.

They are usually treated with care, but accidents do happen. Some fell off or broke while putting them on. Others need to touch up their paint or replace their missing fingers. Many more come wrapped in cloth, broken to pieces.

“I call them riddles,” said Vertiz, who examines the shattered icons and determines how they can be made whole again.

On that day earlier this month, a woman approached Vertiz with a blanket while he was working. Visibly sad, she opened her bundle to reveal a statue that had cracked its neck and lost its head. Already overwhelmed with repair work and a few impatient customers, he had to turn them away.

The larger the figure, the easier it is to repair. It can take Vertiz anywhere from 30 minutes to fix a broken 16 inch statue, to up to 3 hours for a tiny statue. Costs range from $5 to $12 each.

Vertiz, who started his own business in 2019, has decades of repair experience, having learned the trade from his father, who also restores religious statues at the same street market.

Catholic followers take great care to keep their statues of the Christ Child in top condition. They believe the characters are representations of God and form a spiritual and emotional bond with them through their yearly interactions, explains anthropologist and conservator Katia Perdigón in her book My Baby Jesus.

“It is necessary to keep the effigy in good condition, to take care of it so that it does not break, or to repair it if necessary, so as to increase its symbolic impact,” writes Perdigón. “The sculpture…represents the presence of God in the home as He becomes part of the family. He is a son in the hands of the adoptive mother.”

María Concepción Sánchez, 65, watched Vertiz work and hoped that the craftsman would soon finish the three baby Jesus figures she had entrusted to him. One belongs to her and the others belong to her grandchildren.

“The blonde he’s working on is 50 years old,” said Sánchez, whose mother used to display it at home.

Sánchez, whose family keeps about a dozen of these figurines on their home altars, chose to have their grandchildren’s statues restored rather than buying new ones so they could maintain their tradition of passing them down through the generations. One character had lost an arm while changing clothes and the other shattered into pieces after falling to the floor.

Once repaired and dressed for her Candlemas blessing, Sánchez and her family will beg their baby Jesus for good health after losing several of their 18 brothers and sisters, including three who died in 2022 alone.

“We’re going to dress them up like doctors and surgeons,” Sánchez said of the characters. “When you’re old, you never know what’s going to happen.”