SANTIAGO DE CUBA._ The Ecce Homo, which is considered to be the oldest painting in Cuba, is one of the most striking pieces in Santiago de Cuba’s Archdiocesan Museum, which remains unknown to many despite its nearly 50 years of existence.
The museum is located in this eastern Cuban city’s main cathedral, the Santa Basílica Metropolitana, and holds a treasure trove of items that bear witness to the history of the Catholic Church and the Cuban people in general.
The museum was founded in 1963 by Monsignor Enrique Pérez Serantes and was named after him. It is one of the most important institutions dedicated to religious art in Cuba, and its archives and documents are valuable sources of information for national and international scholars.
A visit to the museum provides many surprises, from original scores by the presbyter Esteban Salas, who was the cathedral’s choirmaster and is considered to be the “father of Cuban music,” to a record of the first mass held in Cuba after the independence wars, on September 8, 1898 in the town of El Cobre.
At the museum’s entrance, paintings hang depicting the first bishops of the city, including the first Cuban bishop Santiago José Echavarría, and the first archbishop, Catalonian Joaquín de Osés Orzúa, who oversaw the cathedral’s fourth restoration in 1819, featuring a baroque style with Cuban influences.
The Cathedral has been repeatedly restored throughout its history as the result of damage from fires and other natural disasters, something that can be seen in the physical traces left on its museum collection. One example was the reconstruction led by San Antonio María Claret in 1851, after an earthquake destroyed the cathedral’s tower, requiring work that left the interior in its current conditions.
Around 1522, when the Catholic Church was still becoming established in the country, Santiago was its main headquarters for a large part of the Caribbean, including several islands and part of the southern region of North America.
The diocese, initially headquartered in Baracoa, Guantánamo province, was later moved to Santiago de Cuba, to the corner of what are now Padre Pico and Aguilera streets, where a municipal prison was built some years later. Today, those premises house the city historian’s office.
The museum’s treasures include a replica of one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, with its corresponding document of authenticity dated 1832, and a crucifix recovered from the fire of Bayamo, carved in polychrome wood by an unknown artist between the late 17th century and the early 18th century.
Its items also include religious objects donated to the institution and used by Pope John Paul II during his visit to this city in 1998, when he gave a mass on January 24th of that year in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square.
The museum’s paintings include Nuestra Señora la Virgen del Carmen, an oil on canvas made by Cuban Nicolás de La Escalera in the mid-18th century, and an oil on cardboard of the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre made in the late 19th century by Spaniard Víctor Patricio Landaluce, who lived in Havana.
The Ecce Homo, by Colombian Francisco Antonio, was brought from Cartagena de Indias to Santiago de Cuba in 1610, and placed at the entrance to the side chapel of the cathedral’s main altar. A parishioner attending claimed he had seen the painting sweat, giving rise to a local legend.
Ecce Homo means “Behold the man” in Latin, and that is precisely what the most enigmatic painting at the Archdiocesan Museum seems to be telling all who visit the museum.