|An imagined rendering of Juan Diego unrolling his tilma for the Archbishop of Mexico.|
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, Patroness of the Americas, and most recently Patroness of the Unborn. An image of her preserved on cloth in a Mexico City Basilica is the object of almost universal adoration in Mexico and among the large Mexican diaspora in the United States. She has been called the “rubber band which binds this disparate nation into a whole.” Mexican literary icons have attested to her importance. Carlos Fuentes said that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” and Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”
Yet among an educated elite there is widespread skepticism about the origin story of the image and its veneration is controversial among some Catholics and actively discouraged by a growing evangelical Protestant movement.
The origin story goes like this.
On December 9, 1531, just ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, Juan Diego, an Indian peasant and particularly pious convert to Catholicism, was walking by the Hill of Tepeyac then outside of the capital city. A temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, had surmounted the hill but been razed in the Church’s campaign to obliterate traditional worship. When he glanced up the hill he beheld a maiden who bade him in his native Nahuatl language to build a church on the site in her name. He surmised that she must be that she must be the Virgin Mary although she did not identify herself.
Juan Diego hurried to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Archbishop of Mexico with his tale. The Franciscan was impressed with his piety but skeptical of the story. He instructed Juan Diego to return to the hill and ask the apparition for proof of her identity. The peon returned three more times to the hill over the next two days and the Virgin spoke to him each time.
He first asked for a miraculous sign. When he returned home he found that his uncle, who had been dying, was healed.
On his final trip to the Hill the virgin commanded him to gather flowers at the summit. These were not native flower, but red Castilian roses blooming out of season. Juan Diego gathered them in his tilma or cloak and took the bundle to the Archbishop Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin.
This was enough to convince Archbishop who ordered a chapel be built at the base of the hill where the cloak would be displayed. Juan Diego, his wife, and his uncle were given leave to build a hovel next to the hermitage of Franciscan fathers sent to attend the shrine and to act as their servant. He reportedly died there in 1548.
The trouble with the story is that there was no mention of any of this in any of the extensively preserved Church records of the period. It was never noted by Archbishop Zumárraga who wrote extensively of his work to consolidate Catholicism among the heathen natives.
The earliest known account of the story comes from an illustrated document dated from 1548 in Nahuatl transcribed in the Latin alphabet. The document refers to an Indian by his Aztec name. It features an elaborate engraved illustration of a kneeling peon venerating an image of the Virgin in the sky. The document was discovered in 1995 but some scholars doubt its authenticity.
There is greater faith in a mid-16th Century 16 page document in Nahuatl called the Nican mopohua believed to be composed by a native speaker educated by the Franciscans. The text of this document was later incorporated into a printed pamphlet both the native tongue and Spanish editions which were widely circulated in the mid-17th century.
We do know from Church records that the image was on display at the chapel at the foot of the hill about twenty years later. Church records indicate that there was a rising controversy over its veneration. Indio peons were flocking to the church, inspiring hope in some that the conversion to Catholicism had been deep and successful. But the Franciscans there were alarmed because the Indians seemed to be praying to the icon as if it were a pagan idol and seemed to expect miracles from it. Many seemed to identify the Virgin with their old goddess Tonantzin.
Meanwhile, Dominicans had arrived in Mexico in great numbers and were eclipsing the rival Franciscans in power and influence. They approved of the strategy of encouraging devotion by folding in aspects of traditional religion and re-defining it as Catholic. One of the Dominicans, Alonso de Montúfar, succeeded Zumárraga as Archbishop of Mexico. In a 1556 sermon he praised the popular devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe—perhaps the earliest use of that name for the image on the tilma at the chapel of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac. He acknowledged “certain miracles had occurred.” He thus put his official stamp of approval on the rising cult.
Fray Francisco de Bustamante, Abbot of the Franciscans at the church responded with a sharply worded homily just days later.
The devotion at the chapel... to which they have given the name Guadalupe was prejudicial to the Indians because they believed that the image itself worked miracles, contrary to what the missionary friars had been teaching them, and because many were disappointed when it did not.
The open dispute caused something of a scandal. Archbishop Montúfar responded by opening an official inquiry, a timeless dodge of Church bureaucracy. During the inquiry the Franciscans testified that the image did not have a miraculous origin but was the work of the “the Indian painter Marcos,” probably referring to the Aztec Marcos Cipac de Aquino who was still alive and active. Despite this the inquiry unsurprisingly endorsed the view of the man who had commissioned it.
Montufar had the Franciscans removed from custodianship of the shrine and replaced them with diocesan priests under his direct authority. Moreover he ordered the construction of a new and much larger church where the image was mounted elaborately for veneration.
Franciscans kept up their criticism but were clearly on the losing end with the now firmly entrenched Dominican authorities and with the Indian masses.
The origin of the name Guadalupe has also become a matter of controversial. Some scholars believe that it was a corruption of some Nahuatl description. Tecuatlanopeuh, “she whose origins were in the rocky summit” and Tecuantlaxopeuh “she who banishes those who devoured us” have both been suggested as possibilities.
Most, however, agree that the name refers to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura, whose cult was important in Spain in the 16th century and had been brought to the New World.
|The tilma on display for veneration at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City.|
The revered image has been altered over the years, although not the central image of the Virgin on the tilma. The figure of a dark skinned virgin is four foot eight inches high. Her gown is a tawny rose tinted color said to recall the Mexican landscape. She is girded by a thin black sash which is taken as a sign of pregnancy. She wears a blue mantle traditionally associated with Mary. Sharp beams radiate from her suggesting that she is “brighter than the Sun.” One foot rests on the Moon and the other on a snake’s head. This has been interpreted as her victory over darkness and triumph over the pagan Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and/or the serpent of temptation from the Garden of Eden.
She may have originally had a crown on her head or that might have been added later. Still later the crown was decorated with gold which deteriorated over the years. In 1899 the crown was erased either because of the deterioration or to bring the image more into line with the republican sentiments of the people. The tilma was reframed with the top being brought down just above the Virgin’s head to disguise damage in the process of the erasure. Other additions over time included stars painted on the inside of her mantle representing the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a supporting angel below her, and silver decoration which has also deteriorated. Despite being centuries old on an unstable medium, however that central image remains remarkably bright.
The tilma and its image have never been subjected to the modern scientific analysis of given to the Shroud of Turin, but superficial examinations by experts shows that the material might be a coarse weave of palm threads, the rough fiber called cotense , or a hemp and linen mixture rather than the traditional India agave fiber credited in legend. A seam runs down the center of the tilma.
The image probably was painted using water-soluble pigments mixed with a binding medium of animal glue or gum Arabic. This was a traditional native technique for painting on fabric called tüchlein. Few, if any such paintings dating from so early, however, have retained their vibrant color and escaped cracking and deterioration.
The second church was declared a Basilica and remained the home of the Virgin for hundreds of years. The interior was damaged by a bomb planted by an anti-clerical revolutionary in 1921 but the image remained undamaged. The church, however, was sinking into the old lake bed of Mexico City. Between 1974 and 1976 a modern circular shaped Basilica was built. It is now the most visited Catholic site and the third-most visited sacred site in the world.
In recent years, as Rome has sought to shore up the loyalty of Latin American Catholics, Juan Diego has been elevated despite continuing doubt of his historic existence. Pope John Paul II began the process which led to his beatification on May 6, 1990 at the Basilica in Mexico City with the Pope himself presiding. John Paul returned just three years later on July 31, 1992 for the canonization of St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin whose feast day is now observed on the anniversary of the first apparition, December 9.
|The banner of Father Miguel Hildago's peon army of 1810.|
Aside from its singular religious significance the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a rallying point for the national aspirations of the Mexican people, particularly for the indios and mestizos. The peon army that Father Miguel Hidalgo after El Grito de Delores marched behind a banner painted with a representation of Our Lady and many soldiers of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 fought with printed cards of her image stuck in their sombreros.
Although anti-clericism ran deep among many in the 20th Century Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata’s army of southern presents and Indians entered Mexico City in triumph behind a Guadeloupian banner. More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) also in the south named their mobile city Guadalupe Tepeyac in honor of the Virgin.
In the United States banners of Our Lady appeared in the marches and during the strikes of the United Farm Workers, whose leader Cesar Chavez was deeply religious. More recently it has been carried in demonstrations in support of immigration reform.
As I type these final sentences in the wee small hours of the morning an all-night vigil continues in Des Plaines at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. More than are in attendance for the largest such veneration in the United States. This year newly installed Chicago Archbishop Blasé Cupich was expected to be in attendance, a sign of the importance of Hispanic Catholics to the American Church.