Missionaries who first came to Mexico with the conquistadors had little success in the beginning. After nearly a generation, only a few hundred Native Mexicans had converted to the Christian faith. Whether they simply did not understand what the missionaries had to offer or whether they resented these people who made them slaves, Christianity was not popular among the native people.
Then in 1531 miracles began to happen. Jesus’ own mother appeared to humble Juan Diego. The signs — of the roses, of the uncle miraculously cured of a deadly illness, and especially of her beautiful image on Juan’s mantle — convinced the people there was something to be considered in Christianity. Within a short time, six million Native Mexicans had themselves baptized as Christians.
The first lesson is that God has chosen Mary to lead us to Jesus. No matter what critics may say of the devotion of Mexicans (and Mexican descendants) to Our Lady of Guadalupe, they owe their Christianity to her influence. If it were not for her, they would not know her son, and so they are eternally grateful. The second lesson we take from Mary herself. Mary appeared to Juan Diego not as a European madonna but as a beautiful Aztec princess speaking to him in his own Aztec language. If we want to help someone appreciate the gospel we bring, we must appreciate the culture and the mentality in which they live their lives. By understanding them, we can help them to understand and know Christ. Our Lady of Guadalupe is patron of the Americas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe (Spanish: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Spanish: Virgen de Guadalupe) is a celebrated Roman Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary.
Two accounts, published in the 1640s, one in Spanish, one in Nahuatl, tell how, while walking from his village to Mexico City in the early morning of December 9, 1531 (then the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire), the peasant Juan Diego saw on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac a vision of a girl of fifteen or sixteen years of age, surrounded by light. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the local language, she asked that a church be built at that site, in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the Lady as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found at the usually barren hilltop Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, which the Virgin arranged in his peasant tilma cloak. When Juan Diego opened the cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and in their place was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the fabric.
The icon is now displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most visited Marian shrines. The icon is Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural image, bearing the titles: the Queen of Mexico, and was once proclaimed Patroness of the Philippines (but later revised) by Pope Pius XI in 1935. In 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the Virgin Mary Patroness of the Americas, Empress of Latin America, and Protectress of Unborn Children under this Marian title.
In the earliest account of the apparition, the Nican Mopohua, written in the Nahuatl language around 1556, the Virgin Mary tells Juan Bernadino, the uncle of Juan Diego, that the image left on the tilma is to be known by the name “the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.”
Yet, there is no consensus among scholars today concerning how the name “Guadalupe” was ascribed to the image. The various theories can be grouped into two major camps. The first is that the Spanish misunderstood a Nahuatl name. The second is that the Spanish name “Guadalupe”, like the Spanish Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura, is the original name.
The first theory to promote a Nahuatl origin was that of Luis Becerra Tanco.” In his 1675 work Felicidad de Mexico, Becerra Tanco claimed that Juan Bernardino and Juan Diego would not have been able to understand the name Guadalupe because the “d” and “g” sounds do not exist in Nahuatl. He proposed two Nahuatl alternative names that sound similar to “Guadalupe”, Tecuatlanopeuh [tekʷat͡ɬa’nopeʍ], “she whose origins were in the rocky summit”, and Tecuantlaxopeuh [tekʷant͡ɬa’ʃopeʍ], “she who banishes those who devoured us.”
It has also been suggested that the name is a Spanish version of the Nahuatl term, Coātlaxopeuh [koaːt͡ɬa’ʃopeʍ], meaning “the one who crushes the serpent” and that it may be referring to the feathered serpent Quetzacoatl.
The theory promoting the Spanish language origin of the name claims that:
- Juan Diego and Juan Bernardino would have been familiar with the Spanish language “g” and “d” sounds since their baptismal names contain those sounds.
- The lack of evidence of any other name for the Virgin during the almost 144 years between the apparition in 1531 and Becerra Tanco’s proposal in 1675, supports the Spanish “Guadalupe” as the original.
- Documents written by contemporary Spaniards and Franciscan Friars arguing for the name to be changed to a native name such as “Tepeaca” or “Tepeaquilla” would not make sense if there was already an original Nahuatl name, suggesting the Spanish “Guadalupe” was the original.
Following the Spanish Conquest in 1519–21, a temple of the mother-goddess Tonantzin at Tepeyac outside Mexico City, was destroyed and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin built on the site. Newly converted Indians continued to come from afar to worship there. The object of their worship, however, was equivocal, as they continued to address the Virgin Mary as Tonantzin.
The first record of the painting’s existence was in 1556, when Archbishop Alonso de Montufar, a Dominican, preached a sermon commending popular devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, in regards to a painting in the chapel at Tepeyac, where certain miracles had lately been performed. Days later he was answered by Francisco de Bustamante, head of the Colony’s Franciscans and guardians of the chapel at Tepeyac, who delivered a sermon before the Viceroy expressing his concern that the Archbishop was promoting a superstitious regard for a painting by a native artist, Marcos Cipac de Aquino:
The devotion that has been growing in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, called of Guadalupe, in this city is greatly harmful for the natives, because it makes them believe that the image painted by Marcos the Indian is in any way miraculous.
The next day Archbishop Montufar opened an inquiry. The Franciscans repeated their claim that the image encouraged idolatry and superstition, and testified that it was painted by “Marcos the Indian.” Appearing before the Dominicans, who favored allowing the Aztecs to venerate the Guadalupe, was the Archbishop himself. The matter ended with the Franciscans deprived of custody of the shrine and the tilma mounted and displayed within a much enlarged church.
The first extended account of the image and the apparition is in Imagen de la Virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, a guide to the cult for Spanish-speakers published in 1648 by Miguel Sanchez, a diocesan priest of Mexico City. A 36-page tract in Nahuatl language, Huei tlamahuiçoltica (“The Great Event”), was published in 1649 by Luis Lasso de la Vega, which has close affinity with Sánchez’s narrative. This tract contains Nican mopohua (“Here it is recounted”), a text about the Virgin which contains the story of the apparition and the supernatural origin of the image, plus two other sections, Nican motecpana (“Here is an ordered account”), describing fourteen miracles connected with Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Nican tlantica (“Here ends”), an account of the Virgin in New Spain.
The growing fame of the image led to a parallel interest in Juan Diego. In 1666 the Church, with the aim of establishing a feast day in his name, began gathering information from people who reported having known him, and in 1723 a formal investigation into his life was ordered, and much information was gathered. In 1987, under Pope John Paul II, who took a special interest in saints and in non-European Catholics, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared him “venerable”, and on May 6, 1990, he was beatified by the Pope himself during Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, being declared “protector and advocate of the indigenous peoples,” with December 9 as his feast day.
At this point historians and theologians began to question the quality of the evidence regarding Juan Diego. There is no mention of him or his miraculous vision in the writings of bishop Zumárraga, into whose hands he delivered the miraculous image, nor in the record of the ecclesiastical inquiry of 1556, which omits him entirely, nor anywhere else before the mid-17th century. Doubts as to his reality were not new: in 1883 Joaquín García Icazbalceta, historian and biographer of Zumárraga, in a confidential report on the Lady of Guadalupe for Bishop Labastida, was very hesitant to support the story of the apparition and stated his conclusion that there was never such a person. Neither were they welcome: as recently as 1996 the 83 year old abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, Guillermo Schulenburg, was forced to resign following an interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, when he said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.”
In 1995, with progress towards sanctification at a stand-still, Father Xavier Escalada, a Jesuit writing an encyclopedia of the Guadalupan legend, produced a deer skin codex, (Codex Escalada), illustrating the apparition and the life and death of Juan Diego. Although the very existence of this important document had been previously unknown, it bore the date 1548, placing it within the lifetime of those who had known Juan Diego, and bore the signatures of two trustworthy 16th century scholar-priests, Antonio Valeriano and Bernardino de Sahagún, thus verifying its contents. Some scholars remained unconvinced, describing the discovery of the Codex as “rather like finding a picture of St. Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, drawn by St. Luke and signed by St. Peter”, but Diego was declared a saint, with the name of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, in 2002.
Neither the fabric (“the support”) nor the image (together, “the tilma”) has ever been analyzed using the full range of scientific resources available to museum conservationists. Nevertheless, four technical studies were conducted between 1751–2 and 1982. Of these, the findings of three have been published. All were commissioned by the authorized custodians of the tilma in the Basilica, and in every case the investigators had direct and unobstructed access to it.
Studies conducted between 1751–2 and 1982
- MC – in 1756 a prominent artist, Miguel Cabrera, published a report entitled “Maravilla Americana” containing the findings made by himself and six other painters in 1751 and 1752 from ocular and manual inspection.
- G – José Antonio Flores Gómez, an art restorer, discussed in a 2002 interview with the Mexican journal Proceso (magazine) certain technical issues relative to the tilma, on which he had worked in 1947 and 1973.
- PC – in 1979 Philip Callahan, biophysicist and USDA entomologist, specializing in Infrared imaging, took numerous infrared photographs of the front of the tilma. His findings, with photographs, were published in 1981.
- R – “Proceso” also published in 2002 an interview with José Sol Rosales, formerly director of the Center for the Conservation and Listing of Heritage Artifacts (Patrimonio Artístico Mueble) of the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) in México City. This interview was interspersed with extracts from a report R had written in 1982 of the findings he had made during his inspection of the tilma that year using raking and UV light, and – at low magnification – a stereo microscope of the type used for surgery.
Summary conclusions (“contra” indicates a contrary finding)
- (1) Support: The material of the support is soft to the touch (almost silken: MC; something like cotton: G) but to the eye it suggested a coarse weave of palm threads called “pita” or the rough fiber called “cotense” (MC), or a hemp and linen mixture (R); the traditional understanding is that it is ixtle, an agave fiber.
- (2) Ground, or Primer: R asserted (MC and PC contra) by ocular examination that the tilma was primed, though with primer “applied irregularly.” R does not clarify whether his observed “irregular” application entails that majorly the entire tilma was primed, or just certain areas – such as those areas of the tilma extrinsic to the image – where PC agrees had later additions. MC, alternatively, observed that the image had soaked through to the reverse of the tilma.
- (3) Under-drawing: PC asserted there was no under-drawing.
- (4) Brush-work: R suggested (PC contra) there was some visible brushwork on the original image, but at best in only one minute area of the image (“her eyes, including the irises, have outlines, apparently applied by a brush”).
- (5) Condition of the surface layer: The three most recent inspections agree (i) that significant additions have been made to the image, some of which were subsequently removed, and (ii) that the original image has been abraded and re-touched in places. Some flaking is visible (mostly along the line of the vertical seam, or at passages considered to be later additions).
- (6) Varnish: The tilma has never been varnished.
- (7) Binding Medium: R provisionally identified the pigments and binding medium (distemper) as consistent with 16th c. methods of painting sargas (MC, PC contra for different reasons), but the color values and luminosity are exceptional.
The technique of painting on fabric with water-soluble pigments (with or without primer or ground) is well-attested. The binding medium is generally animal glue or gum arabic (see: Distemper). Such an artifact is variously discussed in the literature as a tüchlein or sarga. The tilma, considered as a type of sarga, is by no means unique, but its state of preservation is remarkable.
The iconography of the Virgin is impeccably Catholic: Miguel Sanchez, the author of the 1648 tract Imagen de la Virgen María, described her as the Woman of the Apocalypse from the New Testament’s Revelation 12:1, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,” and she is also described as a representation of the Immaculate Conception. Yet despite this orthodoxy the image also had a hidden layer of coded messages for the indigenous people of Mexico which goes a considerable way towards explaining her popularity. Her blue-green mantle was the color reserved for the divine couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl; her belt is interpreted as a sign of pregnancy; and a cross-shaped image symbolizing the cosmos and called nahui-ollin is inscribed beneath the image’s sash. She was called “mother of maguey,” the source of the sacred beverage pulque, “the milk of the Virgin”, and the rays of light surrounding her doubled as maguey spines.
Symbol of Mexico
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is recognized as a symbol of all Catholic Mexicans. Miguel Sánchez, the author of the first Spanish language apparition account, identified Guadalupe as Revelation’s Woman of the Apocalypse, and said:
this New World has been won and conquered by the hand of the Virgin Mary … [who had] prepared, disposed, and contrived her exquisite likeness in this her Mexican land, which was conquered for such a glorious purpose, won that there should appear so Mexican an image.
Throughout the Mexican national history of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Guadalupan name and image have been unifying national symbols; the first President of Mexico (1824–29) changed his name from José Miguel Ramón Adaucto Fernández y Félix to Guadalupe Victoria in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Father Miguel Hidalgo, in the Mexican War of Independence (1810), and Emiliano Zapata, in the Mexican Revolution (1910) led their respective armed forces with Guadalupan flags emblazoned with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1999, the Church officially proclaimed her the Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America, and the Protectress of Unborn Children.
In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla initiated the bid for Mexican independence with his Grito de Dolores, with the cry “Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!” When Hidalgo’s mestizo-indigenous army attacked Guanajuato and Valladolid, they placed “the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which was the insignia of their enterprise, on sticks or on reeds painted different colors” and “they all wore a print of the Virgin on their hats.” After Hidalgo’s death leadership of the revolution fell to a zambo/mestizo priest named José María Morelos, who led insurgent troops in the Mexican south. Morelos adopted the Virgin as the seal of his Congress of Chilpancingo, inscribing her feast day into the Chilpancingo constitution and declaring that Guadalupe was the power behind his victories:
New Spain puts less faith in its own efforts than in the power of God and the intercession of its Blessed Mother, who appeared within the precincts of Tepeyac as the miraculous image of Guadalupe that had come to comfort us, defend us, visibly be our protection.
Simón Bolívar noticed the Guadalupan theme in these uprisings, and shortly before Morelos’ execution in 1815 wrote: “the leaders of the independence struggle have put fanaticism to use by proclaiming the famous Virgin of Guadalupe as the queen of the patriots, praying to her in times of hardship and displaying her on their flags … the veneration for this image in Mexico far exceeds the greatest reverence that the shrewdest prophet might inspire.” One of Morelos’ officers, Félix Fernández, would later become the first president of Mexico, even changing his name to Guadalupe Victoria.
In 1914, Emiliano Zapata’s peasant army rose out of the south against the government of Porfirio Díaz. Though Zapata’s rebel forces were primarily interested in land reform – “tierra y libertad” (land and liberty) was the slogan of the uprising – when his peasant troops penetrated Mexico City they carried Guadalupan banners. More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) named their “mobile city” in honor of the Virgin: it is called Guadalupe Tepeyac. EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos wrote a humorous letter in 1995 describing the EZLN bickering over what to do with a Guadalupe statue they had received as a gift.
“The Aztecs … had an elaborate, coherent symbolic system for making sense of their lives. When this was destroyed by the Spaniards, something new was needed to fill the void and make sense of New Spain … the image of Guadalupe served that purpose.”
Hernán Cortés, the Conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, was a native of Extremadura, home to Our Lady of Guadalupe. By the 16th century the Extremadura Guadalupe, a statue of the Virgin said to be carved by Saint Luke the Evangelist, was already a national icon. It was found at the beginning of the 14th century when the Virgin appeared to a humble shepherd and ordered him to dig at the site of the apparition. The recovered Virgin then miraculously helped to expel the Moors from Spain, and her small shrine evolved into the great Guadalupe monastery. One of the more remarkable attributes of the Guadalupe of Extremadura is that she is dark, like the Americans, and thus she became the perfect icon for the missionaries who followed Cortés to convert the natives to Christianity.
According to the traditional account, the name of Guadalupe was chosen by the Virgin herself when she appeared on the hill outside Mexico City in 1531, ten years after the Conquest. According to secular history, in 1555 Bishop Alonso de Montúfar commissioned a Virgin of Guadalupe from a native artist, who gave her the dark skin which his own people shared with the famous Extremadura Virgin. Whatever the connection between the Mexican and her older Spanish namesake, the fused iconography of the Virgin and the indigenous Nahua goddess Tonantzin provided a way for 16th-century Spaniards to gain converts among the indigenous population, while simultaneously allowing 16th century Mexicans to continue the practice of their native religion.
Guadalupe continues to be a mixture of the cultures which blended to form Mexico, both racially and religiously, “the first mestiza”, or “the first Mexican”. “bringing together people of distinct cultural heritages, while at the same time affirming their distinctness.” As Jacques Lafaye wrote in Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe, “as the Christians built their first churches with the rubble and the columns of the ancient pagan temples, so they often borrowed pagan customs for their own cult purposes.” The author Judy King asserts that Guadalupe is a “common denominator” uniting Mexicans. Writing that Mexico is composed of a vast patchwork of differences – linguistic, ethnic, and class-based – King says “The Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that binds this disparate nation into a whole.” The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz wrote in 1974 that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery”.
Roman Catholic Church
Beliefs and Miracles
Roman Catholic sources claim many miraculous and supernatural properties for the image such as that the tilma has maintained its structural integrity over nearly 500 years, while replicas normally last only about 15 years before suffering degradation; that it repaired itself with no external help after a 1791 ammonia spill that did considerable damage, and that on 14 November 1921 a bomb damaged the altar, but left the icon unharmed.
That in 1929 and 1951 photographers found a figure reflected in the Virgin’s eyes; upon inspection they said that the reflection was tripled in what is called the Purkinje effect, commonly found in human eyes. An ophthalmologist, Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann, later enlarged an image of the Virgin’s eyes by 2500x and claimed to have found not only the aforementioned single figure, but images of all the witnesses present when the tilma was first revealed before Zumárraga in 1531, plus a small family group of mother, father, and a group of children, in the center of the Virgin’s eyes, fourteen people in all.
Numerous Catholic websites repeat an unsourced claim that in 1936 biochemist Richard Kuhn analyzed a sample of the fabric and announced that the pigments used were from no known source, whether animal, mineral or vegetable. Dr. Philip Serna Callahan, who photographed the icon under infrared light, declared from his photographs that portions of the face, hands, robe, and mantle had been painted in one step, with no sketches or corrections and no visible brush strokes.
With the Papal Brief Non Est Equidem of May 25, 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of what was then called New Spain, corresponding to Spanish Central and Northern America, and approved liturgical texts for the Holy Mass and the Breviary in her honor. Pope Leo XIII granted new texts in 1891 and authorized coronation of the image in 1895. Pope Pius X proclaimed her patron of Latin America in 1910. Pope Pius XII declared the Virgin of Guadalupe “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas” in 1945, and “Patroness of the Americas” in 1946. Pope John XXIII invoked her as “Mother of the Americas” in 1961, referring to her as Mother and Teacher of the Faith of All American populations, and in 1966 Pope Paul VI sent a Golden Rose to the shrine.
In July 16, 1935, Pope Pius XI declared Our Lady of Guadalupe to be the Heavenly Patroness of the Philippines and was signed and attested by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII). This was revised in September 12, 1942, when Guadalupe became the secondary “Patroness of the Philippines” when Pope Pius XII installed the Immaculate Conception as the Principal Patroness of the Filipino people through the Papal Bull Impositi Nobis, though her feast day is still widely celebrated in the archipelago. Today, the Blessed Virgin Mary under this title of Our Lady of Guadalupe is especially invoked by the Catholic bishops and laypeople who oppose the legalization of abortion and the passage of the Philippine Reproductive Health Bill.
Pope John Paul II visited the shrine in the course of his first journey outside Italy as Pope from January 26–31, 1979, and again when he beatified Juan Diego there on May 6, 1990. In 1992 he dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe a chapel within St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. At the request of the Special Assembly for the Americas of the Synod of Bishops, he named Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of the Americas on January 22, 1999 (with the result that her liturgical celebration had, throughout the Americas, the rank of solemnity), and visited the shrine again on the following day.
On July 31, 2002, the Pope canonized Juan Diego before a crowd of 12 million, and later that year included in the General Calendar of the Roman Rite, as optional memorials, the liturgical celebrations of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (December 9) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12).
Devotions and Veneration
The shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world. Over the Friday and Saturday of December 11 to 12, 2009, a record number of 6.1 million pilgrims visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the apparition.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is considered the Patroness of Mexico and the Continental Americas; she is also venerated by Native Americans, on the account of the devotion calling for the conversion of the Americas. Replicas of the tilma can be found in thousands of churches throughout the world, and numerous parishes bear her name.
Due to a claim that her black girdle indicates pregnancy on the image, the Blessed Virgin Mary, under this title is popularly invoked as Patroness of the Unborn and a common image for the Pro-Life movement.
Buildings Named in Honor of Guadalupe
- The Basilica of Guadalupe, the shrine founded on the original site on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City
- Fresco Cycle of The Miracles of the Virgin of Guadalupe by Fernando Leal, at Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City
- The Basílica of Guadalupe in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico
- The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zamora, Michoacán, Mexico.
- The Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe in Dallas, Texas, United States.
- The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, United States.
- The National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Cebu City, Philippines
- The National Shrine of Our Lady Of Guadalupe in Makati City, Philippines.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, Des Plaines, Illinois, United States.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chicago, Illinois, United States
- Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Puchong, Selangor, Malaysia.
- Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States.
- Basílica Menor de Santa María de Guadalupe de El Carrizal, Falcón, Venezuela
- Basílica Menor de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
- Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Valladolid, Negros Occidental, Philippines.