Each day around the world, Her name is invoked on the innumerable lips of Her devotees. And in the past four-hundred-and-eighty years since Her first appearance on Tepeyac Hill, an area just north of what is present day Mexico City, Her image—at once sacred and iconic—has been translated, multiplied and re-produced innumerable times and in just as many conceivable forms and methods, from high art to Pop and kitsch art: tattoos; statues; religious candles, medals, prayer cards and figurines; posters; graffiti murals; mosaics; stained-glass windows; flags and banners; T-shirts; jewellery; She has even been caricatured in sugar-paste as a miniature figurine to crown the tops of cupcakes—all have borne Her image. Her shrine—one of the oldest and most renowned in the world—is the most visited in the world, drawing an estimated ten million visitors from around the globe annually, all of whom seeking Her intercession. And as with other of Her famous shrines—most notably, Lourdes (the Midi-Pyrenees village situated in France), Fatima (Portugal), and, more recently, Medjugorje (located in the southern part of Bosnia Herzegovina, in what was formerly the Republic of Yugoslavia)—pilgrims flock to Mexico City in droves not only to unburden themselves, but in search of spiritual, emotional as well as physical healing from Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The story of Mary's apparitions in Mexico and the rise of Her international fame as Our Lady of Guadalupe and Patroness of the Americas, began, as most of Her apparitions are wont to do, quietly and very simply, in 1531, to a humble indigenous peasant. (As is also Her custom, the Virgin has, historically, preferred to appear and make Her requests known to children and people of the humblest backgrounds.) And so, at daybreak on the morning of Saturday, December 9th, 1531, it began, unassumingly enough, with the dulcet sounds of bird-song. As was his habit to do, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Náhuatl Indian who was one of the first converts to the newly-imported Catholic faith of the vanquishing Spaniards (the Conquistadors, under Hernando Cortez, had first brought and introduced Christianity to Mexico upon their arrival there on November 8th, 1519; twelve Franciscan missionaries followed on May 24th, 1524), was walking in the pre-dawn hours the six miles necessary to celebrate Holy Mass and attend catechism lessons at the the Church of Santiago in Tlatelolco when, as he reached and was about to pass Tepeyac Hill (as he routinely did on his daily trek), he suddenly heard what he took to be wonderful music coming from the top of the hill. To the 55-year old widower Diego, whose wife, Maria Lucia (her original Aztec, pre-baptismal name was Malitzin), had died childless two years earlier in 1529, it sounded like the sweetest melody—a veritable choir of singing birds (in the Aztec tradition, the music of songbirds presaged a divine occurrence). Suddenly and as quickly as it had begun, the singing stopped. At that instant, from above the mount, he heard the gentle voice of a young woman, calling him by name in his native Náhuatl language: “Juan, Juan Diego, Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” Climbing to the top of the rocky hill, there, a sight like no other, met Diego's eyes: a young Aztec Indian woman or girl (as some accounts identify her) of dark olive-toned complexion and incomparable beauty stood, seemingly bathed with glorious light—and she, herself, emanated rays of light brighter than those of the sun's at its zenith.
(Quote & sources: Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995:102; maryourmother.net, undated)
Completely & skillfully formed by the artful utilization and arrangement of the natural colouring & veining found within various pieces of square-cut marble stone tiles to re-create the iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this wonderful mosaic was created by Nick of San Francisco & intended for a fountain installation.
Once She had caught Diego's attention, the young woman questioned where he was hurrying to, asking: “Juan, smallest and dearest of my little children, where are you going?”Juan explained that he was heading to the town of Tlatelolco to hear Mass and receive religious instruction.The young Lady then revealed Her identity and made her intentions known to him:“I want you to know who I am. I am the Virgin Mary, Mother of the One True God, of Him who gives life. He is Lord and Creator of heaven and earth. I desire that there be built a temple [a trecoali in the Aztec dialect of Juan Diego's native language] at this place where I want to manifest Him; make Him known; give Him to all people through my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection. I truly am your Merciful Mother; your Mother and the Mother of all who dwell in this land, and of all mankind; of all those who love me; of those who cry to me; and of those who seek and place their trust in me. Here I shall listen to their weeping and their sorrows. I shall take them all to my heart and I shall cure their sufferings, afflictions and sorrows. So run now to Tenochtitlán [the original, indigenous name of the settlement that was to eventually become Mexico City] and tell the Lord Bishop all that you have seen and heard.”
(Sources & quotes: maryourmother.net, undated; Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995)
Non fecit taliter omni nationi
(“He hath not done this for any other nation” ~ Psalm 147:20)
Painting by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz | Mexico, mid-1700s
Complying with the instructions of the Virgin, the diligent Diego hurried to the Bishop's Palace, a Franciscan by the name of Don Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to convey the Virgin's request for a church to be built at Tepeyac Hill. There, after being rudely treated by the Bishop's servants, who were suspicious of the rustic peasant and kept him waiting for several hours, Diego was finally granted a brief audience with Bishop Zumárraga. Although the Bishop was cordial, humouring Diego by listening politely to what he had to say on this first visit, he did not seem to place too much credence in the message relayed to him, merely promising that he would 'consider' the Lady's request for a church; Bishop Zumárraga ended the interview by breezily inviting his guest to visit him again at some later date in the future if he so wished. Essentially, Diego was sent off without any concrete commitments on the part of the Bishop. Feeling dismayed by his audience with the Bishop, Diego returned to the hill where he found the Virgin waiting for him. In the manner of Moses attempting to evade his consecrated mission by God to free His people from their bondage in Egypt, the self-doubting Diego implored the Blessed Virgin to send someone else in his stead, someone more worthy, “For I am a nobody.” To which the Lady chided him, saying: “My little son, there are many I could send. But you are the one I have chosen for this task. So, tomorrow morning, go back to the Bishop. Tell him it is the Ever Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God who sends you, and repeat to him my great desire for a church in this place.”
So the next morning, Sunday, December the 10th, as he was advised, Juan Diego paid a second visit to the Bishop. And once again, after encountering much difficulty in seeing the Bishop, Diego was finally let in for another brief audience with Zumárraga, who was surprised to see him back again so soon; but, as he did the day before, the Bishop listened patiently to Diego's message. At this second interview, the Bishop directed Diego to request a sign from the Lady on the hill as proof of her identity. (In many cases involving Marian apparitions, the Virgin makes certain requests—usually for a church to be built on the very site of Her apparitions—and to which, the Church authorities always ask for signs as proof of authenticity of Her identity and appearances.) Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill and reported the Bishop's request for a sign. The Virgin assured Diego that She would provide him with one, and for which to return the following morning (Monday, December 11th). On his return home that day (to the village of Tolpetlac), however, Juan found his uncle, Juan Bernardino, the man with whom he and his wife had lived with and the man who had raised Diego from childhood, gravely ill. (Sources & quote: maryourmother.net, undated; Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995)
With his beloved uncle suffering from a high fever and dangerously near death, Diego decided to forgo his pre-scheduled, promised meeting with the Blessed Virgin and to remain by his dying uncle's bedside the whole of Monday. Sensing the end was close at hand, on the morning of Tuesday, the 12th of December, Bernardino urged his nephew to go to Tlatelolco and fetch a priest from the Church of Santiago to administer the Last Sacraments. Juan set out immediately; but, in order to reach the church, Diego had to pass Tepeyac Hill—there was no avoiding it. Afraid that he had incurred the Virgin's wrath and displeasure for not meeting Her the day before as planned and hoping to avoid Her, Diego circumvented the hill—instead of treading his usual route on the western side of the hill, he chose, instead, to walk around its eastern side. But, as he had feared, She appeared to him in the middle of the route, obstructing his path. “Least of My sons, what is the matter?” She enquired. Embarrassed by Her presence, Diego asked for Her forgiveness, and made inquiry after Her own well-being, “My Lady, why are you up so early? Are you well?” He then explained that his uncle was dying and desired him to find a priest for the Sacraments. Speaking of the promised meeting of the day before, he said: “It was no empty promise I made you yesterday morning. But my uncle fell ill.” To which the Lady reassured him, “My little son. Do not be distressed or afraid. Am I not your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?” and She affirmed his uncle's immediate recovery: “Your uncle will not die at this time. This very moment his health is restored. There is no reason now for your errand, so you can peacefully attend to mine.” With these comforting words, She sent Diego to the top of Tepeyac Hill. Unbeknownst to Diego, the sign for which the Bishop had requested of the Lady two days previously, was about to happen—and he, Diego, was its very instrument. “Go up to the top of the hill,” She instructed him, “cut the flowers that are growing there and bring them to me.” Diego must have been bewildered at the Virgin's instructions—flowers? In the middle of wintry December? And what sort of flowers would he find, there among the thorny cacti and barren, rocky crags?
Juan Diego—if he did indeed ponder such questions—soon found his answer and found it in abundance. Diego obediently did as the Virgin had bidden him to do and climbed to the top of the hill. There, growing in profusion, he found Castilian roses (Rosa de Castilla) where, astonishingly, none had grown before. He quickly set about cutting the flowers. As he cut them, Diego began to place the flowers within the folds of his tilmà (also known as tilmàtli)—the long, coarse and traditional Aztec cloth blanket-like cape or cloak, woven from the fibres of the Agave (cactus) plant and worn by men, often looped as a carryall. Filled with roses, Diego carried his tilmà back to the Virgin, who was waiting for his return below. She neatly rearranged the flowers and, when She had finished, tied the lower corners of the tilmà around Diego's neck so that the roses would not spill out and sent him to the Bishop's Palace, promising him that the Bishop would have his sign and finally believe: “You see, my little son, this is the sign I am sending to the Bishop. Tell him that now he has his sign, he should build the temple I desire in this place. Do not allow anyone but him to see what you are carrying. Hold both sides until you are in his presence and tell him how I intercepted you on your way to fetch a priest to give the Last Sacraments to your uncle; how I assured you he was perfectly healed and sent you up to cut these roses, and myself arranged them in this manner. Remember, little son, that you are my trusted ambassador, and this time the Bishop will believe all that you tell him.” With these parting words, Juan Diego, charged with his mission by the Virgin, dutifully headed to the Bishop's Palace; it was the last known instance that Diego ever saw the Blessed Virgin.
(Sources & quotes: maryourmother.net, undated; Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995; Barnett, R. A., mexconnect.com, November 11, 2009)
Juan Diego is here depicted unfurling his tilmà before Juan de Zumárraga—appointed by Charles V of Spain as the first Bishop of Mexico City [Tenochtitlán] and Protector of the Indians in December of 1528—who had demanded proof of the Virgin's apparitions, revealing the miraculous image of the Virgin for the very first time.
On arrival at the Bishop's Palace (and after yet another lengthy wait), Diego, as instructed by the Virgin, explained to Bishop Zumárraga all that had transpired earlier that morning, including Her reassurance about his dying uncle's immediate recovery. Then, Diego reached behind his neck and untied the corners of his tilmà. To the astoundment of the Bishop and members of his entourage, as the Castilian roses that Diego had gathered on top of Tepeyac Hill tumbled to the floor, there, on his coarse tilmà, was revealed for the very first time, the image of the Blessed Virgin—exactly as Diego had described Her to the Bishop on his two, previous visits: within a luminous, unearthly cloud (and supported by a puerile angel), there stood, on the crescent of the moon, a resplendent, dark-skinned young Indian woman, her black hair parted in the middle and with eyes modestly downcast; Her hands together and Her head piously inclined in an attitude of silent, contemplative prayer, She irradiated beams of light, as though Her whole being was illuminated from within by an inner, incandescent light; She wore a full-length blue mantle that covered Her head and which fell, on either side, to Her feet; Her mantle was studded with golden stars and edged entirely with a border of gold; and beneath her clasped hands, the ends of a thick, tied black sash, with which Her richly embroidered and patterned gown is cinched, are just visible. Dumbfounded, the awestruck Bishop, who had been sitting in his chair before the unveiling, fell to his knees, along with his retinue of attendants, in adoration: beyond his wildest expectations, it was the irrefutable proof and unmistakable sign that Bishop Zumárraga had requested. Overwhelmed by the miracle of the tilmà, the Bishop untied it from around Diego's neck and placed the tilmà in his private chapel.
News of the image, miraculously imprinted on the tilmà, quickly spread and crowds of inquisitive people came to see this wondrous image for themselves. The next day, Wednesday, the 13th of December, Juan Diego's tilmà was taken to the Cathedral (the throngs of people interested to see the image grew so great that the Bishop was obliged to move the tilmà from his private chapel to the Cathedral so that all may have the opportunity to see, marvel and to pay homage). Meanwhile, Diego—who, at Bishop Zumárraga's invitation, had spent the night before as a guest at the Bishop's Palace—took the Bishop to the spot on Tepeyac Hill where the apparitions had taken place in the previous days. (The first church—a small chapel, in fact—was hastily erected at the site of the apparitions by order of Bishop Zumárraga; so many people enthusiastically volunteered to assist in the construction project that the chapel was completed by Christmas Day). After which, Diego then returned to his village where his uncle, Juan Bernardino, was awaiting him, completely and miraculously restored to health—just as the Virgin had promised.
His uncle described to Diego his own, simultaneous encounter with the beautiful Lady: at the very hour and moment that She was appearing to Diego at Tepeyac Hill, and while he, Juan Bernardino, lay dying, waiting for the priest to come and administer to him the Last Sacraments, a beautiful young woman appeared to him by his bedside. Surrounded by a soft light that entirely filled his darkened room and identifying Herself asthe one “...who crushes the serpent” (possibly a veiled reference to Genesis 3:15), the Lady assured him of his recovery and had comforted him with the promise that he would be restored to health; She also informed him that She had sent his nephew to the Bishop in Tenochtitlán with an image of Herself. Just before de-materializing, She had advised Bernardino, “Call me and call my image Santa Maria de Guadalupe.” (It is generally believed that the Virgin, when speaking to Bernardino in his native Náhuatl, used the word coatlaxopeuh—or coatlallope—to identify Herself and which is pronounced “quatlasupe;” it sounds very similar to the Spanish word “Guadalupe.” As was just noted above, coatlaxopeuh means “the one who crushes the serpent”: Coa meaning “serpent,”tla being the noun ending which can be interpreted as “the,” while xopeuh means “to crush” or “stamp out.”) When they heard this, the Spanish Franciscans were utterly delighted: in that era, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Estremadura, was the most famous Marian shrine in all of Spain.
The day after Christmas, on December 26th, 1531, a great and solemn religious procession brought Diego's tilmà to Tepeyac. (In the procession, the tilmà wascarried by Juan Diego and Zumárraga.) For his part and until he died on May 30th, 1548, Juan Diego lived in a hut next to the chapel, where he related his story of the apparitions to visiting pilgrims. (Bishop Juan de Zumárraga also died that same year, 1548—on June 3rd, a mere four days after Juan Diego.) Likewise, after his death on May 15th, 1544, Juan Bernardino's simple dwelling in the village of Tolpetlac was also converted into a chapel. (The happenings at Tepeyac Hill were the first Marian apparitions in the New World to be officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.) (Sources & quotes: Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995; maryourmother.net, undated; olrl.org, undated; campus.udayton.edu, 2011; michaeljournal.org, 2002; Allegri, R., Our Lady's eyes, saintanthonyofpadua.net, 2011)
(Photo from karly1995 [Karla Barbecho] ~ May 28, 2010)
Made of a coarse fibre woven from the Metl or Agave (cactus) plant—also known as the maguey plant—Juan Diego's tilmà (traditional Aztec cloak or cape) measures 5.5 x 4.5 feet and is assembled from two separate pieces of material joined together with a seam stitched with a thread of the same fibre.
The central seam of the tilmà on which the miraculous & inexplicable image of the Virgin appears, is just discernible. It now hangs in the (New) Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, an object of fervent veneration & devotion, as it has been for 480 years; the New Basilica, completed in 1976, is one of the greatest Marian pilgrimage sites & shrines in all of Christendom and foremost in the Western Hemisphere.
For several reasons, to the indigenous Aztec population, the apparitions of the Virgin—and Her image left on the tilmà—held great significance. Firstly, the Lady had appeared as one of them (and to one of them and not to a Spaniard), an Aztec Indian woman who spoke in Náhuatl, their native language. Secondly, as Juan Diego had explained, the Lady appeared on the hill at Tepeyac, the original site of an Aztec temple dedicated to Tonantzin (the Aztec Mother-Goddess of the Earth) that once stood there before the arrival of the Conquistadors who had destroyed it, razing it to the ground. The choice of the Virgin to appear on Tepeyac Hill was highly significant: this, the population took, was the clear signal that the Blessed Virgin was the Mother of the True God; it also signified that Christianity was to be adopted and replace their former Aztec religion. Thirdly, the native population grasped the message of the tilmà: Christ had sacrificed Himself for humanity. By doing so, Christ had, by His death, substituted the traditional human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztec priests to appease their gods. (Reportedly, at least twenty-thousand men, women and children were sacrificed annually; it is also alleged, for example, that in 1487, some eighty-thousand captives were sacrificed in a single four-day-long dedication ceremony of a new temple in Tenochtitlán.) Within seven years, between the first appearance of the tilmà in 1531 and 1538, it is estimated that eight million Aztec inhabitants of Mexico converted to Catholicism. (Sources: maryourmother.net, undated; olrl; michaeljournal.org, 2002; Allegri, R., Our Lady's eyes, saintanthonyofpadua.net, 2011)
As it is related, the above (condensed) account of the apparitions that transpired at Tepeyac Hill, just north of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), has come down to us largely through the Nican Mopohua (which roughly translates as, "Here it is told" or "Here it is written"), the first and oldest written record of the events. Written sometime between 1540 and 1545 (sources vary) in the original Náhuatl language of the Aztecs by Don Antonio Valeriano, one of the first Aztec Indians to be educated by the Franciscans at the Colegio de la Santa Cruz—and himself a convert to Catholicism—the Nican Mopohua is considered a masterpiece of Náhuatl literature. It is an invaluable source of information as it gives an exact, chronological order of the phases of the apparitions and from which all other versions of the story descend. The Nican Mopohua now resides in the New York Public Library. (In 1995, a deerskin manuscript dated 1548 and explicitly mentioning Juan Diego by name, his date of death, as well as a brief inscription in Náhuatl, was discovered in a private collection. This manuscript also contains two illustrations of the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Tepeyac Hill; more significantly, it bears the signatures of Don Antonio Valeriano along with his teacher, a Franciscan friar by the name of Bernardino de Sahagún. That document is now referred to as the Codice 1548 (or Codex Escalada); the Codice 1548 has, reportedly, been determined to be genuine.)
Then a century later, in 1648, a Jesuit by the name of Miguel Sánchez published the first work on the Lady of Guadalupe in Spanish entitled, Imagen de la Virgen Maria Madre de Dios de Guadalupe. (Miguel Sánchez's book argued that the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe was an authentically American experience, emphasizing Her appearance to a poor native peasant and stressed the fact of the Virgin's address to Juan Diego in Náhuatl.) Following Father Miguel Sánchez's publication, Friar Luís Lazo de la Vega published (also in the Náhuatl language) Huey Tlamahuezoltica in 1649, a collection of documents that also included excerpts from the Nican Mopohua. Then, a theologian by the name of Luís Becerra, published another description of the events in 1675. Finally, in 1688, Francisco de Florencia, a Jesuit professor of theology, issued his own account of the apparitions. And it is mainly due to the efforts of these four writers that the events surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe have been chronicled and preserved for posterity.
(Sources: maryourmother.net, undated; campus.udayton.edu, 2011; Anderson, C., & Chávez, E., Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, 2009; Barnett, R. A., mexconnect.com, November 11, 2009; Mueller, R. A., Virgin of Guadalupe, blueroadrunner.com, 2011)
The implication of the apparitions—as it was manifested in the miraculous image on Diego's tilmà—cannot be overstated as it held special and definite meaning to the indigenous Aztec population of that time. As was mentioned above, not only had a celestial woman of incomparable beauty chosen to favour them by appearing on their soil, but She did so not to a conquering (Catholic) Spaniard but to a member of their own culture and heritage as one of their own: a dark-skinned Indian maiden; She had even spoken in their own language, Náhuatl, and in their distinct dialect. Just as significantly, the image itself expressed its own meaning in the rich pictorial language of Aztec symbolism (such as the sun, moon, and stars—a synthesis of Christian and pre-Columbian iconography), the aspects of which could only be read and immediately understood by the Indian population—it was as though She was speaking directly to them, bypassing the need for Spanish interpreters.
This is clearly evident in a few details which need to be iterated here. Her richly-patterned rose-coloured dress is adorned with a jasmine flower along with eight- and nine-petal heart-shaped flowers which, in Aztec culture, is indicative of an Aztec princess of noble birth. Her blue mantle signified the divinity of the gods while the colour itself, blue, represented life and unity. The stars which adorned Her mantle, indicated the new beginning of a new civilization. (It has also been suggested that the stars on the Virgin's mantle accurately chart the constellations over the Mexican skies. The starry map, as it is portrayed on the mantle, is consistent with what astronomers believe to have been the constellation in the skies above Mexico City [Tenochtitlán] on the day that the image was formed: December 12th, 1531.) Furthermore, the Virgin—Virgen Morenita or La Morenita [“the dark Virgin” or “the little dark woman”] as She is nicknamed—appeared on the day of the winter solstice, believed by the Aztecs to be the birth date of the sun. Her person is surrounded by and radiates brilliant rays of light and Her head and face are encompassed by twelve of the solar rays. Her image can either be interpreted to mean that She is standing in front of the sun, blocking and eclipsing it, or that Her own light is more dazzling and intense than that of the sun's. Either way, to the Aztecs, this signified that She is greater than and has precedence over the sun god, the most powerful of all Aztec deities. Furthermore, and as if to drive home the unambiguous message of Her solar prominence, She stands on the moon supported by an angel with outstretched wings, wings like those of an eagle—this was a clear indication of Her superiority and dominion over the night and its lunar god—the nocturnal god; therefore, it was symbolic of Her divine nature and power over darkness.
The jasmine flower—which takes the shape of an Indian cross—in the centre of Her dress and appears over Her womb, is a symbol of the Divine. As it is centred on the Virgin's dress, so the shape of the Indian cross in the form of a jasmine flower was, to the Aztecs, considered the centre of the cosmic order. The jasmine flower indicated that the Christ child that Mary carried in Her womb is Divinely ordained and the centre of the universe. Another indication of Her maternity is the black band or sash with which Her gown is cinched above Her waist—according to Aztec custom, it signified pregnancy, explicitly indicating that She was with child. Around Her neck, the Virgin wears what appears to be the emblem of Christ and Christianity—a black cross (in the form of a pendant or a brooch) signifying, therefore, that She is both the bearer as well as the follower of Christ. The signs all clearly point to one overall meaning: Mary is bringing forth Christ, Her Son, to the New World and She is bringing Him through one of their own. (Sources: maryourmother.net, undated; olrl.org, undated)
Above left, the jasmine flower & the black maternity band are highlighted | Above right, the constellation of the winter solstice as it appeared over the Mexican skies at the time of the apparitions & represented by the stars which adorn the Virgin's mantle.
It is inevitable that, over the centuries, countless miracles, cures and favours granted have been attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 1629, great floods claimed thousands of lives (the number suggested is around thirty thousand people) and threatened the valley of Mexico. In desperation, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was processed through the streets from Tepeyac Hill to Mexico City; only then did the great waters abate. Then about a century afterwards, in the early 1700's, a horrific plague culled the lives of seven-hundred thousand people; once the Virgin of Guadalupe was declared as the Patroness of Mexico on April 27th, 1737, however, the disease quickly dissipated.
But none is more miraculous than the image of the Virgin and the tilmà on which it is imprinted. For one thing, the image has remained inexplicable to scientists—science simply cannot account for it; it defies explanation and there has never been a shortage of interested experts wanting to examine it. Over the centuries, the tilmà has been the object of intense scrutiny and the subject of examination and study by authoritative specialists from a wide variety of fields:painters, doctors and scientists have all had an opportunity to inspect it. In 1936, for instance, a professor in Mexico City by the name of Fritz Hahn, extracted two fibres from the tilmà—one red, one yellow. Professor Hahn then brought the fibres to Germany for examination where, Dr. Richard Kuhn, a Nobel Prize winner and director of the Department of Chemistry at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, concluded that the fibres he examined contained no artificial colouring—neither mineral, animal, vegetal nor synthetic. Further tests have been undertaken and, despite the exhaustive research and analyzation by numerous experts, they have all come to the same conclusion as Dr. Kuhn had in 1936: there is no trace of either paint or dye of any kind and no one has been able to determine the source of the colour or the cause of the image. (Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), an eighteenth-century Mexican artist, determined that it was impossible for the rough surface of the tilmà to support any type of paint. An unusual character of the tilmà being that, at close proximity, the features are in no way remarkable; however, at six or seven feet away from the image, the tone and depth emerge and the image becomes not only more radiant but also photogenic.)
Aside from the absence of paint and the tell-tale signs of brush strokes, infra-red radiation photographic analysis have also been independently conducted (and which support Dr. Kuhn's finds in 1936)—once in Mexico by specialists of the Kodak Corporation and again by Dr. Philip C. Callahan, a research biophysicist at the University of Florida, in May of 1979. Both examinations have confirmed that no corrections, no underlying sketch, and no sizing was used to render the tilmà's surface smooth; nor has any varnish been applied to that surface to protect the image. In fact, the Kodak specialists have likened the image to a colour photograph. Similarly, Dr. Callahan also ruled out any signs of brush strokes, over-painting, varnishing, sizing, or even preliminary drawings by an artist in the body of the image. Dr. Callahan determined that the qualities of colour are such that the image on the tilmà uses the weave of the cloth in such a way that it could not have been manufactured by human hands. The colours of the tilmà remain vibrant and un-faded; likewise, it also remains a baffling enigma to science.
Secondly, considering the natural material of the tilmà, all sources agree that normally, such a garment would not survive more than twenty or thirty years, at the most, after its manufacture. (Moreover, the fact that the seam that binds the two pieces of fabrics together to form the tilmà, sewn by a single thread or filament of the same, natural fibre, still holds after four-hundred-and-eighty years is just as astonishing—generally speaking, it is well nigh impossible for a natural thread to bind two heavier materials of cloth together for more than ten years; certainly not for this length of time.) It must also be considered and taken into account that the tilmà has been an object of veneration for centuries, exposed to light (natural and artificial) as well as to moisture, humidity, and the unavoidable the pull of gravity.
(Sources: michaeljournal.org, 2002; olrl.org, undated; maryourmother.net, undated)
Having survived the vicissitudes of time, in the twentieth century, the tilmà was nearly lost to history by an act of violence typical of a brutal century replete with heinous acts of malevolence and violence, were it not, it is believed, for the favourable protection of the Virgin Herself. On November 14th, 1921, in a period of governmental persecution, a worker named Luciano Perez, came to lay a wreath of flowers directly below the image of the Virgin on the main altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe during the High Mass. Hidden within the wreath, Perez had implanted a bomb which detonated when he left the church. The force of the blast destroyed the stone steps leading to the altar, the candelabras and it demolished the stained-glass windows of the Basilica—the resonance of the bomb was so strong that it even shattered some of the windows of the neighbouring homes situated near the Basilica. When the smoke and chaos had cleared, the congregation, who had gathered there to attend Mass, was amazed to find that the thin glass pane protecting the tilmà had been left untouched—it had not even been so much as cracked by the explosion—and remained intact. Additionally, no one present at the congregation that day was harmed, either.
(Sources: maryourmother.net, undated; michaeljournal.org, 2002)
But it was also thanks to the technological advances of the twentieth century that have helped reveal yet more remarkable wonders hidden in the tilmà and which had hitherto lain undiscovered. In 1929, while studying some photographic negatives of the image, Alfonso Marcue Gonzales, the official photographer of the Basilica of Guadalupe found what appeared to him to be a clear image of a bearded man reflected in the right eye of the Virgin. Gonzales decided to inform the authorities of the Basilica; he was told, however, to keep completely silent about his discovery—which he did. More than twenty years would pass before another photographer came to the same discovery and conclusion. In 1951, José Carlos Salinas Chávez, also an official photographer of the Basilica of Guadalupe at the time, declared that he, too, saw a human figure in the left as well as in the right eye of the Virgin. Since then, many people have had the opportunity to closely inspect both eyes of the Virgin on the tilmà, including more than twenty physicians and ophthalmologists. One of them, Raffael Torija Lavoignet, obtained permission to study the image without its protective glass covering. Between 1956 and 1958, Lavoignet conducted five separate studies using magnifying lenses and ophthalmoscopes; he also confirmed the presence of images of human figures in the Virgin’s eyes.
In an online article, entitled Our Lady's eyes, author Renzo Allegri explains the phenomenon further by writing: “It is known that in the human eye, three images of observed objects are formed which are called the ‘images of Purkinje-Sanson’ after the two researchers who discovered this in the nineteenth century. Two of these are ‘upright’, the first on the external surface of the cornea and the second on the external surface of the crystalline lens. The third image which is upside down, appears on the internal surface of the crystalline lens. In theory, such reflected images, can be seen not only in the eyes of a living person, but also in a photograph of a human being. However, they can never be seen in the eyes of a human face painted on material. Yet, several researchers had already witnessed reflected figures in the pupils of the Virgin’s image which dates back to 1531. This phenomenon became even more sensational once it was observed and studied with more sophisticated technology linked to computers.” (Source & quote: Allegri, R., Our Lady's eyes, saintanthonyofpadua.net, 2011)
In 1979, a Peruvian engineer and specialist in computer science by the name of Dr. José Aste Tonsmann arrived in Mexico from the United States. Dr. Tonsmann's involvement with the tilmà and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, of whom he knew nothing before his arrival in Mexico, came about by chance: he came across an article in an American magazine which outlined the studies of the Virgin's eyes conducted by José Carlos Salinas Chávez in the early 1950s. His interest and curiosity piqued, Dr. Tonsmann contacted the Basilica's directors and requested a meeting. What followed could only be described as an intense and extensive twenty-three year study of the tilmà. Using the most up-to-date equipment, the like of which is used by NASA to sift through photographs taken by satellites in outer space, Dr. Tonsmann has thoroughly studied the Virgin of Guadalupe’s eyes and, by using 25,000 illuminated points per millimetre square, he has been able to enlarge them up to 2,500 times their original size.
It is worth quoting Dr. Tonsmann's findings as they are relayed in Renzo Allegri's article: “After filtering and processing the digitised images of the eyes to eliminate ‘noise’ and enhance them, he [Dr. Tonsmann] made some astonishing discoveries: not only one person was clearly present in both eyes, but an entire scene, in which there were about ten people. Clearly pictured there is a native Mexican seated naked, with his legs crossed, long hair tied back in a pony tail, an earring and a ring on one finger. Next to him, there is an old man who is quite bald, with a white beard, straight nose, bushy eyebrows and a tear rolling down his right cheek: this character has been identified as the Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. On his left, there is a young man who, we imagine, is Juan Gonzales, a translator for the bishop. Further along, there is the profile of an old man with a beard and moustache, large roman nose, prominent cheekbones, sunken eyes and half closed lips, who seems to be wearing a pointed hood: he is a native Indian and he is opening his shawl as he turns to face the old bald man. The scene described thus appears to be Juan Diego bringing the roses to the bishop. The Virgin was present, her eyes took a picture of the scene and its images in the moment she appeared on the native Indian’s shawl, remaining preserved forever.” (Source & quote: Allegri, R., Our Lady's eyes, saintanthonyofpadua.net, 2011)
In modern as well as in earlier epochs, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was transformed from one of religious icon to that of potent symbol of revolutionary change and social justice. In the mid-eighteenth century, the devotion to the Virgin became especially prevalent among the indigenous people, who saw their attachment to Her as a sign of liberation and nationality and it became a deeply personal devotion. In the nineteenth century, She became a symbol of freedom for the oppressed native population.
During the revolutionary period of 1810, the Virgin's image acquired liberationist associations when Father Hidalgo adopted it for his standard. And in 1910 and 1911, during the period known as the Mexican Revolutionary Wars, Emiliano Zapata's insurgent army carried the Virgin of Guadalupe's image into battle and made Her name the rallying battle cry: “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe and down with bad government;” She thus became the 'female warrior' of the revolution. Since then, both clerics and rebels alike have turned to Her power, Her authority, and Her image in their attempts to overthrow oppressive conditions and to comment on gross injustices. When The United Farm Workers went on strike in the 1960s, for example, César Chavez boldly marched with a banner bearing Her image. Similarly, in the 1970s, radical artists such as Ester Hernández who, in 1975, created a work entitled The Virgin of Guadalupe Defending the Rights of Chicanos, re-interpreted the Virgin as a warrior-defender of minorities and minority rights. Yolanda López also created a series of paintings and collages in 1978 in which the serene Virgin was converted into a more relevant, feminist role model for contemporary (Chicana) women. Two paintings by the Mexican Jesuit artist P. Gonzalo Carrasco Espinosa (1859-1936) in 1933, The Virgin of Guadalupe Defending Mexican Youth, depict the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe battling demons: in one, She impedes and frustrates the efforts of a demon, preventing it from harming the children in Her charge—while safeguarding the children around Her, She hoists an infant safely out of the demon's reach; in the other (and in the manner of Saint George), She is depicted as actively slaying the demonic entities of Hell.
(Sources & quote: Durham, M. S., Miracles of Mary: Apparitions. Legends, and Miraculous Works of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1995:107; Mueller, R. A., Virgin of Guadalupe, blueroadrunner.com, 2011)
The Virgin of Guadalupe Defending Mexican Youth
(Paintings by P. Gonzalo Carrasco Espinosa ~ 1933)
In literature, too, the Virgin of Guadalupe has also surfaced, where She has been utilized by feminists as the antidote to oppressive patriarchy. In a 1996 collection known as “Goddess of the Americas,” the Virgin is linked with Her ancient Aztec counterpart, the Mother-Goddess Tonantzin; here, She is a complex, mystical and transcendental figure who is also associated with African Orishas and other female deities—She is the Earth Mother or the Great Mother Goddess. In these writings, Mary does not only occupy Her traditional, Catholic role of Queen of Heaven, but by Her very essence evokes the pre-Hispanic cosmos as well. She is seen not in Her (secondary and minor) role as the Mother of God, but as a female goddess in Her own right, independent of the patriarchal God of the Bible; She empowers and encourages Her feminist daughters to seek the hidden (female) face and meaning of god (or goddess), a feminine archetype of the Divine.
(Source: Mueller, R. A., Virgin of Guadalupe, blueroadrunner.com, 2011)
Just as the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has been adopted and adapted by a multitude of people for various reasons and causes, so also has the sanctuary in which the tilmà has been housed. Over time, the original chapel, constructed on the spot where the apparitions first occurred, has evolved and seen its share of changes. It began in 1709, when a larger, twin-towered church (now known as the 'Old Basilica') was erected on the site of the first sanctuary, dedicated on December 26th, 1531. (When this Basilica was deemed too dangerous to occupy due to sinking foundations, it became necessary for a modern structure, called the 'New Basilica,' to be built, and a new church was constructed nearby in 1904). After a two-year construction project, the present round edifice (completed in 1976 and constructed on site in replacement of the 1904 structure) stands next to the still-existing Old Basilica. Juan Diego's tilmà now hangs over the High Altar of this new Basilica. (Sources: Barnett, R. A., mexconnect.com, November 11, 2009; michaeljournal.org, 2002)
Through the centuries, the Catholic Church of Rome has also, under the pontificates of several popes and in official recognition and acknowledgment of the veracity of Her apparitions in Mexico, bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe successive titles. As early as 1737, Pope Clement XII (pontificate 1730-1740) declared Her to be the Patroness of Mexico City (on April 27th). In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV (pontificate: 1740-1758) designated Her as the Patroness and Protectress of New Spain. She was crowned and entitled Queen of Mexico by Pope Leo XIII (pontificate: 1878-1903) in 1895. In 1910, the year of revolutionary wars and a time of upheaval in Mexico, She was officially acknowledged and invested as Patroness of Latin America under the pontificate of Pope Pius X (pontificate: 1903-1914); thirty-five years later, in 1945, She was honoured and coronated, once again, by Pope Pius XII (pontificate: 1939-1958) with the title of Empress of the Americas.
On January 22nd, 1999, Pope John Paul II (pontificate: 1978-2005) bequeathed on the Virgin of Guadalupe the title of Patron Saint of the Americas; that year Her Basilica was the most visited Catholic shrine in the world.
(Sources: Mueller, R. A., Virgin of Guadalupe, blueroadrunner.com, 2011; Barnett, R. A., mexconnect.com, November 11, 2009; catholicsites.org, 2011)
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe is more than a shrine. It is a national—even an intercontinental—monument. Ever since the sixteenth century, and for countless generations of devout Mexican Catholics, Juan Diego's tilmà has been an object of veneration. Its message, like the image imprinted upon it, has impressed itself on the soul and collective psyche of the Mexican people. Likewise, the compelling image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has been inextricably woven into the cultural life of the Mexican nation—She has, in essence, become the pivotal heart and emblem of Mexican culture, its foremost Icon. Pope Leo XIII, who exalted Her as Queen of Mexico, expressed this very sentiment when he addressed the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1895: “The Mexican people rejoice before your wonderful image ... may it preserve its faith, strong and immovable.” (Source & quote: campus.udayton.edu, 2011)
Juan Diego was officially canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II on July 31st, 2002, at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City (previously, the Vatican had formally acknowledged and declared Diego's visions to be a miracle in 1745); Diego's feast day is December 9th, in commemoration of the date of the Virgin's fist apparition to him on Tepeyac Hill as he hurried on his way to attend early morning Mass in the town of Tlatelolco. And today, December the 12th, is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, marking the 480th anniversary of Juan Diego's third visitation and presentation—for the very first time—of the miraculous image, imprinted on his tilmà, to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga—and to the rest of the world. (Sources: Barnett, R. A., mexconnect.com, November 11, 2009; maryourmother.net, undated)