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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART: The Virgin of Guadalupe

The Virgin Mary is celebrated by Christians as the model wife, mother, and heavenly queen. Her representation as the Virgin of Guadalupe is iconic throughout Mexico, appearing in churches, homes, businesses, and even vehicles. She is the patron saint of Mexico, a symbol of religious faith, and the binding that unites all Mexicans, regardless of social standing or skin color. Indeed, her indigenous heritage is reflected in her brown skin, and connects her to the Aztec earth goddess, Tonantzin.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is an example of syncretism—the mingling of various cultures into something new. There are elements from ancient Spanish traditions, New World faith, and primordial Aztec beliefs; the Virgin of Guadalupe encompasses all three.

The Spanish conquerors brought with them a devotion to the Virgin Mary. Conquistador Hernán Cortés carried a small statue of the Madonna when he crossed the Atlantic. Very likely it was one of the Black Madonnas worshipped in Spain, whom they called La Morenita—the dark skinned lady. She was

particularly popular in Extremadura, the southern area of Spain where Cortez was born.

The legend of the dark skinned Madonna goes back to 13th century Spain, when a shepherd found a statue of the virgin on the banks of the Guadalupe River. A chapel was built in her honor, and Our Lady of Guadalupe became the most important Marian shrine in medieval Castile. One of the three major Black Madonnas in Spain, she was already the result of syncretism; the dark skin perhaps reflecting the Moorish influence during eight centuries in Spain. And the name Guadalupe itself is most likely a portmanteau, the blending of several words. The Arabic Waddi, valley, and lubb, the Latin word for wolf, creating Waddi-al-lubb “the valley of the wolves.” Say it out loud, and note the resemblance to the word Guadalupe.

The other two Black Madonnas are the Virgen del Pilar from Zaragoza, and the Montserrat Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia. The latter predates the Virgin of Guadalupe of Extremadura, since her image goes back to the Byzantine Empire in the 8th century.

According to legend, Benedictine monks attempted to move the statue because of danger posed by invading Saracens. Unable to move her, they instead built a monastery around the image.

Reverence for the Virgin Mary by Spanish invaders, continued in earnest in the New World. But the indigenous people were devoted to their own goddess Tonantzin, the Aztec deity, whose name in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) signifies “our mother.” Some historians question whether she was one particular goddess, or several female deities. According to contemporaneous writings by 16th century Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, the natives worshipped her in a temple on the hill of Tepeyac, on the outskirts of Tenotchtitalan, the site of today’s Mexico City. Early attempts by the Spanish friars to switch the natives’ fealty to Virgin Mary, were not successful. Not until a propitious apparition changed everything.



According to legend, on December 9, 1531, an indigenous man named Juan Diego was walking across the hill of Tepeyac, when a woman appeared and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native tongue. She claimed to be the Virgin Mary, and asked Juan Diego to go to the local bishop and request that a church be built in her honor on the hill. Naturally, the bishop dismissed the man’s claim, but Juan Diego would not give up. He returned to the hill three more times, with the lady asking for the same thing, and thrice more was rejected by the bishop. Finally, on December 12, the lady gave him something of substance to bring to the bishop. Before the startled eyes of Juan Diego a whole cluster of roses suddenly blossomed on the hill—an amazing sight since such roses did not grow in the New World, and particularly in the winter. The Virgin told him to gather the roses in his cloak, and bring them to the bishop, to convince him of her authenticity.

Juan Diego gathered the roses as told, brought them to the bishop. He threw his cloak before the bishop scattering the flowers at his feet. The flowers were astounding, but even more astounding was what appeared on the cloak—an image of the Virgin Mary herself. This convinced the bishop, and he ordered a basilica to be built on the site of the vision. The original basilica has been rebuilt, and stands on the hill in Mexico City, one of the most visited shrines in the world. The original image still hangs on the wall, and the faithful are convinced it was not made by human hands.

The story resonated with the native people, and their conversion to Christianity was made easier by the connection to their own mother-figure goddess. Many elements of the Virgin of Guadalupe harkened back to their devotion to Tonantzin—the dark skin color, like their own, was a clear connection. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe joined Marian iconography with features of Tonantzin. Studies have shown dozens of points of congruence, of which I will only address a few.

Many of the features on the Virgin of Guadalupe relate to Marian imagery from Revelation: “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The dove above her represents the Holy Spirit in a golden cloud. But many of the iconographic features relate to Tonantzin. The blue-green mantle was the color worn by Aztec royalty, and the black tassel around her waist indicated a pregnant Aztec woman of high social rank. The rays streaming behind are from the sun—the Aztec god Huitzlapochtli for the indigenous people—and her standing before him shows that she is superior to him.

Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe became extremely important in New Spain. Creoles identified with this New World mother of god, and the natives accepted her as their own because she had appeared to an indigenous man. Later, the eagle and cactus were often added at the feet of the Virgin, another symbol tying her to the Mexican people. Miracles were attributed to her, and in 1754, the pope declared her feast day on December 12, a date celebrated to the present time.

There is probably not a single church in Mexico that does not have a painting, or sculpture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. San Miguel de Allende is no exception, though not all her paintings have equal value.

Some of the most famous painters of New Spain were commissioned to paint her image, and we have a few represented in our churches.

Juan Baltazar Gomez, one of the most famous artists of New Spain, left a canvas depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe in San Rafael church. It is shown on the left.

In La Salud, there is one done by another well-known painter, Antonio de Torres. And in the Oratorio church there is a Virgin of Guadalupe, painted by Miguel Cabrera, an excellent New Spain painter from the 18th century.

Now that you are familiar with her story and iconography, I invite you to visit the churches and see her many depictions.  You can certainly find her images on many walls around the city, but the paintings showing the Virgin of Guadalupe in many of our churches are true artistic treasures, created by masters.

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