Today we're going to travel back to the time of the Conquistadors, when Spanish soldiers marched through Aztec jungles and spread Catholicism to the New World. We're going to examine an object that is central to faith in Mexico: An image called the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is basically Mexico's version of the Shroud of Turin. Both are pieces of fabric, hundreds of years old, on which appears an image said to be miraculous. Both are considered sacred objects. But the Virgin of Guadalupe is a much more powerful icon to many Mexicans. There's hardly anywhere you can go in Mexico and not find a reproduction of the image. Its importance as a religious and cultural symbol cannot be understated, for it came from the very hands of The Most Holy Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas.
A legend well known in Mexico tells how it came to be. In 1531, the Spanish had been occupying Mexico for about ten years. An indigenous peasant, Juan Diego, was walking in what's now Mexico City when he saw the glowing figure of a teenage girl on a hill called Tepeyac. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary, and asked him to build her a church on that spot. Diego recounted this to the Archbishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548). Zumárraga was skeptical and told Diego to return and ask her to prove her identity with a miracle. Diego did return, and encountered the apparition again. She told him to climb to the top of the hill and pick some flowers to present to the Bishop. Although it was winter and no flowers should have been in bloom, Juan Diego found an abundance of flowers of a type he'd never seen before. The Virgin Mary bundled the flowers into Diego's cloak, woven from common cactus fiber and called a tilma. When Juan Diego presented the tilma to Zumárraga, the flowers fell out and he recognized them as Castilian roses, not found in Mexico; but more significantly, the tilma had been miraculously imprinted with a colorful image of the Virgin herself. This actual tilma, preserved since that date and showing the familiar image of the Virgin Mary with her head bowed and hands together in prayer, is the Virgin of Guadalupe. It remains perhaps the most sacred object in all of Mexico.
The story is best known from a manuscript written in the Aztecs' native language Nahuatl by the scholar Antonio Valeriano (1531-1605), the Nican Mopohua. By the European watermark on its paper, it's known to have been written sometime after 1556. This was widely published in a larger collection in 1649 by the lawyer Luis Laso de la Vega. Zumárraga and Juan Diego were both dead by the time Valeriano wrote it, so where did he get his information?
A red flag that a number of historians have put forth is that Bishop Zumárraga was a prolific writer. Yet, in not a single one of his known letters, is there any mention of Juan Diego, his miraculous apparition, the roses, or the cloak bearing the image, or any other element of the story in which Zumárraga was alleged to have played so prominent a role.
Not everyone agrees. In the 2000 book in Spanish, Juan Diego, una Vida de Santidad que Marcó la Historia (A Life of Holiness that Made History), author Eduardo Chavez Sánchez gives, at some length, various quotations from letters by Zumárraga that he believes confirms the Juan Diego narrative. I found his list to be extraordinarily unconvincing, and I would honestly describe it as really desperate scraping of the bottom of the barrel to find a quote-minable quote. In fact, the only quote from Zumárraga I found that was remotely close was:
An Indian goes to Brother Toribio and all will be in praise of God.
That sounds great because he mentions an Indian talking to a Catholic figure, but there's no mention of this Indian's name, no mention in the Juan Diego stories of a Brother Toribio (that I could find), and no elements of the Juan Diego story included in this single-sentence snippet. So unless some more of Zumárraga's writings come to light, I'm going to agree with the historians who say Zumárraga wrote nothing of these events, which casts doubt on his role in something that would have been of such great importance to him.
The name Juan Diego itself suggests that the story was a fictional invention. It basically translates as John Doe, a generic everyman, whose identity is unimportant. This doesn't prove anything, since there certainly were real people named Juan Diego, but it is an intriguing element.
It is the actual image of Mary itself that tells us the most about its true history. As every schoolchild knows, Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was the Spanish Conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire and placed much of Mexico under Spanish control in 1521. He was born in a region of Spain called Extremadura, and grew up to revere Our Lady of Guadalupe, a statue of a black version of the Virgin Mary, at the Santa María de Guadalupe monastery in Extremadura. This statue is credited with miraculously helping to expel the Moors from Spain in the Reconquista. Cortés brought reproductions of this European image of Mary with him when he went to the New World. Her dark skin resembled the Aztecs, and she became the perfect icon for the missionaries who followed Cortés to rally the natives into Christianity.
One such missionary was Fray Pedro de Gante (1480-1572), a Franciscan monk from Belgium (born Pieter van der Moere) who learned the Aztec language and created the first European-style school in Mexico, San Jose de los Naturales. One of his promising art students was a young Aztec man with the Christian name Marcos Cipac de Aquino, one of three known prolific Aztec artists of the period. In 1555, the newly arrived Archbishop of Mexico, Alonso de Montúfar (1489-1572), successor to the deceased Zumárraga, was looking to commission a portrait of the Virgin Mary, as a sort of teaching aide to help convert the Aztecs. Montúfar found the young artist Marcos at de Gante's school. And so, in 1555, the Aztec artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary, with dark skin, with head slightly bowed and hands together in prayer, on a common cactus-fiber canvas. The painting was named the Virgin of Guadalupe according to the tradition Cortés brought from Spain. Although the Extremadura statue was not in this pose, the pose was still one of European tradition. The most often cited example of Mary in this exact pose is the painting A Lady of Mercy, attributed to Bonanat Zaortiga and on display at the National Art Museum of Catalunya, painted in the 1430's. Marcos followed more than a century of European tradition.
There was a pragmatic element to Montúfar's introduction of this painting and allowing it to be worshipped. Before the Conquistadors, Tepeyac was home to an Aztec temple, built to honor the Aztecs' own virgin goddess, Tonantzin. So rather than replacing the Aztec goddess, Montúfar's plan was simply to introduce Mary by giving Tonantzin a name and a face (recall that Marcos had painted the Virgin with dark skin). This process of using an existing belief system to graft on a new one has been called syncretism. Understandably, this exploitation of a pagan idol caused discomfort among some of the Franciscan priests, while many of the Dominicans welcomed the way it helped baptize 8,000,000 Aztecs.
The primary corroborating documentation of Marcos' painting is a report from the Church in 1556, when this growing disagreement between the Franciscans and the Dominicans prompted an investigation into the origins of the tilma. Two of the Franciscans submitted sworn statements in which they expressed their concern that worshipping the tilma was leading the Aztecs to return to their traditional pagan ways. One described the image as "a painting that the Indian painter Marcos had done" while another said it was "painted yesteryear by an Indian". Appearing on the side of the Dominicans, who favored allowing the Aztecs to worship the image, was Bishop Montúfar himself. As a result, the construction of a much larger church was authorized at Tepeyac, in which the tilma was mounted and displayed.
Significantly, the 1556 report is the most extensive documentation concerning the Virgin tilma of its century, and it makes no mention whatsoever of Juan Diego, the miraculous appearance of the image, or any other element from the legend. If the miracle story did exist at that time, it seems inconceivable that it could have been omitted from this report. This strongly supports the suggestion that the Juan Diego legend had not yet been conceived. It also supports that Valeriano's Nican Mopohua was written later.
The legend did get its first boost of testable evidence in 1995, which (in a case of suspiciously fortuitous timing) was after Juan Diego's beatification in 1990, while there was still debate over whether he should be canonized (he ultimately was, in 2002). A Spanish Jesuit named Javier Escalada produced a deerskin which pictorially depicted the Juan Diego legend and has become known as the Codex Escalada. The Codex also mentioned several historical people, and even bore the signature of a Franciscan historian, Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), dated 1548. Basically, it was the Perfect Storm of tailor-made evidence proving that the Juan Diego legend was the accepted history at the time. A little too tailor made though; no serious historians have supported its authenticity. The best analysis I've found is by Alberto Peralta of the Proyecto Guadalupe project. Based on its dubious unveiling, numerous inconsistencies, and other factors, Peralta concludes that it's impossible for the document to be authentic.
If the Virgin tilma is indeed a painting, and not a miraculously produced image, then it should be a simple matter to determine that scientifically. There are obvious signs that are hard to argue with, notably that the paint is flaking along a vertical seam in the fabric. But a truly scientific examination involving sampling of the material has not been permitted. The most notable examination was a three hour infrared photographic session by Philip Callahan in 1981, who did note multiple layers of paint covering changes to the hands and crown, but came away with more questions than answers. Callahan found, for example, that most of the entire painting seemed to have been done with a single brush stroke. He recommended a series of more tests, but the only one allowed by the Church was a spectrophotometric examination done by Donald Lynn from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The only result released of his examination was that "nothing unusual" was found.
Much has been made of the claim that figures can be seen reflected in Mary's eyes, with some even identifying these figures as Zumárraga or Juan Diego or other characters from the legend. The Church even went so far in 1956 as to have two ophthalmologists examine the eyes under 2500× magnification. They reported a whole group of figures, including both Aztecs and Franciscans. Why ophthalmologists should be better qualified to identify Aztecs and Franciscans in random blobs of pigment has not been convincingly argued. Photos taken by another ophthalmologist in 1979 have been released, and it's quite obvious that it's simply random noise. I see a dozen or so speckles; if you want to make them into Aztecs, Franciscans, bananas, or Bozo the Clown, then you'll probably also be great at spotting dozens of Bigfoots hiding in any given photograph of a forest.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is yet more one mythical story whose believers are missing out on true facts that are actually more respectful and confer more credit upon them than the myth. The image on the Virgin tilma was painted by a native Aztec artist; and the painting had not only an important role in Mexico's early history as a nation, but also a staggering impact upon its culture ever since. Mexicans with Aztec heritage should take pride in the fact that their original culture, specifically the goddess Tonantzin, was a key ingredient in the spread of modern Catholicism. The Juan Diego myth takes that away, and whitewashes part of Mexican history clean of any Aztec influence. That's a disservice to one of humanity's greatest ancient civilizations, and it's a disservice to history.
When we see the Virgin of Guadalupe image today, most people react in one of two ways: They worship it as a miraculous apparition, or they dismiss it as someone else's religious icon. Both reactions miss the much richer true history. The Virgin of Guadalupe stands not only as an invaluable work of ancient art (possibly the most popular piece of art ever created), but also as a reminder of how the conquest of Mexico was truly accomplished: Not only its military conquest, but one of history's greatest religious conversions as well.