There is perhaps no more familiar and beloved image of the Virgin Mary than Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day we celebrate today. Known as the Patroness of the Americas, and given the additional titles Empress of the Americas and Protectress of Unborn Children by Pope John Paul II in 1999, her origins are shrouded in layers of uncertain claims and disputed evidence. Despite these doubts, however, the story of the miraculous origin of the image has remained enshrined in popular belief and Catholic tradition.
On December 9, 1531, the indigenous peasant Juan Diego encountered a young woman on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City, who spoke to him in his native tongue telling him that she was the Virgin Mary and that he should ask the bishop to build her a church at that spot. When he dutifully relayed this message to Archbishop Zumárraga, he was told to go back and ask the lady for a sign. When Juan Diego told her that he needed a miraculous sign, she told him to pick some of the roses growing there on the normally barren hill. She arranged the flowers for him in his cloak, or tilma, and when he released the roses onto the ground before the bishop, the image of the Virgin was revealed on the tilma.
The image today, with painted additions, is framed and hung in the place of honor on the wall behind the altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. We see a dark-haired, olive-skinned young woman, dressed in a tunic and mantle, surrounded by a mandorla and standing on a crescent moon held aloft by an angel among the clouds. She gazes downward and clasps her hands in prayer.
The basilica that houses the tilma is the second church constructed here, next to the same hill where Juan Diego received his vision. The site of this Marian shrine, the hill at Tepeyac, was once devoted to several indigenous goddesses known as Tonantzin, a generic term which means “our revered mother.” Spanish missionaries placed Christian shrines over many native religious sites. The first basilica here was completed in 1709, but its foundations later began to sink into the ground, a reminder that Mexico City was built upon the drained bed of Lake Texcoco, former site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The curved modern basilica, finished in 1976, can hold 50,000 people and receives several million visitors each year, making it one of the most visited sacred sites in the world. Visitors to the church who want to see the image of the Virgin must form a line and progress in single file on a people mover located behind and below the altar area, unseen by those attending mass. The icon is then seen above you in its ornate frame as you glide by it.
Despite the distance from the image, it is quite an experience. Even before you enter the church, as you make your way across the plaza to reach the basilica, faithful pilgrims can sometimes be seen moving forward on their knees and with hands clasped in prayer, making their way piously through the sacred space in order to gain the blessing of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
Artists have painted many reproductions of the tilma image for use at other churches and for sale on the art market. One of the earliest of these, seen below, was painted by Manuel de Arellano in 1691.
In addition to his interpretation of the image of the tilma, Arellano has surrounded the figure with flowers and included vignettes at each corner that narrate the story of Juan Diego’s encounter with the Virgin. Also in the collection at LACMA is this curious version created with shells in a technique known as enconchado (concha means shell in Spanish).
Several years ago my brother gave me the gift of this contemporary painting of Our Lady by an unknown artist, which I treasure.
As the patron saint of Mexico, the beloved figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe has become ubiquitous in Latin American culture. Artists have copied and reinterpreted the image in a huge variety of media, from paintings and candles to wall murals, tattoos, and beach towels. Any medium you can think of likely has been used to recreate her image.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has countless churches and schools named for her. A multitude of scholarly articles discuss various aspects of her history and significance, and her image has been used by the liberation theology movement, the United Farm Workers, and at recent immigration rallies. She even has a Tumblr site and an Etsy page. She is truly a ubiquitous icon that is both sacred and secular. If you would like more information about the Virgin of Guadalupe, the article on Wikipedia is quite good to start with. And here is a prayer to her:
Our Lady of Guadalupe,
make intercession for holy Church,
protect the sovereign Pontiff,
help all those who invoke you in their necessities,
and since you are the ever Virgin Mary
and Mother of the true God,
obtain for us from your most holy Son
the grace of keeping our faith,
of sweet hope in the midst of the bitterness of life
of burning charity, and the precious gift
of final perseverance.
Now I think I’ll go browse through that Etsy page!