Queen of Heaven. Star of the Sea. Seat of Wisdom. Untier of Knots. The list of titles, epithets, and apparitions of the Virgin Mary is long enough to exhaust one’s voice. Today, December 12th, we celebrate one of her most prevalent images – Our Lady of Guadalupe. This compelling yet often-misunderstood apparition shows Mary at her most tender and yet triumphant, gentle and yet dominant. 483 years ago today, her image appeared on the cloak of Juan Diego in a shower of roses, and has since then been adopted by cultures, movements, and of course Catholics around the world.
The basic story is that of Juan Diego, a middle-aged widower and recent Catholic convert, who in 1531 was walking on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico when a beautiful woman appeared to him in a vision. She told him that she was the Virgin Mary, and asked him to go to the bishop and petition to have a chapel built in her honor, so that she could give comfort to all those who call upon her in their need. Diego delivered the message, but was rebuffed by the bishop (Juan de Zumárraga), who didn’t know what to make of the tale. Returning to the hill the next day, he told the Virgin of his failure, and implored her to find someone else who could carry out her task. However, she insisted that it was only him that she wanted, and told him to try again. He did, and the bishop was more agreeable to his request, but asked for a sign to prove the things Diego was claiming. Juan Diego returned and asked Mary for a sign, and was told that she would provide one the following day.
That day, however – December 11th – Diego’s uncle Juan Bernardino was very sick, and he stayed home to care for him. By that night, Bernardino was so ill that it was apparent he would soon die, and Juan Diego set out for Tlatelolco to get a priest to administer last rites. Embarrassed by his failure to return to Tepeyac, and worried the Blessed Virgin might delay his journey, he tried to circumvent the hill. But Mary appeared to him anyway, and asked him where he was going. When he explained, she inquired, “No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?” – “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She told him his uncle had already recovered, and instructed him to climb the hill and collect the flowers which had appeared on top, as a sign for the bishop. Diego found a rose bush at the top, where normally only scrub and cactus grew. He gathered up the flowers in his cloak, and brought them to the bishop, but when he let the end of his tilma fall, imprinted on it was the image of the Virgin Mary as she had appeared to him. The bishop was aghast, and fell to his knees in front of it, immediately ordering the construction of her chapel. The tilma can still be seen today, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored as patroness of the Americas, of Mexico specifically, of the Pro-Life movement, the Philippines, and numerous US dioceses.
The image is layered with symbolism of particular significance to the native Mexican peoples of the time. Mary’s appearance is that of a Mestiza – a person of both European and Mexican descent – and this representation was radically important to the indigenous peoples, who had been invaded by Cortes and the Spaniards not twenty years prior. Seeing themselves represented in the Virgin’s face led the Mexican people to embrace her and the Church rapidly and fervently. She is standing in front of the sun, a clear sign of dominance over the traditional native deities, in particular Huitzilopochtli, the bloodthirsty Aztec sun god. This is also of course a reference to her appearance in the book of Revelation, as “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is indeed standing on the moon, possibly also showing superiority to the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. The moon in the Guadalupe figure was not always black: at some point in its four centuries, according to expert analysis, someone embellished the moon with silver paint. This has since tarnished, leading to its now-dark appearance. Revelation goes on to say of the woman in the sky, “She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth,” and Mary is pregnant in the tilma picture, wearing a maternity band above her waist. Her dress has an intricate pattern on it, most significantly a small, four-petaled flower positioned directly over her womb. This flower was recognizable to the indigenous peoples as a symbol for “the center of the universe”, and that is of course who she carries in her womb. From reflections in her eyes to the position of the stars on her robe, the portrait imprinted on the cloak speaks volumes to the people of Mexico both then and today.
The tilma now hangs above the altar in the Basilica of Guadalupe, and has had four technical analyses of its makeup and structure. Though somewhat limited, these studies have drawn a few conclusions: that the image has no underdrawing, has never been varnished, and that her face and cloak remain in remarkably good condition. Additions made to the picture after its first appearance – gold leaf on the sun, and silver on the moon – have deteriorated and flaked somewhat, but the image underneath and its color values are exceptionally preserved. Experts disagree on whether the cloak seems to have been primed, and whether or not there are brushstrokes visible, but none have denied its surprising longevity.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been referred to as a “common denominator”, uniting Mexicans of diverse cultures and backgrounds. The first Mexican president, Jose Miguel Fernandez y Felix, changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria in order to thank her for his victory. She was used as a symbol in numerous Latin American rebellions, such as the Mexian War of Independence and the flag of the Catholic peasants during the Cristero War of the late 1920s. She has been adopted as a protector and a symbol of cultural identity by Latin American peoples throughout all of modern history, and today even non-religious people may implore her help during times of distress. She has also, unfortunately, been represented in recent times as an item of kitsch art – blacklight posters, bobbleheads and bedazzled jackets are hardly a reverent venue for this important figure. But not all of her ubiquity is a bad thing. Even though gangs in California, Mexico, and beyond have also appropriated her as a symbol, this can speak to their internal conflict – their self-image as both sinner and saint, the alienation they feel from society, and the hope they hold for redemption. After all, to whom else should they turn?
She has been honored by Pope John Paul II, and has been attributed countless miracles. Her feast day is celebrated globally with pilgrimages, processions, and festivals. And she remains an accessible symbol of hope for the marginalized, suffering, and desperate. From cathedrals to tattoos, legions of people have found ways to express their dedication to Our Lady, and today is an excellent opportunity to do so.