Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

Icon of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is a most famous and most popular Roman Catholic image of a Virgin Mary in Mexico. The legend says that Virgin appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Indian convert, in 1531 and the witness of that miracle required commemorating it by erection of a church, known as a Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There were two apparitions of the Virgin Mary and after the second an icon was painted which is, actually, now one of the most famous in Mexico.

This event was historically significant as following it a great number of Indians of Mexico converted into Christianity. According to the information provided in encyclopedia Britannica “in 1754 a papal bull made the Virgin of Guadalupe the patroness and protector of New Spain, and in 1810 she became the symbol of the Mexican independence movement when the patriot-priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla raised her picture to his banner.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The story of Virgin’s apparition is derived from the Nican mopohua which is thought to be the original source of that event.  Nican mopohua, written in the indigenous Nahuatl language gives an account of the encounter between Virgin Maria and Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531 on Tepeyac. It says that a widowed convert Juan Diego was traveling to “attend to divine things” the woman in a bright shine appeared in front of him and said that she was a mother of God and asked Diego to tell the Bishop about her request to build a temple on this hill. She promised to come to those people who, would pray in this temple, and help them.

The Nican mopohua is not the only work related to the apparition but it is considered to be the most explicit and most trusted. There is another work relating this story, but this time it is the first Spanish-language apparition account written by Miguel Sanchez. It is this document that for the first time refers to Our Lady of Guadalupe as to a symbol of Mexico. He mentions it in the context that “this New World has been won and conquered by the hand of the Virgin Mary…[who had] prepared, disposed, and contrived her exquisite likeness in this her Mexican land, which was conquered for such a glorious purpose, won that there should appear so Mexican an image” (Brading 2001).

When in 1810 Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and his army fought for the independence of Mexico they used the image of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe as a sign on their clothes and also as an insignia of their campaign. After Hidalgo’s death a mestizo priest led the army during revolution. He also relied on the holy image and as Krauze in his book states he was confirmed that “New Spain puts less faith in its own efforts than in the power of God and the intercession of its Blessed Mother, who appeared within the precincts of Tepeyac as the miraculous image of Guadalupe that had come to comfort us, defend us, visibly be our protection” (Krauze, 1997).

The Mexican calendar even contains the holiday to honor the Virgin, that is December 12, inscribed by the priest-revolutionary. (Matovina, 2001) Thus during the independence struggle people treated Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe as the symbol and patroness of patriots. They offered up numerous prayers at moments of difficulties and used her image on their ensigns. In this way, Brading observes, political exaltation intervened with religious faith “to produce a vehement fervor in favor of the sacred cause of liberty. The veneration for this image in Mexico far exceeds the greatest reverence that the shrewdest prophet might inspire” (Brading, 2001). In this way the icon of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe became not only the sacred symbol of Mexico but also it acquired a profound political implication, the embodiment of the struggle for the independence, so desired by the Mexican people.

Though there are still a lot of disputes as regards the verity of the legend about Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparition its authority still remains very strong in Mexico. In addition to the reputation of the image which inspired people to fight for independence the Virgin is also the symbol of Catholicism in Mexico. As it was stated before the temple was build on the place were Saint Mary was met by Juan Diego, and it was the starting point of active conversion of indigenous people, Aztecs, to Christianity. Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is still a sound support to the Catholics in Mexico and in other parts of Latin America.

Starting from 1737 Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe was recognized to be a saint protectress of Mexico City and then almost two centuries later her protection spread all over the South America. Nowadays, hundreds of people pilgrimage to the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe located on the Cerro of Tepeyac. There are even cases when people do not just walk but crawl on their knees to the church to pray to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, as it is believed that in this way they can merit the cure for their sickness or gain help in the hardship. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe said to have been miraculously imprinted upon Juan Diego’s cloak is displayed there.

The woman depicted in this image dresses and looks like an Aztec maiden of the early 16th century. She has brown skin; Meso-American features, and is clothed in a turquoise tunic and a rose colored robe. In short, Our Lady of Guadalupe looks like the Aztecs and not like their European oppressors. The iconic resemblance between themselves and the woman depicted in that image was frequently noted by the contemporary Mexican pilgrims. Many Mexicans love their protectress and often call her with diminutive Virgencita. Pilgrims visit the basilica not only because of where it is, but also because of what it has. The Mexicans often feel admired that she is just like them dark-skinned with black hair and brown eyes.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is much more than a mere depiction of the woman Juan Diego claimed to have seen in his visions. It is also a complex collection of floral symbols, astronomical imagery, and other signs that are distinctively Aztec (Barber, 1997; Castillo, 1995). These symbols reinforce the indexical and iconic connections between Our Lady of Guadalupe and the non-Christian religious traditions of the Aztecs. The floral designs that adorn Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tunic are symbolic as well as decorative (Barber, 1997).

In accordance with the conventions of Aztec glyphs (standardized pictographic designs used by the Aztecs to convey symbolic meanings) the flowers are rendered with a flatness that allows viewers to see them in full. One of the flowers included in the image, the quincunx, appears only once. It is positioned over the Virgin’s womb. According to Barber, this flower represented: the four compass directions of the world, with heaven and the underworld vertically encountering earth in the canter, in the “navel” of the world, or, to use the metaphor, in the navel of the moon, as they call the Valley of Mexico. (p. 72)

The placement of this flower over the woman’s womb signifies that she bears an important child. That the Virgin is pregnant is also indicated by the black sash she wears around her waste, an Aztec symbol of pregnancy (Castillo, 1995). Located just below the sash is another floral symbol, the nagvioli. According to Castillo, this flower “represented Huitzilopochtli, the great ferocious sun god of the Aztecs” (p. xix). Our Lady of Guadalupe is thus symbolically linked to Coatlicue, an aspect of the goddess Tonantzin, who was the mother of Huitzilopochtli. This link acknowledges her connection with the goddess she is supposed to have replaced.

Also included among the image’s floral imagery are nine large, triangular, heart-shaped flowers–the Mexican magnolia–which were traditionally used to represent the nine levels of the Aztec underworld. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the name for these flowers is yolloxochitl. As explained by Barber, “Yollotl, is `heart’ in Nahuatl, and xochitl, `flower'” (p. 76). According to Barber, “Yolloxochitl was an Aztec metaphor for the palpitating heart torn from the body of sacrificial victims” (p.76).

Human sacrifice played a prominent role in the pre-Christian Aztec religion. Barber goes on to state that yolloxochitl can also be “read as another glyph, too: tepetl, hill, and precisely, Tepeyac Hill” (p. 76), the hill upon which Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego and the location of the shrine of Tonantzin that had been appropriated by the Spanish missionaries. This flower, then, ties the Virgin to Tepeyac, the hill’s previous pre-Christian tenant, and to ritual practices valued by the Aztecs. Some of the flowers that adorn the tunic of Our Lady of Guadalupe are connected with the Aztecs’ rich astronomical symbolism.

According to Barber the eight-petaled flowers: can be identified with a Nahuatl glyph for Venus, the Morning and Evening Star. Venus as Morning Star was associated with their god and culture-hero, Quetzalcoatl, who after his self-immolation was taken up into heaven as the morning star. (p. 73) The image’s astronomical symbolism is not limited to flowers that adorn the Virgin’s tunic. There are also solar, lunar, and stellar symbols. The most significant of these is the crescent moon upon which the Virgin is situated. To the Aztecs, this symbol represented the Valley of Mexico, their geographical, cultural, and spiritual center.

Once it officially affirmed Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Church embraced her with a great show of public enthusiasm. Over the years, the Church has assigned to her such honorific titles as Patroness of Latin America and Empress of All the Americas.

Works Cited List

Barber, J. “The sacred image is a divine codex.” In A handbook on Guadalupe (pp. 68-73). New Bedford, MA: Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, 1997

Brading, D.A. Mexican Phoenix. Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition Across Five Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Castillo, A. “Introduction”. Goddess of the Americas/La Diosa de las Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe Ed. A. Castillo (pp. xv-xxiii). New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

Krauze, Enrique. Mexico, Biography of Power. A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996. New York: HarperCollins, 1997

Matovina, Timothy “Hipic Catholics: ‘El Futuro’ Is Here” Commonweal. 128. 15. September 14, 2001

“Guadalupe, Basilica of.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.  22 Mar.  2006 ;;

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