Art Historical Background
Before understanding religious imagery you have to first understand the religion’s doctrine and secondly understand the historical context in which the image was created. For example a painting of Jesus has a very different meaning in 4th century Rome than it does in 20th century America. And so it is with the Virgin Mary, who is the subject of this piece.
The Virgin Mary is the mother of G-d, aka Jesus, and in Catholicism she is widely revered and venerated (read: NOT worshiped). She appears a lot in art as an intercessor for the “little guy,” those who traditionally did not have a lot of power in their societies. The art of the Virgin of Guadalupe is not a representation of the Virgin Mary during her lifetime, but it represents an apparition of the Mary, which is a time she appeared throughout history (in this case in the year 1531) and deliver a message to an individual. The apparition of Guadalupe is probably one of the most famous but not the only one in history.
*Note, you totally do not have to believe in Marian apparitions to appreciate the underdog story presented here OR the importance of her image to those believers. I am a practicing Catholic (still working on believing in some of the apparitions and miracles), but I never, never teach this apparition as a fact to my students, regardless of my church’s doctrines or what I personally believe. I am very careful to talk about all religious art with an understanding of what it means to believers from that time period.
Read more: Catholic Culture: Our Lady of Guadalupe
So here’s the story:
The Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on December 9, 1531 (which is the date of his feast day by the way). She appeared to him with “ashen” (or dark) skin, sun rays around her, standing on a crescent moon with a crown of stars on her head (also sometimes spread on her cloak). A lot of this imagery surrounding the Virgin is related to two books from the Bible: Song of Songs and Revelation. When Mary appeared to Juan Diego she asked him, in his native language of Nahuatl, to build her a shrine on that sport. There is now a basilica on that hill where she appeared to Juan Diego just outside of the colonial Mexico City.
Juan Diego, like any devout Catholic, ran off to tell Bishop Zumárraga and, as expected, the bishop did not believe him. A few days later, on December 12th, the Virgin re-appeared to Juan Diego and he told her that his bishop didn’t listen to him. He said that the bishop demanded proof of his vision so Mary told Juan Diego to gather roses in his cloak, called a tilmátli, and take it to the bishop (I’m sure he was pretty skeptical that this was going to work at this point). However, when Juan Diego opened his cloak the roses fell to the floor and the image of the now-famous Virgin of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.
Long story short, the bishop now believed Juan Diego and so they built the shine on the Tepeyac Hill and you can visit the church and original cloak today.
Information about the art piece:
The image imprinted on the cloak has a super fancy and complicated vocab term that I have Google every damn time I go to teach it and here it is: acheiropoieta. That impossibly word means “not made by human hands.” And this is where this (original) art piece becomes a religious object too. The original image is said to be a miracle because it is believed to be created by G-d, not a human artist. You can take it or leave that miracle, I don’t care, but that explains why it is so important to believers.
Miguel González’s Virgin of Guadalupe departs in a few ways from the original. It does not, for example, have the original coloration and includes mother-of-pearl inlay, called enconchado (the Screen with the Siege of Belgrade also has inlay of mother-of-pearl and was also made in New Spain).
The image of the Virgin Mary is related to her Immaculate Conception (which is celebrated December 8th FYI) and connects to a line from the Book of Revelation: “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.”
Additionally, around the image of the Virgin are four scenes from the story of her revelation to Juan Diego:
- Top left: Juan Diego is led to the Virgin Mary by angels (this is more symbolic than literal)
- Top right: Juan Diego has his vision of the Virgin Mary
- Bottom left: Juan Diego follows the Virgin’s instructions and fills his cloak with roses
- Bottom right: Juan Diego reveals the miraculous image to the bishop
What does this show us?
Something I find utterly fantastic about this piece, and why I teach about it in AP World History too, is that it is a visual representation of syncretic religion. A syncretic religion comes about with the intersection between two or more religious traditions that may seem at odds with each other. The Virgin of Guadalupe does not represent a new religion, but a new religious flavor in the Americas.
Read more: AP Crossover: Virgin of Guadalupe
Christianity was brought over and forced upon the native peoples of the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors and later Jesuit missionaries. The Virgin Mary can be seen as evidence of Roman Catholicism embedding itself into a previously polytheistic society. The piece is physically display of what is happening socially.
Here are some things to keep in mind about this piece:
- Juan Diego was a converted Nahua (one of the Aztec subgroups)
- The Virgin Mary speaks to him in Nahuatl, not Spanish
- The site was previously a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin
- She has darken skin (rarely seen in Europe)
I’m not saying the Virgin Mary is just mother goddess 2.0 BUT it does show a level of mixing between the two cultures. Perhaps this image and story served to convert more native people to Christianity? I’m not saying this forced conversion was a good thing (totally against it btw) but in history I try look at the processes that occurred while trying to step back from the judgement of whether not we agree with them.
- Khan Academy: Virgin of Guadalupe
- Khan Academy: Miguel González, The Virgin of Guadalupe
- Khan Academy: Virgin of Guadalupe (video)
- LACMA: Virgin of Guadalupe
- LACMA Unframed: Virgin of Guadalupe
- blue roadrunner.com: Virgin of Guadalupe
- AP Art History 2015-2016: The Virgin of Guadalupe
- Vistas: Virgin of Guadalupe, late 17th c.
- Onda Latina: Our Lady of Guadalupe
- New Fields: Virgin of Guadalupe (video)
- International and Area Studies – U of U: Virgin of Guadalupe (AWESOME video)
Next time: #96. Fruit and Insects. Rachel Ruysch. 1711 CE. Oil on wood.