Among the numerous Marian apparitions that have occurred around the world, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains one of the most prominent.
Mary’s apparition to St. Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac (Mexico, 1531) is just a myth for some people, a mix between the syncretistic religion of the Aztecs and Spanish Catholicism. For others – Bl. John Paul II among them – it is a great example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization. Thanks to the picture that she left on Juan Diego's cloak, Our Lady of Guadalupe gave rise to a conversion en masse of the Indians. Her basilica is currently the most visited Catholic shrine in the world, after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
In 1531 – ten years after the Aztec empire fell and eleven after the arrival of the conquistadores – the Virgin Mary appeared to the Indian Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin) on the hill of Tepeyac, on the outskirts of present-day Mexico City, and asked him to erect a church there. She left her image imprinted on Juan Diego's cloak as evidence of her apparition.
With the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico in 1520, there came the subsequent fall of the Aztecs, and with it the end of pagan religious rites and human sacrifices. According to the Aztec religion, human sacrifices were necessary in order to feed their gods and keep the universe in existence. Since this endless cycle of callous ritual killings had ended, the indigenous peoples feared a cataclysm and the end of the world with the emergence of the "fifth sun." Their whole life, which had been directed toward serving the gods and maintaining the universe, had ended; their existence was now meaningless. A small group of twelve Franciscan missionaries who arrived in 1524, along with other missionaries who had arrived earlier, began to evangelize the thousands of natives of the ancient Aztec empire, who were unable to forget their gods. While seeking to protect them from abuse at the hands of the Spanish encomenderos (farmers), the missionaries were persecuted by their own Spanish countrymen. The Spanish community was divided by its hatred, arrogance, and greed. The first Spanish government (the ‘Primera Audiencia’) had caused much damage, especially to the cause of evangelization. Thus, the first Bishop of Mexico, the Franciscan Fray Juan de Zumárraga, wrote the King at the time (1529), hiding the manuscript in a tallow candle: "If God does not act to remedy the situation as soon as possible, this land will be lost forever."
Some years later, on December 9, 1531, a young mestiza girl with garments as bright as the sun appeared on the hill of Tepeyac to the recently baptized Juan Diego. Revealing herself as the Virgin Mary, she asked him to petition the Bishop to build a church on that spot. Upon hearing Juan Diego’s request Bishop Zumárraga became skeptical and asked him for a sign. On December 12, showing herself to Juan Diego for the last time, Mary sent him to gather flowers on the stony ridge of Tepeyac – a feat which is remarkable due to both the altitude of the place, as well as the time of year. Juan Diego filled his tilma (a mantle woven out of cactus fibers) with the most beautiful roses he ever seen, and proceeded to the Bishop’s residence. When he came before the Bishop, Juan Diego unfurled his tilma, unveiling an extraordinary image of Our Lady printed on the fabric. On December 26, there was another miraculous phenomenon: during the procession that bore the image to the new chapel at Tepeyac, an indigenous dancer who had accidentally been killed by an arrow was placed at the foot of the tilma, and he came back to life.
Since the portrait was composed of symbols familiar to the Indians' religion and culture, they could all decipher it: Mary, who shows traces of a young mestiza, presents herself as the Mother of the one true God, who came to them to seek reconciliation between Indians and Spaniards.
Many experts agree in affirming that Our Lady of Guadalupe's image on Juan Diego's cloak is formed by a set of symbols that the Indians could easily understand. It was a perfectly intelligible code in the indigenous worldview.
The first of these signs was the very presence of the image on the simple robe of a poor Indian. The picture represents a young mestiza girl – a trait which is seen in her face and the difference of her hands, one whiter and thinner than the other – which meant that she belonged to two different ethnic groups. At the time, children born of the union between a Spaniard and a native woman were rejected by all. The Virgin’s hands, joined in prayer, and her bent knees reveal that Our Lady of Guadalupe is in a posture of prayer dance, the highest form of prayer for the Aztecs. The medal with a cross around her neck indicates that she belongs to the Christian religion brought by the Spaniards. The turquoise blue of her robe shows her royal blood. By tilting her face and eyes, she shows total attention and benevolence towards those who call upon her. Encircling her womb is the most sacred symbol: the flower of four petals, Nahui Ollin, which manifests the presence of Ometéolt, the supreme god-goddess of the Aztecs – an inaccessible deity, master of all things, in whose bosom contraries harmonize and where other gods are, in effect, no more than manifestations. The ribbon that she carries on her upper abdomen shows that she is pregnant, while her loose hair means she is a virgin. Even though she is surrounded by the sun, which gives her a luminous aura, her mantle is covered with stars. Through this symbolism, the Virgin reconciles the enemies of the great celestial war, which had forced the Aztecs to feed the sun with human sacrifices. In her, we see the beginning of a new era. Her feet, placed in the center of the moon (etymologically, "Mexico" means the "belly button of the moon"), indicate where the Supreme God that she carries wants to reside.
After Our Lady of Guadalupe's apparition, the Indians willingly converted en masse. This apparition gave birth to the deeply Catholic people of Mexico. The appearance's influence extends to the entire continent; even to this day the extraordinary character of Our Lady of Guadalupe's image feeds devotion, research, debates and polemics.
After Our Lady of Guadalupe's apparition, conversions multiplied at a bewildering rate for the Franciscan missionaries. The natives even came from very far away to receive baptism. Thus in 1539 – nine years after the apparition – there were already close to nine million converted Indians. Furthermore, there are numerous documents that testify to a renewal of devotion among the Spaniards, which led many to contemplate the miraculous image Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Upon receiving this name – transcribed exactly as it was in the original story in the Nahuatl language – the Virgin revealed to everyone her religious affiliation: the name, while bearing great significance to the Spanish, was entirely foreign to the Indians. The appearance's influence was so strong that it did not limit itself to the Mexican nation, but spread to the whole continent. In 1946, Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Patroness of the Americas. Bl. Pope John Paul II regarded her as "the great example of perfectly inculturated evangelization." Present-day Mexico is neither predominantly Indian nor Spanish, but mestizo. At that time, however, mestizo children were an object of shame and were abandoned. With her mestiza looks, signifying the union between the two peoples, the Virgin shows that what was shameful for men had great value in her eyes. Immediately considered to be the foundress and protectress of this new people, she became the banner of various causes throughout the country's history. On September 16, 1810, for example, just hours after the "Grito de Dolores,” (Mexico’s historic declaration of independence), Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla – one of the leaders of Mexico’s movement for independence – took a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the Shrine of Atotonilco and made it the insurgent army’s standard, thereby turning the Virgin into the patroness of Mexican independence. Cases like this mark the presence of Mary in the life of this country, so that many refer to her as "the Virgin who forged a nation."
The miraculous image itself is on a garment that remains intact today, although the organic cloth, which is woven out of cactus fibers, should have decomposed in less than twenty years. Furthermore, the image is "painted" onto the cloth without a previous primer, something that would normally be impossible. Aside from some minor restoration work that was done after the exposed tilma suffered some man-made damage, there are no perceptible brushstrokes on the image. In addition, modern technology has revealed other intriguing features. The extraordinary character of this image does not fail to attract the masses, giving rise to research, debates, and controversies.
Among the numerous Marian apparitions that have occurred around the world, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains one of the most prominent: in it, Mary intervened to modify the course of history of a nation and continent. The study of this event is full of interest and teachings for believer and nonbeliever alike.
We appreciate the collaboration of Paul Badde, Rome correspondent of the German newspaper Die Welt, and author of a book on Our Lady of Guadalupe (Maria von Guadalupe: Wie das Erscheinen der Jungfrau Weltgeschichte schrieb, Ullstein, Berlin, 2004), and Jaime Septién, director of the Catholic newspaper El Observador (Mexico).