Paintings, altarpieces, sculptures, engravings in silver, ceramics, textiles, and other devotional objects of the colonial era in Mexico representing Our Lady of Guadalupe are part of its iconographic religiosity.
All these art manifestations point to the miracle of the Tepeyac Hill. In December 1531, la “Morenita del Tepeyac” (“The Little Brunette”) appeared in a vision to a native Indian named Juan Diego. Her venerated image is still intact in a tilma (a cloak) enshrined within the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, the most visited religious pilgrimage site in all the Americas.
The apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe conquered the hearts of the indigenous people, and years later converted the hearts of millions of Mexicans, for whom she is now a model of cultural identity.
“The icon is an initiative of Mary for Mexico and the entire world. She speaks an unwritten gospel painted by angels,” said Spanish priest Father Mariano de Blas, a Legionary of Christ. “In that sense, the Indians saw in the tilma (cloak) the whole catechism preached 10 years before by Franciscans, and they converted massively because they saw the Aztec princess surrounded by light, pregnant, etc. Whoever wants to know the history and religion of Mexico cannot do without this iconic image which is a mystery.”
Artistically, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is rich in symbolism. The four-and-a-half-foot-tall image of Our Lady of Guadalupe imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak in 1531 depicts a young pregnant woman encircled by rays of sunlight.
With her dark complexion and mixture of indigenous and Spanish features, Our Lady of Guadalupe stands for the unity of all people. She gazes downward with the tender, loving expression of a mother gazing at her child.
“It is fascinating to note that traditionally, classic iconic images of Mary, portray her invariably carrying her son, Jesus. Her venerated title since the 4th century has been Theotokos, or ‘God-bearer,’” said Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship at Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano. “Rather than visibly carrying the Christ child, she is pregnant in this image – waiting to give birth to Him for the life of the New World. Our Lady of Guadalupe then represents a living symbol or analogy of the New World ‘pregnant’ to receive the fullness of the Gospel to be found in the Son of Mary, Christ the living Lord.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke in Nahuatl to Juan Diego, his native language, and was dressed in the garb of a native princess. She asked that a church be built on the site of the apparition and gave proof of her visitation by leaving an imprint of her image on the outer cloak or tilma that Juan Diego was wearing.
When Juan Diego pleaded her cause to the local Bishop, Fr. Juan de Zumárraga, not only were roses of Castile presented – unheard of blooming in winter – but also he saw the miraculous image left of the tilma.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana recently presented a magnificent exhibition of 60 works of art representing or inspired by Our Lady of Guadalupe. The exhibition was themed, “Virgin of Guadalupe: Images in Colonial Mexico.”
“Bowers Museum’s mission is giving light to art in the world, and we share religious and non-religious history,” said Emily Mahon, the Bowers Museum’s senior director of education. “One of the biggest reasons we chose the Virgin of Guadalupe was because of its importance in the communities we serve in Southern California.”
She said one of the richest cultures close to America is Mexico, and that Mexicans represent the most immediate community to serve among Hispanics.
“We know the Virgin of Guadalupe was an important figure of the Hispanic people, especially Mexicans, and celebrating her at Bowers Museum was relevant for everybody.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been accepted as an icon of the Mexican national identity, and her image appeared on the banners of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla who declared Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1810 and also on those of the peasant soldiers who fought in the 1910 Mexican Revolution alongside Emiliano Zapata.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe also was a very important icon of the Cristero War” in 1926, said Father Efrain Flores, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Santa Ana. La Cristiada was a civil war against the secularist persecution and anti-clerical policies of Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles.
“During the Cristero War, Our Lady of Guadalupe went to the front as a banner of struggle and people speaking of their identity as Catholics, hence their transcendence in the history and art of the Hispanic American people,” reflected Father Flores who is of Salvadoran origin.