The Virgin of Guadalupe, and “the New World” as oxymoron

Left: Anonymous, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th Century. Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe, Mexico City (Image found here); right: Josefus de Rivera y Argomanis, Verdadero Retrato de Santa Maria Virgen de Guadalupe, Patrona Principal de la Nueva España Jurada en Mexico. 1778. Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City (Image found here).

The Virgin of Guadalupe is not an overt subject of my project, but she could easily serve as the supreme exemplum of what I argue in that project is the essential state of being of the New World: a fusion of cultures and customs so complete that it is no longer possible to separate them one from the other(s)–and, moreover, that the recognition of that fact often comes as something of a shock to those who complacently assume otherwise.

I have written elsewhere of my profoundly-moving experience one December 12th (the Virgin’s feast day) when I visited the Basilica in Mexico City. My purpose in this post, though, you may be pleased to learn, is not to proselytize (full disclosure: I’m neither Catholic nor Hispanic, but I am a Christian and, speaking for myself out of that context as well as someone who finds much to wonder over in Mexican culture and history, I find it difficult to remain completely objective when discussing this subject). Rather, it’s to give the reader a quick sense, via some context and a discussion of some images of the Virgin, of what I mean when here and in my project I will make what I think is an important distinction between the terms “the Americas” and “the New World.”

No matter one’s opinion on the role of the Church during the conquest and colonization of Mexico and points south, it is inarguable that the syncretizing of Catholic and indigenous symbology and ritual was a practice engaged in so as to make the Christian faith more palatable to the Indians. This occurred at more than the level of the abstract. As my wife pointed out to me one day during our trip–something I’m a bit embarrassed to mention that, as many times as I’d visited these places before, I’d never really noted before–the older churches we saw very often appropriated the exact same pebbles-in-mortar construction methods in the building of their walls that we had seen at the pyramids at both Teotihuacan and Tlatelolco. This picture, courtesy of the Mrs., was taken at Teotihuacan and shows that method quite clearly. Both literally and figuratively, then, the outward form the Church took in Mexico during the colonial era was recognizably Christian; look more closely, though, and more than a few traces–and perhaps more than traces–of indigenous practices remained that played a significant role in the shaping and sustaining and perpetuating of that outward form. The Virgin of Guadalupe, and the cult that has emerged surrounding her veneration, is only the most prominent example of this phenomenon. For further reading on the fascinating and complicated topic of syncretism, I urge anyone interested to have a look at Serge Gruzinski’s book The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization.

For obvious reasons, syncretic practices, by the way, were controversial among Church hierarchy during this time, and the cult surrounding the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe was not immune to critique. The Wikipedia entry on the Virgin makes clear that from the very beginning there were questions even as to whether Juan Diego was a real person, never mind the genuineness of the apparitions. But apart from those fundamental questions, there were other concerns just as fundamental in their own ways, chiefly involving the particulars of the early pilgrims’ veneration of her: for example, Indians were allowed to perform in her honor the same dances that, before the Conquest, they had performed in honor of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin, closely associated with the hill named Tepeyac where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.

I think it is difficult for non-Hispanics to appreciate fully the Virgin’s significance for–indeed, her centrality to–Mexican and, by extension, Latin American culture. (Never mind, by the way, the difficulties she and her cult pose to non-Hispanic Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers of whatever sort) Though, as with any manifestation of the Holy Mother, she is ostensibly a symbol of Christian faith, she also has significances that only tangentially touch on religion but which resonate profoundly throughout the Hispanic-American world. For Mexicans, she also signifies as a symbol of revolution, an assertion of Mexican nationalism: it was under a banner of her image that marched the army Miguel Hidalgo led in revolt against Spain on the night of September 16, 1810, the day which Mexico celebrates as its independence day. That power as revolutionary symbol, I would argue, still resides in her, dormant but present; the priest whose homily I heard that long-ago December 12th made the case that the Virgin was more powerful than any earthly force, that people had only to acknowledge that. One could understand those words in their spiritual sense, of course. But this was Mexico City, the capital of a now officially-atheist nation which, Mexicans in attendance there could not help but recall, had been inspired to revolt against Spain under this very image. Moreover, back in the mid-’80s the influence of liberation theology had spread from Central America into the southern Mexican state of Chiapas; if ever there were a region of Mexico ripe for rebellion, it was (and remains–see Comandante Marcos) Chiapas. The greater, deeper resonance that the Virgin has throughout Latin America, though, is her very appearance: not only that she appeared to a recently-convertered Indian, Juan Diego, in mid-December of 1531 (ten years after Cortés’ conquering of Tenochtitlan), but also the fact that she appeared to him–and us–via the image she left on Juan Diego’s ayate (something like a man’s rebozo) as proof for the bishop in Mexico City that he had seen her, as a mestiza. If La Malinche is, for Mexicans, the embodiment of Woman-as-Whore, surely the Virgin of Guadalupe is, quite literally, Woman-as-Madonna. But each of these women signifies something much more complicated than the stereotypical roles that women have historically been cast since, it seems, time immemorial. For Mexicans and, by extension, Hispanics, these women are also cultural, racial, religious, political–that is, literal as well as symbolic–Mothers of La Raza.

In the cultural history of the United States, it considerably understates things to say that we have no equivalent figures.

It’s difficult to find a place in Mexico where an image of the Virgin is not close by. Most of those images, though, seek to be more or less faithful to the original on Juan Diego’s ayate, on public display at the basilica dedicated to her in Mexico City. Aside from her mestizo features, that image tells us little about the geographical or cultural space within which she appeared. Given that the Virgin is eternal, transcending time and space, the image’s lack of such references isn’t unusual. What’s striking about the two paintings at the top of this post, which my wife and I saw at the Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe on our trip to Mexico City last week, as well as one below the fold, is that they supply that spatial and cultural geography. They explicitly place the Virgin within a New World context–not, I’d argue, an American one–as if to insist that the Virgin’s meaning is fully comprehensible only within that context. It is not enough to know that the Virgin is the Mother of God. One must also know where, how, and to whom she chose to appear.

[A quick aside: I don’t know whether this matters, but in the interests of accuracy I think it better to err on the side of caution. I can’t be entirely certain that the Ribera i Argomanis painting on the right is in fact the one we saw at the Museum of the Guadalupe Basilica. We did see a painting attributed to Ribera that bore a very close resemblance to the one you see here. We weren’t allowed to take any sort of pictures in the Museum, so I have no independent means of confirmation. In any event, the listing of this particular image’s home as the National History Museum, in combination with the existence of a very similar painting by an unknown hand, raises the possibility that Ribera i Argomais may have painted at least one other painting in addition to the one you see here. Also, the attentive among you will notice the inconsistent spelling of Ribera i Argomais’ name. In the case of the painting, the spelling is that of my source for it; here, the spelling is that of the Museum’s brief overview of its collection and history that I purchased on my visit.]

Apologies for the less-than-clear images and, thus, the descriptions that follow. In the first two paintings, as noted above, the Virgin, the rays emanating from her, and the angel below her whose upraised arms appear to be holding her aloft are what visitors to the Basilica will see in the original image. All that surrounds that image are the additions of the two painters. In the upper corners of the painting and immediately below the angel are cameo-shaped renderings of the three separate times the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego prior to leaving her image on his ayate as proof to show the bishop in Mexico City that he had seen her (the showing of that proof being the subject of the scene in the lower-right cameo. Though not part of the original image, such renderings are not uncommon inclusions in paintings of the Virgin.

The more intriguing additions, though, are the large allegorical figures on either side of the paintings and the image that seems to sustain the angel and the two cameo scenes underneath the Virgin. Those figures represent Europe (on the left) and America (on the right), each standing on a small rock surrounded by the same body of water. “America” is posed very similarly in each painting (each looks in the direction of, and gestures toward, the cameo depicting Juan Diego’s showing the image on his ayate), but note “Europe”‘s positioning: each offers up a red crown to the Virgin, but in the anonymous painting she looks away from the Virgin and downward toward something in the lower-center of the painting (more about that later); in the Ribera i Argomais painting she appears to be looking directly at the Virgin. As I hope is obvious to the reader, it’s difficult to speculate as to the meaning of either of these choices for Europe’s gaze; moreover, while at some level these paintings had some Church sanction due to their content, their contents almost certainly weren’t as tightly codified as were, to give the most obvious example, the exact copies of the image itself produced at the Basilica for distribution to parishes throughout New Spain and beyond. Still, given the fact that one of these paintings almost certainly inspired the other (or, alternately, there exists an ur-painting common to both either unknown to me at present or now lost), the ambiguity raised in these two figures’ differing gazes is certainly curious.

What drew our attention to these paintings in the first place, though, is the image in the bottom-center of each: An eagle, its wings outstretched and holding a snake in its beak, perched on a nopal (prickly-pear) cactus growing out of a body of water. This is, as most people know, the image now found in the center of Mexico’s flag, and is a depiction of the sign the Aztecs were to look for to indicate where they were to build their city. The positioning of the image of the Virgin as being cradled or held aloft by the eagle’s wings is especially striking. Is there some sort of equivalencing of these two images, in that both are signs from a divinity specifically commanding its witnesses to build (the Virgin commanded Juan Diego to tell the bishop to build a sanctuary in her honor at Tepeyac)? Or, given the age of these paintings (both were painted at a 200-year remove from the Conquest), had the image of the eagle by this time lost its associations with the old ways and now stood as a desacralized symbol of Mexico? And even if the latter, is there not a suggestion here (via a visual resonance between this painting and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus) that the Virgin’s origins are neither “European” nor “American” but in some space shared by and common to yet, ultimately, distinct from both “Europe” and “America”? That space, I will claim more fully in a later post and in my book, is most properly designated as the New World. (And yes, I know how clunky this sounds. More to come in a later post, as I said.)

To my mind, these paintings pose two interesting questions: 1) Which came first?; 2) Could the unknown painter have been an Indian or mestizo? Both Gruzinski in his book and Ilona Katzew in her book Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico provide considerable background in the training and mentoring of Indian and mestizo artisans in colonial Mexico. Katzew notes that, while the painting of religious and state paintings were the provenance of Academy-trained painters, secular subjects could be painted by anyone. I find myself wondering how exactly these paintings and the one below would have been categorized; it seems to me, as I sit here, that one could make plausible arguments for either a secular or a sacred reading of them.

In this last, early painting, different in orientation but bearing some similarities to the ones above, Juan Diego displays the image of the Virgin on his ayate (Image found here; as of this writing, I know nothing more about this painting but will amend this as I learn more). In this instance, the viewer occupies the space that bishop of Mexico City would have occupied on that day Juan Diego brought him the miraculously-blooming roses that he thought was the proof the Virgin had provided him. As angels look on from the painting’s upper corners, we also find the faces of Europe and America, reduced in size to cameo-shaped portraits on the right and left sides, respectively, of Juan Diego. Below Europe’s face, at the lower-right corner of the ayate, appears the lion of Spain that appeared on its flags of the time; on the opposite corner appears the eagle with a snake in its beak and perched on a nopal. To me, there is something in the prominent positioning of Juan Diego’s head, directly over the Virgin’s (most paintings showing him holding the ayate place him to the side, often in a relative penumbra, almost disappearing relative to the displayed glory of the Virgin’s image) and, indeed, on almost exactly the same plane as those of the angels, that suggests something of his importance to this moment: we would not be seeing the Virgin if it were not for him. Compare as well the darkness of Juan Diego’s face to that of America on the left side of the painting. Perhaps this is an overreading, but it is as though his face is aggressively, insistently darker, that darkness enhanced by its contrast with the muted gold backdrop behind his head. That enhancing is by no means intended to be menacing, of course; on the contrary, it would be absurd to read it as anything other than an affirmation of Juan Diego’s Indianness via the Virgin’s having chosen to appear to him. In other words: whereas most renderings of the Virgin are about the Virgin, this painting is at least as much about Juan Diego and, by extension, the people he represents.

I say this out of a fair amount of ignorance: When I look at a painting of the Madonna by, say, Raphael, the last thing I think about is what the powers that be in Renaissance-era Italy were thinking as they looked at it. Why would they not have approved? I don’t sense in them a tension between approved-of renderings of the Virgin and Raphael’s paintings. Of course, a painting like Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto is another story: there, one can indeed sense a tension between messages. But I suspect that that tension was mostly class-driven (well, and Caravaggio-driven, too). The Madonna in that painting is still in some sense European: she is still, at base, an imagined cultural production of that people. The Virgin of Guadalupe–or, more precisely, her full meaning–did not exist and could not have existed prior to the Encounter. And further: Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months following–whether miracle or fraud or some now-irrecoverable combination of the two–the Church lost control over the meaning of the Virgin and the resulting manner of her veneration in the instant that she appeared to an Indian as a mestiza. Which, of course, is tantamount to saying that it thus never had control over her. Such is her power in Mexico and throughout Hispanic America: that everyone knows this; all the Church can do is acknowledge it and appear to grant it official sanction as it is able via such means as papal visits and the move to canonize Juan Diego. These paintings seem to me implicit assertions that the Virgin is most definitively a New World thing–not an American thing, and certainly not a European one.


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the lesson.


  2. […] Comments R. Sherman on The Virgin of Guadalupe, and …blogmeridian2 on Three casta paintings…SHANICE on Three […]

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  4. […] a later post, I want to address at greater length something I said in this post–in particular, this: Whatever happened in December of 1531 and the weeks and months […]

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