The Virgen and the castas: further comments

Sor María Antonia de la Purísima Concepción, 18th century, Ex Convento de Culhuacán (pictures), Mexico City. Click on the image to enlarge. The caption records her parents’ names, her birthdate, and the date and place she took the habit for the first time. As the picture indicates, by the time of its making the Virgen de Guadalupe had become an officially-approved icon for devout Catholics.

Image found here via a correspondent.

My source for this image was a recent visitor to this blog, and her kind e-mail, which mentioned in passing that entering a convent was a way for young women of mixed race to obtain a more-secure place in colonial Spanish America, has prompted me to pick up a loose end from my more recent posts on the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The loosest of those ends (for me) was how the Church reconciled the Virgen de Guadalupe’s association with the Immaculate Conception with her depiction as a mestiza, especially given the Church’s active role in the policing of racial hierarchies. That question begins to get answered via María Elena Martínez’s excellent book Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Martínez notes that, whereas limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”) originated in Spain during the Reconquista as a way of determining not race but a genealogy of religious affiliation (those who could demonstrate that their families had been Christians for at least three generations (unless someone in their family had been a Muslim) were thus eligible for the higher government and Church posts–as an aside, this explains why Cabeza de Vaca refers to himself and his fellow castaways not as Spaniards but as Christians), over time in the Americas the term came to indicate racial distinctions.

The existence of the Indians were the cause of this change in the term’s meaning. They were regarded as pure, but:

Ambiguities in the purity status of native people [. . .] emanated from the very contradictions of Spanish colonialism, from a political ideology that on the one hand announced that they were untainted because they lacked Jewish, Muslim and heretical antecedents and had willingly accepted the faith, and on the other constantly iterated that they would revert to idolatry if left to their own devices and in the hands of misguided leaders. (214)

These contradictions led as well to a lack of consistency among the different religious orders regarding how to think through this question. The Franciscans, for example, didn’t regard indigenous descent that was sufficiently distant in one’s past as a hindrance to determining one’s purity (and, thus, access to sinecures in the Church and government). But the Spanish-born and those born of Spanish parents in Mexico (read: those traditionally the only ones eligible for such positions) obviously did not agree with less-strict understandings of purity (Martínez, 219).

Enter both the genre of casta paintings and the rising prominence of the Virgen of Guadalupe.
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Casta paintings and the Virgin of Guadalupe: a link?

Luis de Mena, casta painting, c. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

As part of my research for the book project, the other day I revisited this post‘s accompanying image, and some further reading–especially in reading the historical record supporting the authenticity of the story and, more directly, here–I was reminded, in a different way this time, of the contested nature of just about everything regarding the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, from the very earliest days of that story (she appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531). Some (much?) of that argument, we find between the lines, was driven by rivalries among bishops and their respective orders (which I first speculated on here). Thus, it makes sense that we also have overt written and visual assertions of Juan Diego‘s worthiness as a way of asserting the truth of the Virgin’s appearance to him on the hill of Tepeyac; hence, in the frieze over the east entrance of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin, Juan Diego’s accompanying hat and staff, which mark him iconographically not only as a shepherd but also as someone making a pilgrimage to a shrine, and the beaver in the foreground (a symbol of chastity in medieval bestiaries).

Anyway, that and the fact of the Virgin’s appearance as a mestiza to an indigenous person–that is, she appears, in effect, as always already of mixed ethnicity–made me wonder about linkages, whether direct or thematic, between depictions of the Virgin and the genre of casta painting that arose in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in Peru during the colonial era. Those paintings are not merely secular in content, they are quite literally domestic: often their settings are the interiors of houses, or they show a family out for a promenade; some standardized depictions of castes show physical violence occurring between the spouses, their child attempting to intervene. So, off to Wichita State University’s library I went yesterday, and in one of the books I looked at I ran across the Luis de Mena painting you see at the top of this post. As it turns out, this same image also appears in Ilona Katzew’s excellent book on the subject; I own this book, but I didn’t remember seeing it in there and so didn’t bother to look again before last night. (Man: the things I tell you people.)

In a way, it’s my forgetting this image that really prompts this post.
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New World iconography: a rereading

juandiegoandvirginI want to return to this image for a moment, which I posted on earlier, in light of a nudge I received from some reading I did last week.

From Sandra Messinger Cypess’ La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth, as part of a discussion of Rosario Castellanos’ essay, “Once Again Sor Juana”:

Veneration of the Virgin [of Guadalupe] transcends pure religiosity and has become equated with a sense of unselfish motherhood and postitive national identity. La Malinche, at the opposite pole, embodies both negative national identity and sexuality in its most irrational form, a sexuality without regard to moral laws or cultural values. (6-7)

Reading this reminded me–and made me rethink–my initial assumption about the frieze’s purpose in placing a beaver, an animal associated among some in the medieval Church with chastity1, in this scene depicting the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego. Here is a bit of what I wrote in that earlier post:

Most of us are familiar with Renaissance-era depictions of animals or objects along with saints (think of Peter often shown with a set of keys, in reference to Matthew 16:19). What’s intriguing here is the application of this principle to a depiction of Juan Diego. It speaks to the apparent need to assert or remind the visitor of his virtue and, thus, of his worthiness to receive a visitation from the Virgin. It causes me to wonder if certain visitors were considered to need this reminder more than others did (even in the decades immediately following the apparitions, elements within the Church questioned the veracity of the story). And as for what indigenous people made of the beaver . . . As of this writing, I have not been able to find what if any significance beavers held for the Aztecs, but somehow I doubt that chastity figures into their thinking.

It occurs to me now, in light of my more recent reading (not to mention a recollection of Gruzinski’s The Mestizo Mind), that this frieze’s message may be directed less at a Spanish or even an Indian audience than to a third one: a mestizo audience coming to terms with its origins as a new people.
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A brief adventure in New World iconography

(Cross-posted at Blog Meridian)

Frieze depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego, on the east side of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City. 1531-1709. Image taken by the Mrs. Click to enlarge.

As regulars here know, I recently posted a discussion of a couple of paintings depicting the Virgin that I saw on my recent trip to Mexico City. I’ll have more to say later regarding this façade within that context, but what I wanted to post on here is the depiction of Juan Diego. On the day we took the picture, I was more interested in the European-style hat on the ground directly below his kneeling figure and the maguey plant in the lower-right corner. (Pulque, a fermented drink made from the juice of the maguey, was drunk by the Indians on her feast day, December 12.) But as the Mrs. and I played around with cropping the image she had taken and we enlarged it, I really noticed for the first time the small animal to the left of the maguey plant.

We thought (at first) that it was a squirrel. However, in the course of Googling about for associations (if any) among squirrels and Christian and Aztec iconography and what any of that might possibly have to do with Juan Diego and/or the Virgin, I happened to run across this passage, from the Aberdeen Bestiary:

Of the beaver There is an animal called the beaver, which is extremely gentle; its testicles are are highly suitable for medicine. Physiologus says of it that, when it knows that a hunter is pursuing it, it bites off its testicles and throws them in the hunter’s face and, taking flight, escapes. But if, once again, another hunter is in pursuit, the beaver rears up and displays its sexual organs. When the hunter sees that it lacks testicles, he leaves it alone. Thus every man who heeds God’s commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil. Then the devil, seeing that the man has nothing belonging to him, retires in disorder. That man, however, lives in God and is not taken by the devil, who says: ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them…'(Exodus, 15:9) The name castor comes from castrando, ‘castrate’. (Emphasis added; image found here)

The clear association here between beavers and living a chaste life reminded me that it is said of Juan Diego that he and his wife–both early converts to Christianity–after hearing a sermon on chastity, dedicated themselves to live chaste lives. Some say that this is the reason the Virgin chose to appear to him. At any rate, I went back to the image of the frieze and enlarged it some more; sure enough, the animal has a flat tail, rather than a bushy one. And now, I would love to know what that plant is that it is eating.

The beaver’s appearance here in a depiction of a scene that it ostensibly has nothing to do with is at one level, that of iconography, perfectly understandable. Most of us are familiar with Renaissance-era depictions of animals or objects along with saints (think of Peter often shown with a set of keys, in reference to Matthew 16:19). What’s intriguing here is the application of this principle to a depiction of Juan Diego. It speaks to the apparent need to assert or remind the visitor of his virtue and, thus, of his worthiness to receive a visitation from the Virgin. It causes me to wonder if certain visitors were considered to need this reminder more than others did (even in the decades immediately following the apparitions, elements within the Church questioned the veracity of the story). And as for what indigenous people made of the beaver . . . As of this writing, I have not been able to find what if any significance beavers held for the Aztecs, but somehow I doubt that chastity figures into their thinking.

In short, in this frieze is a not-yet-seamless fusing of iconic languages, as embodied by the beaver and the maguey plant, from two different religious traditions. In the associating of European images–the hat and the beaver–with the Indian Juan Diego, we see hesitancy in depicting some more overt sign of his Indianness to the viewer due to those signs’ inevitable associations with the very religions that the Church sought to supplant. Besides, in the Church’s eye, the fact of Juan Diego’s Christianity would trump all other identities he might claim. Meanwhile, the maguey, a plant firmly linked to life before the arrival of the Spaniards, is a sturdy, literally rooted presence here. It’s a strange visual space, this frieze. But then again, the New World is a strange place.