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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The last Virgen de Guadalupe post. Maybe

What follows is not a coherent argument but an attempt to present some ends that so far refuse to be tied via someone’s addressing them directly. Those ends: I have yet to find even a trace of a colonial-era discussion of the religious significance of the Virgin’s appearing as a mestiza. You’d think someone, somewhere during that time, would have contemplated that particular mystery. Speaking for myself, the more I have contemplated it, the stranger she becomes–especially, by the way, if the image is fraudulent.
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Quick notes on some current/recent reading

Engraving by Samuel Stradanus, c. 1615, the earliest known pictoral representation of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known depictions of the apparitions and the miracle of the image would not appear until 1648. Image found here.

The recent reading: Stafford Poole, C. M., Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. I am about done with my Virgen de Guadalupe kick, my reader(s) will probably be pleased to learn. For those who want a thorough, Occam’s Razor-based examination of the historical record regarding the apparitions and the accompanying tradition, though, Poole’s book is definitely the place to start. It could use an update, seeing since its publication some additional documents concerning Juan Diego emerged during the process leading to his canonization. But it remains extremely valuable, especially for such things as providing the ecclesiastical context in both Spain and Mexico during the colonial era and the vagaries of Nahuatl poetry (chief among them, the fact that Nahuatl was a spoken and written language vital to aiding in the conversion and education of indigenous peoples up till almost the end of the colonial era). Here’s the thumbnail summary of Poole’s conclusions:

From 1531 (the year the apparitions are said to have occurred) till the 1550s, no written records of any sort exist which refer to Juan Diego or the apparitions;

beginning in the 1550s, there begin to appear references–not all of them positive–to a chapel (ermita) at Tepeyac (the hill in present-day Mexico City where the Virgin is said to have appeared) and the veneration of an object or objects there;

by 1615 (the year of the Samuel Stradanus engraving above), a pictoral tradition depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin had arisen, thus indicating the existence of an oral tradition that had given rise to them;

in 1648, there suddenly appeared (re Poole) the first narratives regarding Juan Diego and the apparitions and the miracle of the image on his ayate, accompanied by the admission of no prior written records of these narratives but that they had been perpetuated via the memory of those whose relatives or familiars had known Juan Diego;

from 1650 on, the Virgin was vigorously promoted as a sign that God had shown His favor on Mexico and, thus, on criollos (those of Spanish blood born in Mexico), and less-vigorously promoted as a means of evangelizing to the Indians.

As to the veracity of the story and image as currently-received tradition has it, Poole is careful to say that the currently-existing historical records–their words and, as importantly, their silences–don’t support that tradition . . . which is not the same thing as saying that they are untrue. Still, Poole’s incredulity that something as momentous as the apparitions and the miraculous image would go completely unmentioned in Church documents for over 100 years speaks for itself. As to the Virgin’s image’s link to casta paintings, which I speculated on here, Poole doesn’t address either those paintings or even, for that matter, the Virgin’s mestiza appearance. Still, in his thorough examining of sermons that establish a link between the Virgin and the affirmation of crilloismo, Poole helps provide tangential independent confirmation of that connection.

Speaking of casta paintings . . . I also had a look at Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. It contains some examples of these paintings, one of which is the first image you see in this earlier post of mine. From its discussion of that painting, written by Ilona Katzew:

Tobacco and chocolate [depicted in the painting] were staples of the New World. Featuring these typical American products in paintings whose subject was miscegenation–believed to be especially widespread in the New World–offered a highly mediated view of life in New Spain, one that casts the colony as the producers of goods and people. (245)

Yes. And add to this Katzew’s observation elsewhere that the enactment of the mid-18th century Bourbon Reforms, among other things, sought to insist more firmly on rules based on New Spain’s racial hierarchy (casta paintings would begin to be numbered accordingly); yet, in this painting and in others depicting all but the very lowest castas, the families would be shown as prosperous and anything but the moral degenerates that the casta system implicitly claimed the less-than-pure were. The casta paintings thus became, in this argument, somewhat akin to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter: they honored the letter of the law but violated its spirit. They, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe in a parallel course (which is to say, these traditions seem not, or only rarely, to intersect), came to be manifestations of criollo pride rather than its official inferiority relative to Spain.

There is more to say about this.

Current reading: George Washington Cable, Strange True Tales of Louisiana (1888, 1889). Over at good old Blog Meridian, I recently posted on the potential dark side of literary regionalism, of which Cable is definitely a part, but it seems to me that he himself doesn’t fall prey to that dark side, either here or in The Grandissimes. Strange Tales is a collection of (so far) linked stories that Cable claims are based on actual memoirs and diaries that have come into his possession about life in antebellum New Orleans and southern Louisiana plantation life. Let’s just say I have my doubts about those claims, but that does nothing to lessen their interest for me. [UPDATE: Via this article (.pdf), I’ve learned that Cable indeed did use a combination of actual letters and diaries, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, to produce these stories. But the collection has, overall, a unified feel not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.] And let’s just say as well that I think Edna Ferber read this book fairly attentively, but that that and other matters will have to wait for a fuller airing later on.

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.

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.
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