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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Natty Bumppo’s “natur”: The anxiety of bearing no cross

last-of-the-mohicansNatty Bumppo, most likely telling the young Mohican Indian Uncas how to be a better Indian. Image found here.

Note: Over at my other blog, I have two brief posts on Mohicans, here and here; this one comes out of that context, but it’s not crucial to have read them before you read this one.

The frustrating (and fascinating) thing about reading The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is that, for all its insufferable didaticism it can be difficult to know whether and to what extent certain of its more intriguing textual moments are intentional. This difficulty, I would assume, is owing to what Richard Poirier succinctly describes (77) as Cooper’s lack of stylistic defensiveness. One quick example is Cooper’s rendering of Natty Bumppo’s speaking the word nature as “natur”: Apart from seeking to signify how his character is pronouncing the word, might Cooper also intend something of a more metaphysical or existential quality as regards his protagonist’s nature? I don’t know, and there is likely no way to know for sure. I mention all this because some conclusions that follow will be more speculative than interpretive; to that end, I’ll also make reference to another book, ostensibly very different from Mohicans, to provide a little support for those speculations.

Mohicans is here because of its influence on 19th-century Latin American writers who saw themselves (and their people) in the years after independence with much the same task ahead of them that Cooper’s characters face: the establishing of a new nation, and the extent to which people will shape the land, or the land them. But Mohicans is interesting to me as well because of the presence of Cora Munro, the older of Colonel Munro’s two daughters. The colonel tells Major Duncan Heyward of Cora’s origins–significantly, after the colonel assumes Heyward is interested in marrying Cora and Heyward rather awkwardly says he is not, that his interests lie with Alice, Cora’s younger, fairer, half-sister:

[Munro says, “In the West Indies,] it was my lot to form a connexion with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady, whose misfortune it was, if you will,” said the old man, proudly, “to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people! Ay, sir, that is a curse entailed on Scotland, by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them, who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where the unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own. . . . [a]nd you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards, with one so degraded–lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent.

“Heaven protect me from a prejudice so unworthy of my reason!” returned Duncan, at the same time conscious of such a feeling, and that as deeply rooted as if it had been engrafted in his nature. “The sweetness, the beauty, the witchery of your younger daughter, Colonel Munro, might explain my motives, without imputing to me this injustice.” (151)

Heyward thus smooths things over with his future father-in-law, though not without a twinge of conscience as he feels compelled to lie to him even as he confronts a truth about himself. To his credit, up to this point in the novel he had been partial to Alice before being told of Cora’s ancestry; but now, as we see above, he has information that legitimizes to himself his not choosing Cora, even as he denies that his thinking tends in the same direction as that of the South. Heyward also provides here in miniature one of the novel’s chief themes: the tension between Reason and Nature as the deciding factor in determining our attitudes regarding race. As Heyward makes explicit in the passage above, the then-PC thing to say is that racism is antithetical to reason; yet the impulse toward racist (and racialist) attitudes seems “engrafted in . . . nature.” (Just as an aside, Thomas Dixon, in his novel The Sins of the Father (1912), will have his hero Dan Norton argue just the opposite: that racialism is a completely rational notion, and his adulterous affair with the mulatto woman Cleo is the result of his succumbing to what he characterizes as a failure of reason to control his baser impulses.)

I’ve not yet finished reading Mohicans, but thus far Cora, whose racial background satisfies the most essential prerequisites of the Tragic Mulatto–that she be darker-haired and -complected owing to some infinitesimal trace of black blood in her; that that trace render her unfit as a marriage partner–she is no tragic figure. That is most likely because she already knows the details of her parentage and, as a result, is (with the possible exception of the Chingachgook and his son Uncas) the most comfortable in her racial skin. That comfort, moreover, seems to give her a strength that Alice utterly lacks. It may also be, in part, why the attention the men show Cora is of a sort for which the best descriptor is “sexual.” In the most explicit expression of that attention, when the duplicitous Huron Magua (to whom Cooper also gives the French name Le Renard Subtil, just in case the reader needs a further marker of his duplicitous nature–there’s that word again) leeringly proposes to Cora in chapter XI that she become his wife, Cora more than holds her own. The fair-skinned and blonde Alice is also beautiful, but she is much more childlike and naïve; the attention she tends to attract is more paternalistic. It’s thus very odd to see Heyward describe Alice in the passage quoted above as possessing “witchery.” If witchery it is, it is Glinda-Good-Witch-of-the-North witchery.

Cora will not survive the end of Mohicans. As Doris Sommer argues in Foundational Fiction‘s discussion of the novel’s influence on Argentinian writer Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo,

[Cora’s tragedy] is announced by the fact that she is the product of a leaky grid of blood. Her blood was so rich that it “seemed ready to burst its bounds” [11 in the Modern Library edition]. It stains her; makes her literally uncategorizable, that is, an epistemological error. . . . Cooper introduces these anomalous figures [Bumppo as well as Cora] as if to pledge that America can be original by providing the space for differences, variations, and crossings. But then he recoils from them, as if they were misfits, monsters. If Hawk-eye seems redeemable inside the grid of a classical reading because, unlike the gauchos, he is a man without a cross, he is finally as doomed as they are by Cooper’s obsessive social neatness. Hawk-eye disturbs the ideal hierarchies that Sarmiento and his Cooper have in mind, because neither birth nor language can measure his worth. (58-59)

Sommer’s reading here is another way of stating the terms of that tension between Reason and Nature that I mentioned earlier regarding a society’s attitudes about race. Whatever the truth of Sommer’s claim of Cooper’s “obsessive social neatness,” though, I’d argue that within the text–or more precisely, within Cooper’s characters–that debate is far from resolved, much less resolved neatly. The extent to which Cooper is actually aware of all this messiness–for which, after all, he as the author bears some responsibility–is a question Sommer, given how she characterizes Cooper seems not even to see as a question. This question of whether writers who create racially- and culturally-miscegenated characters are fully aware of how they destabilize narrative is an important one for this project.

Despite her passion, Cora exhibits a calmness: she clearly knows herself. Nowhere, thus far in the novel, does she wrestle with questions of her identity. As readers know, though, Natty Bumppo obsessively makes claims as to his “natur,” the most familiar assertion being that he is a man whose blood bears no cross. His mantra-like iteration, once we get over the impulse to mock it, becomes curious. No one in the novel questions that he is white; it is no secret that he was born of white parents but raised by Indians. Yet, if we may indulge in a bit of psychoanalysis, that constant iteration would seem to indicate that Bumppo feels a barely-subconscious anxiety about his background. Even as he expresses what can only be termed pride in his knowledge of the woods and the ways of Indians, it is as though he worries reflexively that in the eyes of other whites the very fact that he has this knowledge (or, alternately, a lack of knowledge that other whites “should” have) marks him as different in some essential way from other whites. To take only one example of this, when he initially does not properly read the tracks left by the Narraganset Bay horses that Cora and Alice are riding–a breed of horse that Cooper had earlier provided information on via a footnote for his readers’ benefit–Bumppo feels compelled to explain why he had failed: “[T]hough I am a man who has the full blood of the whites, my judgment in deer and beaver is greater than in beasts of burthen. Major Effington has many noble chargers, but I have never seen one travel after such a sideling gait!” (113) Bumppo apparently fears that someone might interpret his ignorance of one breed of horse, fairly uncommon though it is, as a sign that he is somehow less than white–hence his felt need to say that he has “the full blood of the whites.”

At the beginning of this post, I wondered whether, by rendering Bumppo’s pronunciation of the word as “natur,” Cooper might want to suggest something more existential about his protagonist: that he at some level feels some lack in his nature that puts him at risk of being alienated from the people with whom he claims a racial kinship. It’s here that I would like to engage in a bit more speculation: that the key to Bumppo’s anxiety is suggested by a pun, which may or may not be intentional on Cooper’s part, in Bumppo’s saying that his “blood bears no cross”: that is, that while Bumppo believes in God and “Providence,” it would be a mistake to identify him as a Christian–at least, as that term is understood by the other whites in the novel. At a time when religious affiliation, a community’s being held together and affirming its members via a shared faith in God–and, more precisely, a shared expression of that faith via theology and doctrine–was an accepted part of communal life and was fully embraced by almost everyone, it is not too excessive to suggest the possibility that Bumppo’s spiritual estrangement from his fellows compels him to affirm his kinship via his consanguinity–his “natur”–all the while fearing that even consanguinity might not be sufficient.
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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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“In the direction of system”: Two passages from The Grandissimes

Aurora aurora-and-clotilde-nancanou-receive-joseph-frowenfeldand Clotilde Nancanou receive Joseph Frowenfeld. Illustration by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes. Image found here.

George Washington Cable’s most famous novel (1880) is sneaky with regard to its examination of Creole New Orleans in those years just prior to and just after the Louisiana Purchase: strident when the reader expects (but does not necessarily want) it to be; wry, even sly, when the reader does not expect it. Consider these two brief examples involving Aurora and Clotilde Nancanou, the mother and daughter whose genteel destitution figures prominently in this novel.

The first passage provide a glimpse of the domestic dynamics of the Nancanou household:

[Aurora and Clotilde] sat down opposite each other at their little dinner table. They had a fixed hour for dinner. It is well to have a fixed hour; it is in the direction of system. Even if you have not the dinner, there is the hour. Alphonsina [their black cook] was not in perfect harmony with this fixed-hour idea. It was Aurora’s belief, often expressed in hungry moments with the laugh of a vexed Creole lady (a laugh worthy of study), that on the day when diner should really be served at the appointed hour, the cook would drop dead of apoplexy and she of fright[. . . .] Not that she felt particularly hungry, but there is a certain desultoriness allowable at table more than elsewhere[.] (216-217)

“In the direction of system” strikes me as both a marvelously evocative turn of phrase on its own terms and one that also speaks to the strange combination of surface rigidity and domestic compromise–perhaps even an unspoken resignation–at work in a world that we today rightly characterize as brutalizing and dehumanizing toward people of color, whether freedmen or not. System–structure, rules, codes–must be in place, even if those whose actions are ostensibly most governed by that system are “not in perfect harmony with” it. Moreover, as the concluding sentence makes clear, the system referred to is intended for public visual consumption; the novel’s later brief public scandal of Joseph Frowenfeld (the American who serves simultaneously as the author’s mouthpiece, the novel’s moral center, and Clotilde’s romantic interest) being seen leaving a mulatto woman’s house with a head wound is a scandal precisely because it is public.

[The dynamic at work here, by the way is strikingly similar to that regarding the establishing and (lack of) policing of the dress codes (and the reasoning behind them) depicted in Mexican casta paintings from the colonial era. The intent behind the dress codes was to make one’s class–and, indirectly, one’s caste–more publicly certain. Implicit in the code was the assumption that lower-caste members, no matter their skin color, tended not to be financially successful. But some lighter-skinned members of those lower castes inevitably did make money, as artisans, as merchants, etc., and it is all but certain that some of those with the means tried and succeeded in passing as higher-caste members. The dress code therefore provided them with a legally-sanctioned disguise.]

These public displays in the direction of system, in combination with domestic desultorinesses, can lead to some rather odd musings in the face of the more awkward consequences of the Peculiar Institution, as is the case with this second passage:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)

While Clotilde is a very young woman whose mother seems to have protected her from situations in which she would have come to understand that the mulatto girl’s existence might not have been a source of much pleasantness at her student’s house, it’s still hard not to recall this famous passage from Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary: “[L]ike the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think-” (source).

Such a world is one of tacitly-sanctioned virtual disguises even more impenetrable than the clothes one wears, a world of very odd public dances on whose strangeness no one comments. Thus, it is no accident, given Cable’s characters’ preoccupation with appearance (in all its senses) and underlying identities and entangled family roots of plantation families (just as one example, two men in the novel are named Honoré Grandissime, one a Creole, the other his mulatto half-brother), that his novel’s opening scene is a masked ball.

New World babies as articulations of cultural difference

Note: This is heading in the direction of a preface or introduction to the book project. The image below is its starting place, at any rate. Would reading this make you want to read more? Comments welcome and encouraged.

detailfromriveramuralatnationalpalaceDetail from a panel of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Click to enlarge. Photograph by the Mrs.

In a panel filled with figures, most appearing in full or partial profile, all going about the business of colonizing/being colonized, this infant, suspended in a plain rebozo from its mother’s back, its skin slightly lighter than its mother’s, slightly darker than that of the soldier I assume is its father, gazes fixedly at something just above and beyond the viewer’s left shoulder. It is difficult to say what accounted for my standing in front of this image for some minutes when my wife and I visited the palacio (Mexico’s national capitol building) back in October: whether it’s that the baby is the only figure in the panel’s foreground looking in the viewer’s direction yet not quite returning the viewer’s gaze; or the color of its eyes–two tiny stones of aquamarine in a sea of reds and browns and yellows. Or both.

Though I did not have this image in mind when I worked on my dissertation, in a sense it is precisely because of what we see in it that I chose that dissertation’s subject: an attempt to discuss historical and fictional narratives of consensual miscegenation as tropes of New World culture more generally. It is not merely that individual mestizos, métis, and mulattoes are, to borrow Joel Williamson’s phrase, new people; it is that the culture that has emerged in this hemisphere is also, I argue, something demonstrably different from the European, African and indigenous cultures that contributed to its creation. Analogous to the baby’s not quite gazing directly at the viewer, New World culture is simultaneously familiar and strange–and, moreover, not one fully explained by most mainstream critical theories of culture.

As an example of what I mean by that last statement, here is a passage from the introduction to Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, coincidentally published in the year I defended my dissertation:

The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions–of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation–that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood–singular or communal–that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself.

It is in the emergence of the intersticies–the overlap and displacement of domains of difference–that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between’, or in excess of, the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender. etc.)? How do strategies or representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (1-2, emphasis mine)

Readers of Bhabha will recognize in this passage an implicit articulating of the concerns at stake in his concept of hybridity, an idea that has great resonance–and potential pitfalls–for the citizens of the Western Hemisphere1, and one I am largely sympathetic with. But, the bolded passage strikes me, a citizen of this hemisphere and someone who attempts to understand and write about its culture, as not quite speaking to our cultural condition. I would argue that it is precisely in “those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference”–phenomena that Bhabha calls on critics to examine so as to be “theoretically innovative and politically crucial”–that we find the New World’s “narratives of original and initial subjectivities”: the very sorts of texts Bhabha argues we “need to think beyond.” To put this in terms of the baby in Rivera’s mural, Bhabha’s stance is that we already know where babies come from. I contend that, in this hemisphere, we’re still trying to figure out how to articulate where this particular baby comes from–and what those origins tell us about ourselves as a culture.
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The Book of the New World–some preliminary comments

To begin with, this passage from George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880):

Resolved, in other words, without being [Joseph] Frowenfeld the studious, to begin at once the perusal of this newly found book, the Community of New Orleans. True, he knew he should find it a difficult task–not only that much of it was in a strange tongue, but that it was a volume whose displaced leaves would have to be lifted tenderly, blown free of much dust, re-arranged, some torn fragments laid together again with much painstaking, and even the purport of some pages guessed out. (103)

Passages such as this occur with some frequency in miscegenation narratives: references to literal or, in this case, figurative books the understanding of whose contents demand patience and care on the part of the reader. In Go Down, Moses, there are the McCaslin plantation ledgers that Ike must come to terms with; in Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, a main character writes a genealogy of Bahian families in part to demonstrate just how miscegenated ostensibly “white” Brazilian families in fact are; etc., etc. At one level, there’s no need to push this too hard. Such scenes occur in novels from throughout the Americas that have little or nothing to do with the theme of interracial relationships; I have mentioned here before that Roberto González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature could, with a bit of tinkering, serve as a useful way of thinking about the origins of the literature of the United States as well. But at another level, there’s a difference to be gotten at. Whereas González Echevarría’s book argues that the literature of the Americas has its origins in the imaginative rewriting of colonial-era records and histories of the region and therefore is an early version of (to appropriate a title) the empire writing back, in the case of narratives of miscegenation these Books either contain or cause a resistance to comprehending them even as they seek to serve as recordings, however oblique, of the facts of miscegenation.

Sorry for quoting myself, but: I tried to say something like this within the context of a post on casta paintings:

Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

It can be discomfiting to talk about the emergence of a new people, especially when they are the by-product of an institution about which there was already considerable discomfort and when they serve, in the eyes of many, as an implicit condemnation of that same institution. Yet, those new people are the the subject of this particular Book of the New World.

More on this, sooner rather than later (I hope).

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.