The Virgin of Guadalupe, the embodiment of the Virgin Mary, appeared to an indigenous Mexican ten years after the conquest in 1531. Juan Diego, his baptized name, told the bishop that the Virgin asked that a temple be built in her honor. The bishop asked for a sign of proof and Juan Diego returned with roses, until then unknown in Mexico, and his cloak transformed into the image we know today. The cloth below is believed to be Juan Diego’s cloak.
During our too brief stop at the Basilica of Guadalupe (more than an hour is needed to do the site justice), I was struck by how The Virgin of Guadalupe is really the People’s Goddess. We were here on a pilgrimage day. Indigenous people in native dress came from all parts of Mexico and gathered in the new basilica. Those that didn’t fit spilled out onto the huge plaza that can accommodate 50,000 people. They carried baby Jesus figures to be blessed by the priest in preparation for Christmas. They held images of the Virgin, wore flowered hats, carried standards and placards, sat quietly in spiritual reflection embracing the crucifix.
The Aztecs venerated Mother Earth, known as Tonantzin or Xochiquetzal. This basilica is built atop an Aztec temple to honor Mother Earth. The Virgin of Guadalupe is considered to be the first Mexican symbol that syncretized the Aztec and Catholic religious systems.
In 1531, the Spanish Inquisition was raging in Mexico. Those who did not embrace the new religion were in peril of losing their lives. By accepting the Virgin of Guadalupe, which successfully blends the Virgin Mary with Mother Earth, indigenous people ensured that they could embrace Catholicism without sacrificing their native traditions and practices. Perhaps Juan Diego was an insightful philosopher who understood what needed to be done for cultural preservation. Today Guadalupanismo has become a faith that many consider to be stronger than the Catholic church in Mexico.
The armies of Miguel Hidalgo took the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe for the Mexican indigenous peasants to embrace with the cry for independence.
The portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe is rife with symbolism. She wears a cloak that evokes the moon, the symbol of fertility, and includes a flower with four petals on her belly that represent the four cardinal points. The folds of the cloak show she is pregnant. Other symbols in the painting incorporate ancient pre-Hispanic traditions which you can read about by clicking the link above.
The Basilica is the second most visited Catholic site outside the Vatican. Over seven million people visit during Christmas week. I wish I had more time there to experience the prayerful reverence of the people. Next time!
You may know that Mexico City is sinking. It is built atop landfill that covers a lake bed. The 1706 Basilica is sinking and leaning, though it is undergoing reclamation. The new Basilica, built in 1976, is supposedly sink-proof!
Come with us on a Street Photography adventure in January 2013.