Mexicus heic populus mira sub imagine gaudet
Te colere, alma parens, praesidioque frui,
Per te sic vigeat felix, teque auspice Christi
Immotam servet firmior usque fidem
Leo PP. XIII
Today is the feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.
As I am reminded by a friend, this is the 480th anniversary of the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Indian convert Juan Diego in 1531.
You should know the story: how the Blessed Virgin appeared three times on the slopes of Tepeyac hill on the 9th and 10th of December, and asked Juan Diego to make it known to the Bishop that she desired a church built on that selfsame spot. She further stated that she would be a kind and loving mother to the poor Indians and to all who should invoke her aid.
The bishop, responsible for the souls in his diocese, was understandably cautious of this claim, and requested some sign or miracle. On the second day, Our Lady told Juan to fill his tilma with flowers and take them to the bishop. When he did so, the bishop found that an image of the Virgin as she appeared to Juan was limned upon the tilma. The sign was accepted, and the church was built as she requested, with the tilma and its portrait hung up inside.
While devotion was not universal, it was widespread throughout Mexico and areas of Mexican influence. In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV decreed Our Lady of Guadalupe the patroness of New Spain, and established her feast day on the 12th of December, with a special Mass and Office, and said of the picture: “In it there is nothing that is not wonderful: a Picture from flowers gathered in midwinter on a soil entirely sterile and fit to bear only thorns: on a cloth so thin that through it as through a lattice, transennam, the temple lay easily open to the eyes: and that after two centuries the nitre of the neighboring lake, which erodes silver, gold, and brass, has not in the least injured its supreme beauty, summam pulchritudinem, nor its most vivid color.” Some two hundred and fifty years later, Pope Leo XIII ordered the image crowned in his name, and composed the Latin verses above for the coronation (English translation below). His successor, Pius X, proclaimed her the patroness of Latin America, granted indulgences for prayers said before a copy of the picture anywhere in the world, and allowed the Mass of Holy Mary of Guadalupe to be said on the 12th of every month by Mexican priests.
This is a free English rendering of Leo XIII's distich, written in February 1895:
"In thy portentous Picture treasured here,
The Mexic race, O gracious Mother, joys
To honor thee and reap the gold wealth
Of thy unfailing aid. In happy strength
Still make it grow, that blessed by thee it hold
In ever tightening grasp the changeless Faith of Christ."
Archbishop Corrigan of New York attended the crowning of the image in 1895 and wrote: “The material on which the image is formed is a coarse product of the maguey plant, such as is still used by the Indians for their wraps and for other domestic purposes. The image is painted on this rough canvas, without any sizing or preparation. In fact, the canvas is transparent, the same image showing on both sides. At various times the picture has been examined by a committee of experts composed of distinguished artists and of scientific men, and they have deposed under oath that they could not account either for its production or for its preservation. The image exhibits peculiar characteristics of painting in oil, in water-color, in distemper, and in relief. In fact, these four dissimilar kinds of painting are discernible in different portions of the same canvas; and, in addition to this, the gilding, which appears in the stars embroidered on the garment of Our Lady and in the texture of the robe itself, as well as in the rays of light which issue from the figure, is not applied according to any known process and seems rather to have been woven into the fibre than painted on it.”
“Apart from the curious commingling of dissimilar kinds of painting on the same canvas, there is this other peculiarity about the picture, that for years it was exposed, without any covering, not only to the smoke of censers and innumerable candles, but to the damp air, charged with saltpeter, which continually arises from the neighboring lakes and marshes, and which affects and corrodes the hardest substances; and yet, after a period of more than three hundred and sixty years, this product of the maguey plant, which ought to have perished long ago, is still in a state of perfect preservation. This is the more remarkable, because experiments have been tried in the same locality with similar material, but with very different results.”
It has been suggested that Guadalupe is the Spanish pronunciation of the nahuatl word Coatlaxopeuh, referring to the woman who saves from the devouring serpent. The original Virgin of Guadalupe, however, dates back (barring legend) to at least the 14th century in Estremadura, Spain, where a dark wooden image, seen here, was discovered by a cow-keeper. A hermitage was built on the spot which later became a royal monastery, housing the rich and much-frequented shrine. Devotion to her was carried by such men as Hernan Cortes to the New World, where her dark skin had more appeal to the native population than the white-skinned European Madonnas. I have no problem believing that the woman who declared that she was a kind and loving mother to the Indians would not hesitate to use the comfortable words and images most understood by them.
Juan Diego was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. His feast day is 9 December, the day he ran down a hill on his way to hear Mass and met the Woman clothed with the Sun and with the Moon at her feet.