The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the greatest Marian Shrine in the world. The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary four times to St. Juan Diego and once to his uncle Juan Bernardino from December 9 to 12, 1531 made the Basilica popular. The divine imprint of Our Lady on a perishable mantle of Juan Diego as a proof for the local Bishop Zumarraga is still fresh and displayed in the Basilica. This miraculous image of the Blessed Mother has great communicative value because of its divine origin and symbolic meanings. This image attracted many throughout five centuries and made revolutionary spiritual and social changes in Mexico.
(Rev. 11:19a) Then the temple of God in the heaven was opened, and the Ark of the Covenant of God could be seen inside the temple.
(Rev. 12:1-6a) (1) A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (2) She was pregnant and cried out in pain, as she labored to give birth. (3) Then another sign appeared: a huge, red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and wearing seven crowns on its heads. (4) It had just swept along a third of the stars of heaven with its tail, throwing them down to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour the child as soon as it was born. (5) She gave birth to a male child, the one who is to rule all the nations with an iron scepter; then her child was seized and taken up to God and to his throne, (6) while the woman fled to the desert where God had prepared a place for her.
(Rev. 12:10ab) Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the Kingdom of God, and the rule of his anointed.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe; Historical Background
The historical background of Mexico gives us a better understanding of the impact of Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparitions in Guadalupe, Mexico. People migrated in Mexico around 13,000 years ago. When the Spanish forces under Captain Hernando Cortes arrived at Veracruz, south east of Mexico City from Cuba on April 22, 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II was in power. He had 10 million subjects in 38 provinces with governors as local leaders under the emperor. Cotes waged war against the emperor for two years and took control of the empire. The native people whom the emperor oppressed joined the Spaniards in the fight against the emperor. The Spaniards also used the emperor’s surrendered soldiers to continue war against the emperor’s army. The emperor attempted for a settlement with the Spaniards. After several days of negotiations, Cortes arrested the emperor and killed him because he did not trust the emperor. He then incorporated Mexico under the Spanish crown.
After the conquest of Mexico, Captain Hernando Cortes tried to introduce European culture among the natives in Mexico. He demolished the temples of human sacrifices and built Catholic churches over the destructed pagan temples. Cortes brought missionaries from Spain. They opened churches, schools, and hospitals in Mexico. Though there were few conversions to Christianity, the missionaries could not eradicate the centuries old Aztec culture and pagan worship.
Hernando Cortes left for Honduras in 1524. His successor, the representative of the Spanish Emperor Charles V, found it hard to manage the situation in Mexico. So, in 1528, the emperor replaced him by a team of five administrators known as the First Audience. Spanish emperor Charles V appointed a Franciscan Bishop Zumarraga in Mexico with considerable powers over the First Audience to control their misuse of power over the Mexican natives. This first bishop of Mexico worked hard for the evangelization and social welfare of the natives. However, the deep-rooted idol worship of the natives and the Spanish administrators’ cruelty were a backslash in the evangelization effort of Bishop Zumarraga and his team of missionaries from Spain.
Don Nune de Guzman, the dominant person of the First Audience, turned against Bishop Zumarraga and other Christian missionaries because they did not agree with his cruelty to the natives. Guzman thought the natives were soulless, and he treated them with inhuman cruelty. Finding no chance of compromise with Guzman, Bishop Zumarraga secretly reported the situation to the Spanish Emperor Charles V. So, the emperor replaced the First Audience with a Second Audience headed by Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez y Fuenleal. However, the new administrators reached Mexico only a year after their appointment.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs along with other tribes in Mexico took arms against the cruelty of the Spaniards. Bishop Zumarraga could sense that the rebellion could lead to a notable destruction of Spaniards. He prayed to Blessed Virgin Mary to intervene and to save the few Spaniards in the country. He secretly asked Mother Mary to send him some Castilian roses, not available in Mexico, as a sign of hearing his prayer.
The Apparition of the Virgin
Juan Diego, his wife Maria Lucia, and his uncle Juan Bernardino accepted Christianity in 1525. Since Diego’s parents died when he was young, his uncle Bernardino was his foster father. After his marriage, Juan Diego moved to a new house. Juan and his wife used to walk 15 miles to his parish at Tlaltelolco to attend Holy Mass and religious education class. Maria Lucia died in 1529. Since Juan was childless and his uncle needed care, he moved to a house near his uncle’s home.
On Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, then age 57, was going to his parish church in the early morning to take part in the feast of the Immaculate Conception. While passing through Tepeyac Hill he saw birds on the summit and heard a celestial music. He also saw a white cloud and rainbow. Then he heard a feminine voice calling him by name and asking him to climb. Juan went up the 130 feet mountain top and saw the Lady. She said, “Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives.… Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.” The Lady then asked him to tell the Bishop of Mexico City to build a shrine in her name on the spot where she appeared.
When Juan Diego reached the bishop’s house, the bishop’s staff did not allow him to see the bishop because he was a native. After long waiting, he could visit Bishop Zumarraga who, with the help of Juan Gonzalez, a Spanish missionary among the natives and an interpreter, listened to him. However, the bishop asked Juan to come again so the bishop would have more time to consider the request. Juan went back to the top of the Tepeyac Hill where Our Lady was waiting for him. Juan said the bishop did not believe him, and he suggested the Virgin to assign someone of higher status for her mission to the bishop. The Lady asked him to visit the bishop the next day.
On the next day, Juan Diego went after Sunday Mass to see the bishop. After much waiting, the staff allowed him to see Bishop Zumarraga. This time the bishop asked for a sign from the Lady to prove the credibility of the vision. The bishop secretly sent his trusted assistants to follow Juan and verify the fact. Though they followed Juan, they missed him on the hill. Juan Diego again met the Virgin at the hill and explained to her what the bishop had asked him. The Lady told him to return to her the next day.
When Juan reached home, he found that his 68-year-old uncle, Juan Bernardino, was terminally ill. Some believe Spanish opponents shot Bernardino because he cooperated with the Spanish missionaries. Juan sought the help of a village physician to treat his uncle. But the herbal treatment was not effective. Since Juan was taking care of his sick uncle, he did not go to the Lady on the next day, Monday, December 11th.
On Tuesday early morning, Juan’s uncle requested Juan to go to the local church and get a priest for his confession and last rites. Juan took a deviation as he approached the hill to avoid seeing the Lady from heaven so he could get a priest before his uncle’s death. However, the Lady came down from the Tepeyac Hill to meet him on the way. She assured him she would cure his uncle at that moment and asked him to go up the hill where she met him three times before and gather some flowers from there and bring back to her. Though flowers could not grow during the winter and on a rocky place, Juan Diego found flowers including Castilian roses that were not common in Mexico. He brought the flowers on his tilma (mantle) and showed to the Lady, who rearranged them and asked Juan to take them to the bishop as a sign.
Juan’s uncle Juan Bernardino also had a vision of the Lady. She healed him and told him what was going on with Juan Diego. She revealed to him that the church should title her as “The Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” Bishop Zumarraga, when he later heard this, was surprised because this name corresponded to a historical Marian shrine of his native country, Spain.
When Juan reached the Bishop’s house, the staff again tried to avoid him seeing the bishop. He stayed there long with the flowers hidden in his mantle. Later he could meet the bishop. Some people, including the new governor of Mexico Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez Fuenleal, were there. Juan, while explaining what happened during his fourth vision of the Lady, opened his tilma to show the flowers. The flowers, including the Castilian roses, fell on the floor. The Castilian flowers amazed Bishop Zumarraga because that was the sign, he had asked the Blessed Virgin Mary as a signal of resolving the conflict between the natives and the Spaniards. Bishop Zumarraga saw an image of the Blessed Virgin on the tilma that Juan was unaware. The bishop fell on his knees to honor the Lady. He embraced Juan and asked pardon for not believing him before.
The material of Juan’s tilma was maguey cactus fibers. It comprised three pieces joined. The miraculous image appeared on two pieces six-and-a-half feet long by 42 inches wide with a joint running down the middle. Though such a mantle has a life span of 10 to 30 years, it stays with the same freshness even after five centuries. It survived the unsafe exhibition with no glass covering, and touch by bare hands and weapons by millions of pilgrims. Smoke from thousands of candles and dust from the stone chapel did not lessen the brightness of the image.
Pilgrims who prayed in front of the image received many miracles and favors. The tilma survived an accidental acid spill in 1785 while cleaning the frame holding the tilma, and a purposeful bomb blast to destroy the image in 1921. Dr. Callahan, who studied the tilma using infrared technology in 1979, discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit the same as that of a living person. The church has displayed it at the back of the sanctuary of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, attracting pilgrims from all over the world.
Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego on July 31, 2002 and made him patron of the Indigenous people. His feast is on December 9.
Interpretation of the Image of Guadalupe
Pictograph is an effective method of educating illiterate people. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a perfect pictograph that the native Mexicans could understand. This imprint on a tilma is unique because it is of divine origin. It has no brush strokes, no primer or over coating with varnish. No fungus or insects could damage the sack like tilma even after 500 years. The clarity of the image is still vibrant. Modern scientists accept that this image is beyond scientific explanation. Some interpretations of the image are:
Christian Interpretation: Artists portray the halo of a saint only around the head. For Our Lady of Guadalupe, it is all around her body reminding us of the greeting of Angel Gabriel, “Hail full of grace.” (Luke 1:28). John describes his vision at the Island of Patmos: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, clothed with the sun.” (Rev. 12:1a). That is what we see in the image of Guadalupe.
Christian Interpretation: Mary stepping on this serpent god (dark moon-god) means she has crushed and defeated this god of darkness, fulfilling God’s word in Genesis 3: 15.
Christian Interpretation: In the Bible, cloud is a symbol of the Divine presence (Exodus 16:10; 33:9; Numbers 11:25; 12:5; Job 22:14; and Psalms 18:13).
Christian Interpretation: The long robe is not the dress style of Mexican women but a Jewish dress of Palestinian women. So Mary is of Jewish origin.
Modern scientific studies by ophthalmologists have proved that the eyes of the image are not paintings but human eyes. They have reflections of 13 people, including Juan Diego and Bishop Zumarraga. No human painter can or will do such a work.
The natives express their prayer on their entire body. Like them, the picture depicts Mary as in dancing prayer with her knee bent in movement.
The Impact of the Image of Guadalupe