La Virgen de Guadalupe
Feast day: December 12
Patron Saint of Mexico and the Spanish America
Other Names: La Morenita, La Virgen Morena, La Reina de Mexico, La Madrecita, La Criolla
Essay by Yael Cano
La Virgen de Guadalupe is one of the most loved and venerated saints in Mexico. According to accounts published in both, Nahuatl and Spanish, she first appeared on December 9th, 1531 on top of Tepeyac Hill, a place where the temple to the Aztec earth-mother goddess Tonantzin had been destroyed by the Spanish priests. Juan Diego, a Mexica, was walking up the hill—going to the city from his village—when a young woman surrounded by light appeared in front of him. She was beautiful and had dark skin, hair, and eyes. Speaking to him in his native tongue, Nahuatl, she told him that she was the mother of the one true God and that a church should be built in her honor at the top of the hill. Juan Diego, awestruck, went straight to the archbishop, Friar Juan de Zumarraga who, upon hearing Juan Diego, frowned in disbelief and told him to go away. The next day, Juan Diego returned to the hill, there La Virgen de Guadalupe was waiting for him. After telling her what happened, La Virgen told him to keep trying. The archbishop demanded proof, a miracle, to show that the woman he described was really the Mother of God. On the 12th of December, La Virgen told Juan Diego to go to the top of Tepeyac hill in order to collect Castilian roses, whom are not native to Mexico, blooming in the middle of the winter. Juan Diego filled up his tilma (cloak) and went back to meet with the archbishop. As soon as he let the cloak open and the roses fall to the archbishop’s feet, they revealed an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe imprinted on his tilma. Today, La Virgen de Guadalupe is loved all throughout Mexico and other parts of the world. In Mexico, La Virgen de Guadalupe is more than just a saint, rather she is a representation of what it means to be Mexican, a perfect blend of Aztec and Spanish heritage. Her imprint on Juan Diego’s tilma currently hangs from the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico. Millions of people come to pay homage to her making it the second biggest pilgrimage place in the world.
The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe is important not only because of who she is, but also because of the many symbolisms hidden within her image. These symbols represent not just Catholic iconography but also Aztec iconography, mixing both to form a whole. La Virgen de Guadalupe is depicted with dark skin and hair, representing her mix of Aztec and Spanish heritage. Her unique dark skin indicates that she is a saint for everyone, rather than just one race. Unlike other saints, La Virgen is depicted with eyes that are cast downwards rather than looking straight. This feature symbolizes that she is not a God figure, rather it symbolizes that she has humility, compassion, and especially motherly tenderness. La Virgen is dressed in a rose (fig. 1) or pale red (figs. 1, 2) dress often decorated in flowers.
The color of the dress is often interpreted as being the color of dawn, symbolizing a new era. Meanwhile, the flowers decorating her dress depict nine types of flowers, each of which represent the nine tribes from Aztlán, which made up Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztec empire, now present-day Mexico City. Slightly above her abdomen, the Virgen is always depicted wearing a black sash. The high position of the sash and a slight swelling of her abdomen indicated that she is a noblewoman with child, making it one of the rare depictions of the mother of Christ as pregnant contrasting with the Castilian image of Guadalupe who holds the Baby Jesus.
La Virgen de Guadalupe is also depicted wearing a mantle with a gold border and decorated with stars. The color of the mantle, often being blue green or turquoise represent the natural forces of life and fertility. For indigenous people, these colors represent the colors of the gods and royalty, while these colors represent eternity and immortality in Catholic symbolism. The stars on her mantle indicate that she comes from heaven. Research done by many professionals who have studied her image, including Friar Mario Rojas and Dr. Juan Homero Hernández, have shown that the stars on her mantle are in the same position as the stars of the winter solstice sky, which appeared before dawn on the morning of December 12th, 1531.
Radiating from La Virgen de Guadalupe are sun rays representing the power of God, as well as the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, the sun god. She stands on a crescent moon, representing her power over the Aztec god of darkness, as well as the image of the Immaculate Conception. Below her, an angel with colored wings, often the colors of the Mexican flag, holds her mantle (fig. 1). He holds both her mantle and hem of her tunic with each hand, signifying a union between heaven and earth. Just like La Virgen, the angel also has indigenous looks, representing the eagle warriors from the Aztec army. His presence below her testifies to her royal origins. Roses are also often depicted around La Virgen, representing the Castilian roses Juan Diego collected at the top of Tepeyac Hill.
Figure 1. Our Lady of Guadalupe / Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.
Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.82.
Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.
Figure 2. Our Lady of Guadalupe / Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.
Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.81
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