Virgin of Guadalupe

Virgin of Guadalupe
Virgin of Guadalupe

A fascinating synthesis of Roman Catholicism and pre-Columbian indigenous religious beliefs, the Virgin of Guadalupe (or queen of Mexico) represents a religious icon, a national myth, and Mexico’s most important, popular, and recognizable patron saint.

The origins of this dark-skinned virgin are conventionally attributed to a vision experienced by the Indian Juan Diego on the hill Tepeyac, just outside Mexico City, in the year 1531, only a decade after the Spanish destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and conquest of Mexico.

The question of why this particular apparition eventually reached canonical status in contrast to many other religious apparitions and visions reported by other Indians in the decades after the conquest remains a matter of scholarly debate.

Indeed the Virgin of Guadalupe was not the only syncretic folk religious icon to which the newly conquered indigenous peoples of New Spain directed their prayers and faith in the decades following the tumult and violence of the conquest.

Similarly constituted sacred icons, images, and shrines, combining both Roman Catholic and indigenous beliefs, included the Virgin of Zapopán (c. 1531), the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos (c. 1542), the Virgin of Talpa (c. 1590), the Lord of the Conquest (or Lord of Miracles, c. 1585), the Lord of Villaseca (or the Black Christ, late 1500s), and Our Lady of Atocha and the Christ Child of Atocha (1700s), among many others.

Understanding the proliferation of popular sacred icons and shrines in postconquest New Spain requires understanding the pantheon of pre-Columbian gods worshiped by Mexico’s indigenous peoples; the Roman Catholic tradition of venerating saints, relics, and icons representing various manifestations of God, Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Trinity, in particular the Virgin of Guadalupe of Extremadura (Spain), the patron saint of the conquistadores; and the social and cultural devastation generated by the conquest and its aftermath of forced labor, compulsory religious conversion, and epidemic diseases, which together created a social environment ripe for the emergence of apocalyptic and messianic beliefs and doctrines.

Tenacious in their retention of their ancient religious beliefs and practices, which included magic, sorcery, and divine intervention in every aspect of human affairs (commonly denigrated as superstition by Spanish religious authorities), the indigenous peoples of the Basin of Mexico and beyond responded to the destruction of the conquest by reinterpreting their ancient beliefs in the light of the newly imposed religious doctrines of the conquerors. The Virgin of Guadalupe represented one such syncretic spiritual creation.

According to the French historian Jacques Lafaye, in an interpretation that has come to be broadly accepted within the scholarly community, the cult of the dark-skinned Virgin of Tepeyac (Guadalupe) emerged over decades as the synthesis of Indian folk beliefs and learned Spanish-creole writings, the most important of the latter including a book published in 1648 by the creole Miguel Sánchez, and the poems and plays of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. According to Lafaye, to the Indians she represented a transmutation of the Aztec goddess Tonantzín, whose traditional dwelling place was also the hill of Tepeyac.

Whatever the precise combination of spiritual impulses that together forged the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, by the early 1700s the cult was in full flower, her image associated not only with miracles but with a burgeoning sense of national identity among Mexico’s creoles.

Among the most arresting examples of this fusion can be seen in the campaigns of the hero of Mexican independence Miguel Hidalgo in 1810, whose ragtag army adopted as its emblem a banner bearing the Virgin’s image. Transmuted over centuries from an indigenous god into a syncretic Christian cult, the Virgin of Guadalupe remains to this day one of the most distinctive and important symbols of the Mexican nation.