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Our Lady of Guadalupe depicted among the clay flowers and design elements in a tree of life sculpture.

The Versatile Virgin Mary

By Emma Donnelly

The first time I ever heard the full story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was taking an art history course in high school. One of the topics we covered in the class was art from Mexico, but only one piece of artwork really caught my eye.

The image showed a woman standing on a crescent moon, wearing a blue, star-covered cloak. Her hands were held together in prayer, and she was radiating light. “This is the portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe that’s on the inside of Juan Diego’s cloak,” my teacher informed our small class excitedly.

For a moment, I turned into a kindergartner at story time. My eyes widened, and I leaned forward as my teacher told the story. From that day on, the events that took place on Tepeyac Hill have been ingrained in my memory, as I’m sure was Our Lady’s intention for anyone who heard the story.

Mary’s Appearances to St. Juan Diego

As the story is told, on Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a native Mexican who had recently converted to Catholicism, was on his way to Mass when a beautiful woman, shrouded in beaming light and smiling with the warmth of a mother, appeared to him as he climbed Tepeyac Hill. She greeted him kindly and identified herself as Mary, the Mother of God. As Juan Diego dropped to his knees in reverence, the Blessed Virgin made a request: that Juan Diego implore the local bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, to build a chapel on the spot where she appeared. This chapel, she said, would be a reminder to the people of the world of her love for them, and she would bless anyone who came here to pray to her.

Juan Diego hurried to Zumárraga and reported what he had witnessed. However, the bishop was skeptical. He told Juan Diego to return with proof. If he could do so, then Zumárraga promised to grant his request. Three days later, on Dec. 12, Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill. Once more, Mary appeared to him in a blaze of light and he shared what Zumárraga had ordered him to do. Our Lady told Juan Diego to climb to the hill’s crest and pick the flowers, gather them up in his cloak, or tilma, and bring them to Zumárraga. The request puzzled Juan Diego, for it was almost winter and far too cold for any flowers to be in bloom, but he did as she asked. He saw a patch of beautiful flowers in full bloom, gathered them up and began his journey back to Zumárraga.

When he opened his tilma for the bishop, dozens of Castilian roses spilled out, and underneath them was an imprint of Mary.

Zumárraga ordered construction on the chapel, which was completed 23 years later in 1556. Juan Diego lived beside the chapel, where he could see and pray with anyone who visited. On July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego.

Aftermath of the Apparitions

The story has come under much skepticism. Some critics point out that there’s no documentation of the miracle until 1648. Others state that Zumárraga wasn’t officially consecrated until 1534 (three years after Guadalupe) and made no reference to the miracle in any of his writings. However, defenders of the story’s authenticity point to the importance of oral tradition in Mexican culture preceding 1648, when Miguel Sánchez documented Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego for the first time. The Nican Mopohua, published in 1649 by Antonio Valeriano in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, is widely regarded as the most accurate account of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was relatively slow to spread in the first 205 years. That changed in 1736, when a deadly epidemic of yellow fever ravaged Mexico City. In less than a year, the disease claimed the lives of over 50,000 people. In May 1737, the local archbishop, in a desperate attempt to end the epidemic, declared Our Lady of Guadalupe the patron of Mexico City. The next month, the epidemic rapidly subsided. Veneration for Our Lady of Guadalupe grew significantly, and in 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared Dec. 12 the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Baffling Characteristics of the Tilma

Juan Diego’s original tilma is displayed on the altar of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Over the years, this piece of cloth has baffled scientists with its mysterious qualities. For example, in 1981, Philip Serna Callahan, a biophysicist at the University of Florida and a NASA consultant, photographed the image under infrared light. He concluded that while some parts of the image are painted (such as the moon and the rays coming from Mary), the original image of the Virgin is not. It appears that Mary’s image was produced in a single step. Callahan also believed the original image and material of the tilma had not decayed in 450 years, despite the tilma being displayed for 115 years without any protective barrier.

In 1980, an engineer and digital image processing expert, José Aste Tonsmann, conducted a study in which he amplified an image of the Blessed Virgin’s pupils by 2,500 times. The images are said to reveal in both pupils microscopic images of the moment Juan Diego opened his cloak for Zumárraga and several other witnesses, including a slave of Zumárraga and an interpreter for Juan Diego. According to Tonsmann, it’s impossible for the images to be man-made because they are not visible to the naked human eye. Second, the Samson-Purkinje effect — which is when double or triple reflections of one light source are visible in the eye due to the reflection of the light in both the cornea and the lens — is apparent in Mary’s eyes, although this phenomenon was unknown at the time of the image’s creation.

On November 14, 1921, Luciano Perez Carpio (Private Secretariat of the Presidency) disguised a bomb in a bouquet of flowers and placed it at the foot of the tilma. The explosion damaged a bronze crucifix and candelabras on the altar, but the image of the Virgin Mary was unscathed.

The Lesson of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe’s story shows us that Mary appears to ordinary people in mysterious ways. Sometimes, she flashes before us in her human form. Sometimes, she inspires artists to reveal her through art. Sometimes, she proves her presence through unexplainable miracles. And sometimes, she shows herself in the most ordinary ways, such as studying an image of her in a high school art history class.

I believe that as long as we are open to loving Mary, loving Jesus and loving each other the way that they love us, then we will see the same Blessed Virgin who appeared to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill 500 years ago. She may not appear as a beautiful woman or a beam of light or a miraculous healing, but she will always be there whenever we need her.

— Emma Donnelly ’26 is a history major and a student employee in the Marian Library.

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