|Mexico of the
early 16th century was still a land ruled by the Aztecs, a people whose
demonic religion involved human sacrifice. Scholars estimate that
between 20,000 to 250,000 people per year were sacrificed to the
Aztecs' gods, and in one particularly bloody event, the reconsecration
of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, just five years before
Columbus landed in the Americas, 80,400 people were sacrificed over a
period of four days. These human sacrifices would be taken to the top
of the temple and laid down on a stone altar by four priests, one of
whom would then use a flint knife to stab into the victim's belly,
aiming his knife upward through the diaphragm in order to rip out his
victim's still-beating heart. As the heart was placed into a bowl, the
rest of the body was thrown down the temple stairs, at the bottom of
which crowds were gathered to dance and sing.
The victim's body would then be decapitated, and the head de-fleshed,
reduced to a skull. Then, two large holes would be bored into the
skull, one on either side, and it would be slid onto a pole, forming
the Emperor's tzompantli,
which rather resembled a gigantic abacus with the beads replaced by
This is the world the Spanish conquistadors found when they crossed the
Atlantic. And, thankfully, it is the world that Hernan Cortes conquered
between 1519 and 1521.
Ten years after Cortes's conquest, on December 9, 1531, a peasant named
Cuauhtlatoatzin -- now known as St. Juan Diego -- had a vision of Our
Lady on a hill called Tepeyac in what is
now Mexico City, a hill where the Aztecs once worshipped Tonantzin,
their mother godess. She spoke to Juan in his native Nahuatl language,
revealing to him that she is the Mother of God, and that she wanted a
church built on the hill.
Juan ran to tell the Archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, what he saw,
but the Archbishop disbelieved him. On that same day, Juan saw Our Lady
again, and she insisted he persevere, so on the following day, the 10th
of December, he returned to the Archbishop and pleaded with him once
more. This time, the Archbishop told Juan to ask her for a sign, some
proof. So Juan returned to the hill and told the Blessed Virgin what Zumárraga said. The
Virgin told him that she would provide such a sign the next day. But by
the time that next day came, Juan's Uncle had fallen dangerously ill,
so Juan went off to find a priest for him. Ashamed at not having gone
back to the hill, he went a different route, not wanting to confont Our
Lady. Our Lady, however, met him on that divergent route he took, and
chided him for not returning to her, asking him, "¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?"
("Am I not here, I who
am your mother?"). She then told him that his Uncle had been cured, and
that he should go to the hill and gather the flowers he'd find there.
This he did. He gathered up Castilian roses, a flower that wasn't
native to the area and that shouldn't have been found blooming in
December even if they should've been growing there in the first place.
Our Lady arranged the flowers in Juan's "tilma" -- the cloak he'd been
wearing -- and then he ran with it to the Archbishop. Upon meeting Zumárraga, he opened up
his tilma to reveal the miraculous roses. As he did so, something else
was revealed as well: as the roses fell out onto the floor, the men saw
that, on the tilma, a miraculous image appeared. It is that image that
is the subject of this page.
After meeting with the Archbishop, Juan went to see his Uncle, who told
him that he, too, had seen the Virgin. She had come to him as he lay
sick, and she told him the story of her meeting with Juan, and also
that she wanted to be known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title under which she'd been known in Castile, Spain since the 14th century. It is under that title that she's become the great patroness of the peoples of the Americas.
The Original Image
and Additions To It
The image left on Juan Diego's tilma is a beautiful one, depicting a young woman with delicate
features, olive skin, and long, straight dark hair parted in the
middle, standing in an attitude of prayer, with hands together, and
eyes cast downward. She wears a pink robe, with a Cross-shaped brooch
at her neck. The robe is festooned with vines, flowers, and a
quatrefoil motif, and underneath it, as you can see at her wrists, she
is wearing a white undergarment. Over the robe, she wears a cerulean
blue mantle. Around her waist hangs a belt, which is said to signify
pregnancy, with two black tassles.
Later additions to the image include the the stars that adorn her robe,
the gold leaf mandorla-shaped sunburst around her, the crescent moon
upon which she stands, and the cherub holding up the moon. At one
point, the Virgin wore a 12-point crown, which was added in 1631 by
Father P. Miguel Sanchez. It was removed in the late 19th century due
to flaking of the medium used to form it. Many of these later additions
were added by Fr. Sanchez to make the point that the Virgin depicted on
the tilma is the woman written about by St. John in his Apocalypse.
At the top right side of the tilma, not affecting the image itself, is
a stain made when nitric acid was accidentally spilled onto the tilma
when the frame holding it was being cleaned.
Science and the Image
Sadly, there is a lot of nonsense believed and spread
about the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some claim that the image
isn't "on" the tilma, but floats above it a few micrometers away from
the surface. Some claim that the image of the Virgin has a constant
temperature of 98.6o, the average temperature of a living
human being. Some even claim that a
heartbeat can be heard when a stethoscope is placed over the image's
abdomen. And so it goes.
While they are lovely thoughts, and I'm sure that those who present
unverified assertions have nothing but
good intentions and believe what they are reporting, those who repeat
such claims are doing
a great disservice to the Truth. We
simply must be dedicated to Truth above all! God is in no need
whatsoever of untruths, and Catholics have nothing -- not one single
thing -- to fear from sound science. A too-credulous approach to
image of Our Lady of Guadalupe or to any other purported miracle only
serves to make a mockery out of
Catholics, leaving them wide open to accusations
of naiveté. If you talk to an atheist and present
misinformation that is easily
disproved, why would he take you seriously when you present the Truths
of the Faith? Faith and (sound) science can never conflict, so fear
not, and always speak the Truth!
That said, the image is scientifically fascinating enough as it truly
like cottony silk to the touch, but looking coarse and rough to the
eyes, the tilma is made of ixtle ("tampico"), from fibers of a plant
known in Linnaean taxonomy as Agave
popotule; it shouldn't have lasted more than a few decades. In
fact, in 1787 Dr. Jose Ignacio Bartolache made two copies of the tilma
and put them in two separate buildings in what is now Mexico City; both
disintegrated by the end of a decade.
It was studied in 1979 by a biophysicist, USDA entomologist, and NASA
consultant named Philip S.
Callahan, who wrote that the tilma and its image are inexplicable.
After centuries, the fibers
making the tilma itself show no deterioration, and there is no
flaking of the original image's pigments. He wrote,
1. The original
figure including the rose robe, blue mantle, hands and face, is
inexplicable. In terms of this infrared study, there is no way to
explain either the kind of color pigments utilized, or the maintenance
of color luminosity and brightness of pigments over the centuries.
Furthermore, when consideration is given to the fact that there is no
under-drawing, sizing, or over-varnish, and that the weave of the
fabric is itself utilized to give the portrait depth, no explanation of
the portrait is possible by infrared techniques. It is remarkable that
in over four centuries there is no fading or cracking of
the original figure on any portion of the agave tilma, which - being
unsized - should have deteriorated centuries ago.
2. Some time after the original image was formed, the moon
and tassel were added by human hands, perhaps for some symbolic reason
since the moon was important to both Moorish-Spanish and Aztec
3. Some time after the tassel and moon were added, the gold
and black line decorations, angel, Aztec fold of the robe, sunburst,
stars and background were painted, probably during the 17th century.
The additions were by human hands and impart a Spanish Gothic motif to
the painting. In all probability, at that time the tilrna was mounted
on a solid support, and the orange coloring of the sunburst and white
fresco added to the background. The entire tilrna for the first time
was completely covered with paint. It seems unlikely that Juan Diego
could have worn a tilma, stiffened with fresco on the fabric, to the
Bishop's palace. Therefore, the original must have been the simple
figure on the cloth
4. It is known that during the great flood of 1629, the Holy
Portrait was taken from the Hermitage Chapel by canoe to the cathedral
in Mexico City and that His Excellency Archbishop Don Francisco de
Manzoyzuniga promised not to return the Virgin to the Hermitage until
he could take her back with "dry feet" (Demarest and Taylor, 1956). It
is my opinion that at this time, between 1629 and 1634 (when the image
was returned to the Hermitage), the tilrna was folded at two different
times into three sections causing the double fold creases across the
lower and upper third of the body.
5. The pigments, utilized for the additions, can probably be easily
identified, and indeed I have myself speculated as to what they may be.
There is no way to identify any of the original pigments without
obtaining samples of the colors for a modern chemical analysis and even
then it may be impossible to identify them.
The pigments used in additions to the original image show flaking and
peeling, but the original image is perfectly intact. Dr. Callahan
wrote, too, that there is no brushwork on the image.
Many different opthamologists -- including Drs. Jose Aste Tonsmann,
Manuel Torroella, Enrique Graue, Rafael Torrija, and Jorge Antonio
Escalante -- claim that the Virgin's eyes exhibit what's known as "the
Purkinje Effect" -- that is, they act as living human eyes in that they
reflect objects four times, from the anterior and posterior surfaces of
the corneas, and from the anterior and posterior surfaces of the
lenses. The images they are said to reflect are believed to be what the
"witnessed" as St. Juan Diego unfurled his tilma in front of the
Archbishop on that day in December of 1531: Archbishop Zumárraga and
St. Juan Diego themselves (some claim that the figures of others are
also visible, including those of a family).
Click to enlarge
this beautiful and wondrous image has inspired the people of the
Americas to love Christ and His Mother. Its History hasn't been easy,
however. Though it should've fallen apart after a few years, for over
twelve decades, it was radically unprotected, exposed to fluctuations
of temperature and humidity, smoke and soot from the burning of candles
and incense, the caresses of thousands of hands,
touches from thousands of Rosaries, light, and breath -- but the icon
intact. In 1795, a solution of nitric acid was spilled on it, but the
icon remained intact. On November 14,
1921, an anticlericalist feigned being a man of faith who merely wanted
to place flowers underneath the tilma to honor Our Lady. Instead of
flowers, though, he placed a bomb made of
dynamite. Its detonation could be heard over a half a mile away, and it
horribly damaged the surrounding area -- but the icon remained intact.
The tilma can be seen at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in
Mexico City, where there's been a shrine to
the Virgin since 1531, and which is now one of the
world's greatest sites of Catholic pilgrimage. The words
spoken by Our Lady to St. Juan Diego
-- “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu
madre?” ("Am I not
here, I who
am your mother?") -- are inscribed
over the door of the basilica that is now built there. When you are in
trouble, take those words to heart. She is here, and she is our mother.
The Virgin as Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas
and of the unborn. The feast day of Our
Lady of Guadalupe is on December 12. Juan Diego was beatified in 1990 and canonized in 2002. He is remembered on December 9.