Religious Icon

'Celebrating Guadalupe' shows the importance of the holy woman with images

The title, Celebrating Guadalupe, glimmers gold on the earth-tone and black book cover above a stylized Virgin Mary. Rays jut from her crowned head down to the angel at her feet. She stands on what looks like a set of horns; after reading the book, you'll know it's really a black crescent moon. Like the mandorla shape of her image, nestled like an almond where two circles overlap, you'll also discover how this icon overlaps spiritual and physical worlds.

Introduced to Guadalupe--the "most powerful woman in the Americas"--after moving to Tucson, I saw her in museums and on kitsch refrigerator magnets and devotional candles in grocery stores. I've come to know her better through art and books--like Victor Villaseñor's Rain of Gold, in which his grandmother, cigarette in hand in the outhouse, talked with Guadalupe each day.

And now there is Celebrating Guadalupe, whose bright, rich photographs by Charles Mann show her in paintings, mosaics, carvings and on the side of the video store on Congress Street and Grande Road. She's the third eye of a goddess in a San Francisco mural, and depicted on everything from cowboy boots and tattoos to the cloth tilma representing her first miracle in the New World.

Author Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington retells the story of Guadalupe's apparition in Mexico in 1531. Juan Diego, a converted Aztec on his way to mass, encountered her at the site of an ancient indigenous goddess' shrine. She requested Diego ask the bishop to build a temple on the spot. The bishop rebuffed Diego. At Guadalupe's urging, he tried again the next day. This time, the bishop asked for proof that Diego was speaking for Guadalupe.

Diego spent the following day with a dying uncle. When the uncle sent him for the priest to administer last rights, Diego walked another route to avoid Guadalupe. She found him and promised that his uncle would live. Returning to the place they first met, they gathered the flowers that were growing there--out of season--to serve as proof. When Diego unfastened his cloak to show the bishop the flowers, Guadalupe's image was revealed on the cloth tilma.

A church-approved study of the tilma using infrared tools "revealed that all the black and gold details, including the angel, the moon, the waistband, and the neck pendant, were obviously later human additions, as was the elongation of her body." Artists added the halo and moon to the original tilma, which included "only her face and her body to just below her knees."

Some scientists suggest that no brush marks were detected in the image's original portions, because "Mesoamerican artisans painted with feathers that leave no stroke marks, and certain pigments used in the 16th century, such as azurite, actually absorb infrared light and prevent examination of underlying layers." Some scholars think additions were inspired by "Spanish art circulating in Mexico after the conquest," some of which included an earlier Spanish Guadalupe whose image traveled with Christopher Columbus and, later, Father Kino.

Skeptics have denounced the legend since the 1500s, with the most current challenge costing the abbot of Mexico's Basilica de Guadalupe his job in the 1990s. But these voices play a small part in this celebration.

While Dec. 12 marks the anniversary of her visits with Diego, since half a century ago, her image has been reported on "blinds in New Mexico, a yucca plant in Arizona, a puddle of melted ice cream in Houston, and a tile in the Hidalgo stop in the Mexico City subway system."

Guadalupe moved from a personal intercessor and religious symbol to one of social justice for "strength and freedom; she stepped beyond the altar forever to be active with her people." Her name was invoked in the battle cry of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, and her image carried by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution fight for "land and liberty for the oppressed." César Chavez's struggle for farm workers in the 1960s and '70s included Guadalupe in banners, murals and posters.

Companion as well as "transcendent patroness of the journey," the Mother of the Americas is present in pilgrimages and processions today. "They are not parades or tours organized by travel agents; they are quests in pursuit of the holy.

"Guadalupe thrives and grows in the collective minds and hearts of her devotees; she is the portal, path, or lens through which they can move from the ordinary to the sacred, from the despairs of the day to hope for a promising future, and ultimately from Earth to heaven."

This beautiful book depicting Guadalupe as "comforter, healer, protector, agent of social justice, and symbol of Mexico itself," brings readers closer to understanding what all the celebrating is about.

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