Guadalupe Apparitions (of the Virgin Mary)

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Guadalupe Apparitions (of the Virgin Mary)

Guadalupe, Mexico, is the site of a claimed miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary in 1531 that has become part of the folklore of Central and South America. According to the popular account of the apparition, a young Aztec Indian named Juan Diego was making his way to a Christian church at Tlateloco to study his catechism on December 9, 1531. He was a recent convert to Catholicism, and the church was a few miles from his uncle's home, where the boy lived following the death of his parents.

While taking a shortcut over the hill of Tepeyac, he heard his name called. He also heard music and the songs of birds. He followed the sounds and was confronted by a beautiful Indian girl about 19 years old, dressed in the robes the boy had seen adorning saints in the church. She declared herself to be "the eternal Virgin, holy Mother of the true God" and "merciful Mother" of men. She told the boy to go to the bishop of Mexico, the Spaniard Fray Juan de Zumarraga, and tell him that she wished to have a church built on the hill of Tepeyac.

The boy made his way to the bishop's palace about four miles away and, after some difficulty with the guards, was eventually admitted to the bishop's study and told his story. Zumarraga was sympathetic but not convinced. As the first Catholic bishop of Mexico, he had heard many wild stories from converted Indians. He said he would need time to think about it.

Juan returned to the hill somewhat crestfallen, where he saw the Virgin and suggested that it would be better for some more important person to convince the bishop. The Virgin told him that he was the chosen one and directed him to visit the bishop again the following day.

The next day the bishop listened carefully but said he would need some proof before building a church. He directed the boy to bring back an unmistakable sign of the genuineness of the apparition. After the boy had gone he instructed two of his staff to follow him and report back. After the boy had climbed the hill at Tepeyac the observers lost sight of him. Annoyed at being outwitted by a mere Indian boy, they returned to the bishop and said that the boy was unreliable and should not be believed. Meanwhile Juan had again seen the Virgin, who told him to come back the following day and she would give him a sign for the bishop.

When he returned home Juan found his uncle seriously ill and at the point of death. He nursed him through the night, and in the morning, finding no improvement, decided to fetch a priest from the church at Tlateloco to administer the last rites. Juan was worried that he had failed to keep the appointment with the Virgin and took the longer lower road to Tlateloco instead of the shortcut over the hill of Tepeyac. But the Virgin appeared on the lower path and told him that there was no need to worry about his uncle, who was now cured. Juan was to go back to the top of the hill, where he would find many flowers growing. He was to pick a bunch, wrap them in his cape, and take them to the bishop. The Virgin stressed that the flowers must be concealed and not shown to anyone else.

At the top of the hill the boy found some beautiful and fragrant roses growing, out of season in the frosty weather. He picked a bunch, wrapped them in his cloak, and made his way to the bishop's palace again, where the guards demanded to know what he was carrying in his cape. They could smell the flowers, but when they took hold of the cape and opened it, the roses had become painted flowers on the inside of the cape. They took the boy to the bishop and when Juan opened his cape the fresh roses spilled out onto the floor. The bishop saw that on the inside of the cape, where the painted flowers had been, was now a portrait of the Virgin.

The bishop took the cape to his chapel, where he prayed and thanked God and the Virgin for the miracle. The church was built on the hill at Tepeyac. The miraculous cape survived and more than four centuries later is still venerated in the cathedral at Guadalupe. The Virgin became the patron saint of Mexico.

The cape is made of woven grass, which normally has a lifespan of about 30 years. In November 1921 it survived a gelignite attack from a distance of eight feet. The nearby altar, large crucifix, and candlesticks were damaged and every window in the building blown out, but the image, behind a glass shield, was untouched.

Aside from this relic there is no factual evidence to support the legend. In 1532 Bishop de Zumarraga returned to Spain, where he gave a detailed account of his life in Mexico, but there is no record of any reference by him to Juan Diego and the miraculous cape. The celebrated historian Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was in Mexico at the time and described the Indians and their religious beliefs, but did not report the case of Juan Diego. The story first appeared in print in 1648127 years after the claimed miraclein a booklet titled The Image of the Virgin Mary, by Manuel Sánchez.

The Spanish soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who traveled with Cortez, wrote a book, Historia verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva-España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain, ca. 1632), in which he reports that Mexican Indian painters had been trained by a Franciscan father to copy sacred images and paintings, and that their work compared with the best in Italy and Spain. During the 1930s the Mexican artist Jorge González Camarena was engaged to restore murals at the Hujotingo Convent in Puebla. Hidden under layers of later paint he uncovered a picture of the Virgin Mary that appeared identical to that of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Skeptics may claim that the story of Juan Diego is a pious legend and that the image on the cape is typical of others of the period by skilled Indian religious artists. However, the cloth has been examined by historians, art experts, and scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has not been discredited. It is also of great interest that this early account of apparitions of the Virgin Mary has features common to other claimed apparitions even in modern times, such as those at Fatima and Medjugorje: a simple child is chosen to receive the apparitions and messages rather than a sophisticated adult; the messages are often at variance with the opinions of the established ecclesiastical authorities; and a miraculous sign is given to authenticate the visitation.

Although such apparitions are normally within the conventions of the Catholic religion, it is interesting to note that when the Spaniards first arrived at Tepeyac, there was an Aztec temple on the hill honoring Tenotzin, virgin mother of the gods. Each year, on a date equivalent to December 22, Indians came from far and wide to honor this Aztec goddess just as modern Mexicans assemble on December 12 to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe. Every year, some ten million visitors go to see the cape with the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Among famous visitors were United States President John F. Kennedy and President Charles de Gaulle of France.


Demarest, Donald, and Coley Taylor. The Dark Virgin: The Book of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Freeport, Maine: Coley Taylor, 1956.

Johnston, Francis M. The Wonder of Guadalupe. Rockford, Ill.: TAN, 1981.

Smith, Jody Brant. The Image of Guadalupe: Myth or Miracle? Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. Reprinted as The Guadalupe Enigma: Myth or Miracle? London: Souvenir Press, 1983.

Watson, Simone. The Cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: A Historical Study. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1964.