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Our Lady of Guadalupe

by Caroline and Rod Lorenz


T HE IMAGE of Our Lady of Guadalupe had a profound impact on those first Native Americans who received it. It was more than simply a beautiful portrait of the Mother of God. It was a message from heaven that meant nothing less than the dawning of a new age.

The Aztecs

When the Spanish landed on their shores, the Aztecs were rulers of a vast empire of more than ten million people. They controlled the territories of many conquered tribes with an iron hand. They were also a highly skilled people who built roads, palaces, magnificent temples and great cities. Their calendar was the most accurate in the world.

Religion was all important to the Aztecs. It was woven into the very fabric of their lives. Ceremonies marked every occasion, and idols were worshipped in the temples of every city and town. This worship required human sacrifice and many thousands died each year on the altars of the gods, their still-beating hearts torn from their bodies.

According to the Aztec religion, the gods had sacrificed themselves to give life to the sun. Now it was their sacred duty to offer human blood and hearts as food for the gods. If they did this, the gods would look after them. Only through these sacrificial deaths would the people live and prosper.

The end of an age

Aztec prophets had predicted that the year 1519 would mark the beginning of the end for their civilization, and indeed for ten years before that date there had been many unusual signs. A temple had burst into flames all by itself, and water boiled in the middle of the lake. In the sky, a comet had appeared, and a woman's voice could be heard weeping at night. Strange dreams were reported everywhere.

On Good Friday 1519, a band of Spanish adventurers arrived on the Mexican coast. Their leader was a remarkable and daring man named Hernando Cortes. Lured by gold and glory, they marched inland to meet the Aztec Emperor. Fighting broke out. The oppressed tribes rose in rebellion and joined the small Spanish army against their hated Aztec masters. There followed months of fierce fighting, and by August 1521, the great capital city of the Aztecs and their empire were destroyed.

The Spanish pulled down the idols and replaced them with the cross of Christ. The missionaries who followed the conquerors did their best to preach the Gospel, but with little success. The disruption of their age-old way of life had left the indigenous tribes of Mexico confused and uncertain.

They had trusted in their ancient gods to look after them, and now their gods had been defeated. But the new religion of Christ which the missionaries preached seemed foreign and hard to grasp. The differences between their cultures made real understanding difficult, and on top of that, the cruelty of the Spanish soldiers had created an atmosphere of deep mistrust.

Conversions were few.

The Mother of Mercy

Then in 1531, an Indian convert named Juan Diego approached the bishop of Mexico with a strange story. He said that the Mother of God had appeared to him and given him a message for the bishop. The Lady asked that a temple be built on Tepayac hill, a place of prayer and healing. The bishop was not about to believe such a story and sent him on his way.

When Juan Diego came back again the next day with the same story, the bishop asked for some proof. The Lady must send a sign. Two days later Juan was back. The Lady had indeed sent a sign. In his cloak he carried Spanish roses somehow blooming in winter. The bishop and those with him were amazed, but what they saw on his cloak was more astonishing yet.

There had appeared on his cloak (or tilma) a full length portrait of the Lady. She was just as Juan had described her. The bishop was convinced beyond all doubt. He ordered a small shrine to be built on Tepayac hill where the sacred image was given a place of honor. News of the event spread like wild fire. Soon people from every tribe came to see this marvel, and to hear from Juan Diego's own lips the story of what had happened.

The sacred image

The image itself is truly amazing. It seems to be somehow imprinted into the fabric, rather than painted. Modern science has revealed that there are no brush strokes on the original, no outline or sizing underneath. Also surprising is the fact that its colors remain vivid and intact despite centuries of exposure.

The tilma upon which the image is imprinted is made of rough cactus cloth like burlap. Such tilmas were worn by poorer people. They were large cloaks that served both for warmth and for carrying bundles. This kind of cloth rarely lasts more than fifty years before falling apart. That the tilma of Guadalupe has survived more that four centuries is a wonder in itself.

Our Lady of Guadalupe A message from heaven

The effect of the sacred image upon the people was profound. It was more than a beautiful portrait, it was also a message from heaven that they could read.

The indigenous people of that culture had developed a form of picture writing. They were well trained in reading pictographs whose color, position, shape and symbols, all conveyed meaning. What they saw in the Lady's image bridged the culture barrier, and helped them to make sense of the Gospel.

Reading the message

One immediately notices the Lady's face. It is a mother's face, gentle and compassionate, unlike the frightful Aztec gods who wore fierce masks. Her features seem to be Métis, as though in her, both an Indian and a European heritage are combined in kindness and peace. Her attitude is one of humble prayer, so she is clearly human and not a God. She is a merciful mother who consoles and prays for us. She is to be honoured but not adored.

The black band around her waist means that she is with child. It is her child that she offers to the peoples of the New World. Her message is about him.

The blue mantle covered with stars symbolises heaven. Just as the stars had warned the Aztecs of the end of their empire, so now these stars signalled the beginning of a new age. The blue-green of the mantle was a color worn only by royalty. It was the colour of the invisible Creator, the source of the gods. Wearing such a mantle means that she is of royal and heavenly origins. So the child she carries will be a royal and divine ruler.

Her pale red robe is covered with Aztec flowers. These flowers were a sign of truth, and life beyond death. The robe itself stands for the earth, and its color symbolizes the blood of sacrifice. Her child will shed his blood so that the people can live.

Her clothing is neither Spanish nor Aztec, but is typical of the clothing worn by Jewish women at the time of Christ. Thus the child is from neither the Spanish nor the Aztecs. He is from another culture, but in coming to birth among them, he will become one of them.

Immediately beneath her hands, and close to her heart, can be seen a cross that is common to many First Nations tribes. It represents the four directions, meaning that what the Lady carries within her is the new center of the universe.

On the brooch at her neck is a tiny Christian cross. The Spanish used this cross as an emblem on their banners and helmets. For the Indians, this cross connected her as a follower of the religion preached by the missionaries.

The sun and the moon

The Aztecs believed that, in order to begin the present age, two of the gods had thrown themselves into a great fire, and had become the sun and the moon. But they had no strength to move. The other gods gave their own blood to give them the energy to move through the sky. This left the gods weakened. Human sacrifice was needed to keep them going.

The image shows the Lady surrounded by a sunburst. The sun was the greatest of the Aztec gods. By standing in front of the sun, Mary shows that she is greater than all their ancient gods. The moon represented the God of darkness and death. Standing with her foot treading on the moon is a sign that these powers have been defeated.

The people understood that Mary was human. Yet, since she was greater than the sun or the moon, these must not be gods but only creatures which serve the True God.

The angel

Supporting the Mother of God is an angel with eagle's wings. The eagle was 'the bird of the sun' and sacred in their culture. Here the eagle is seen as a servant of the Virgin. This spirit being is holding her mantle with one hand and her robe with the other, signifying that the Son she bears is from both earth and heaven. He will be a bridge between them for His people.

The sacred image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is rich in meaning. It expresses, in a way that words cannot, the tender love and goodness of God. It is a gift from heaven especially to the First Nations, and to all those who live united in this land, and to all of mankind.

Visit our Reflections page for more about Our Lady of Guadalupe.