Mexico’s Image of Guadalupe is a sixteenth-century depiction of the Virgin Mary that, according to pious legend, she imprinted miraculously on an Aztec convert’s cloak. The Indian, Juan Diego, is expected to be canonized as a saint, although new evidence confirms skeptics’ claims that the image is merely a native artist’s painting, the tale apocryphal, and “Juan Diego” probably fictitious.
The story of Juan Diego is related in the Nican Mopohua (“an account”) written in the native Aztec language and sometimes called the “gospel of Guadalupe.” According to this account, in early December of 1531 (some ten years after Cortez’s defeat of the Aztec Empire) Juan Diego was a recent convert who supposedly left his village to attend Mass in another. As he passed the foot of a hill named Tepeyac he encountered a young girl, radiant in golden mist, who identified herself as “the ever-virgin Holy Mary, mother of the true God” and asked that a temple be built on the site. Later, as a sign to a skeptical bishop, she caused her self- portrait to appear miraculously on Juan’s cactus-fiber cloak.
The legend obviously contains a number of motifs from the Old and New Testament as well as statements of specific Catholic dogma. Indeed, the tale itself appears to have been borrowed from an earlier Spanish legend in which the Virgin appeared to a shepherd and led him to discover a statue of her along a river known as Guadalupe (“hidden channel”). Moreover, the resulting shrine at Tepeyac was in front of the site where the Aztecs had had a temple for their own virgin goddess Tonantzin (Smith 1983). Thus the Catholic tradition was grafted onto the Indian one, a process folklorists call syncretism.
The image itself also yields evidence of considerable borrowing. It is a traditional portrait of Mary, replete with standard artistic motifs and in fact clearly derived from earlier Spanish paintings. Yet some proponents of the image have suggested that the obvious artistic elements were later additions and that the “original” portions-the face, hands, robe, and mantle-are therefore “inexplicable” and even “miraculous” (Callahan 1981).
Actually, infrared photographs show that the hands have been modified, and close-up photography shows that pigment has been applied to the highlight areas of the face sufficiently heavily so as to obscure the texture of the cloth. There is also obvious cracking and flaking of paint all along a vertical seam, and the infrared photos reveal in the robe’s fold what appear to be sketch lines, suggesting that an artist roughed out the figure before painting it. Portrait artist Glenn Taylor has pointed out that the part in the Virgin’s hair is off-center; that her eyes, including the irises, have outlines, as they often do in paintings, but not in nature, and that these outlines appear to have been done with a brush; and that much other evidence suggests the picture was probably copied by an inexpert artist from an expertly done original.
In fact, during a formal investigation of the cloth in 1556, it was stated that the image was “painted yesteryear by an Indian,” specifically “the Indian painter Marcos.” This was probably the Aztec painter Marcos Cipac de Aquino who was active in Mexico at the time the Image of Guadalupe appeared.
In 1985, forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I reported all of this evidence and more in “a folkloristic and iconographic investigation” of the Image of Guadalupe in Skeptical Inquirer. We also addressed some of the pseudoscience that the image has attracted. (For example, some claim to have discovered faces, including that of “Juan Diego” in the magnified weave of the Virgin’s eyes-evidence of nothing more than the pious imagination’s ability to perceive images, inkblot-like, in random shapes) (Nickell and Fischer 1985).
Recently our findings were confirmed when the Spanish-language magazine Proceso reported the results of a secret study of the Image of Guadalupe. It had been conducted – secretly – in 1982 by art restoration expert José Sol Rosales. Rosales examined the cloth with a stereomicroscope and observed that the canvas appeared to be a mixture of linen and hemp or cactus fiber. It had been prepared with a brush coat of white primer (calcium sulfate), and the image was then rendered in distemper (i.e., paint consisting of pigment, water, and a binding medium). The artist used a “very limited palette,” the expert stated, consisting of black (from pine soot), white, blue, green, various earth colors (“tierras”), reds (including carmine), and gold. Rosales concluded that the image did not originate supernaturally but was instead the work of an artist who used the materials and methods of the sixteenth century (El Vaticano 2002).
In addition, new scholarship (e.g. Brading 2001) suggests that, while the image was painted not long after the Spanish conquest and was alleged to have miraculous powers, the pious legend of Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego may date from the following century. Some Catholic scholars, including the former curator of the basilica Monsignor Guillermo Schulemburg, even doubt the historical existence of Juan Diego. Schulemburg said the canonization of Juan Diego would be the “recognition of a cult” (Nickell 1997).
However, the skeptics are apparently having little if any effect, and Pope John Paul II seems bent on canonizing “Juan Diego” who is as demonstrably popular among Mexican Catholics as he is, apparently, fictitious.
I appreciate the assistance of John Moffit and César Tort who helped update me on this topic, as well as CFI staff members who helped in various ways, including Tim Binga, Kevin Christopher, Ben Radford, and Ranjit Sandhu.
- Brading, D.A. 2001. Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Callahan, Philip Serna. 1981. The Tilma under Infra-red Radiation. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
- El Vaticano. 2002. Proceso, May 19, 29-30.
- Nickell, Joe. 1997. Image of Guadalupe: myth- perception. Skeptical Inquirer 21:1 (January/ February), 9.
- Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1985. The Image of Guadalupe: A folkloristic and iconographic investigation. Skeptical Inquirer 9:3 (spring), 243-255.
- Smith, Jody Brant. 1983. The Image of Guadalupe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.