Monday, December 12, 2011

Aztec Godess/Catholic Virgin: Either or Both Have Been Good News For the Poor

The Image of Our Lady of
The story is that in December 1531, only twelve years after the conquest of Mexico by the
Spaniards, an indigenous Aztec peasant passing by the ruined temple of the goddess Tonantzin on the hill of Tepeyac near what is today Mexico City met a young woman who told him she wanted a church built on the spot of their encounter.  The peasant, named Juan Diego in Spanish, relayed this request to the bishop,
Juan de Zumárraga, who told him that he needed proof of the lady’s high station to make such a request. Returning to the site,  Juan Diego was told by the woman to gather roses that were growing there—roses blooming in December—and bring them to the bishop.  Juan Diego cut the roses, folded them in his poncho, and returned to the bishop.  At the bishop’s residence, he opened his poncho and the roses fell to the ground revealing an image of the lady imprinted onto the poncho. 
     It is a lovely story, but problematic.  There is no mention of the account in the extensive records kept Archbishop  Zumárraga .  The earliest mention of the image is in regard to a sermon preached by Zumárraga’s successor,  Alonso de Montúfar, a Dominican who relayed the story.  Archbishop Montúfar preached his sermon in the Church at Tepeyac where the image was venerated by the local Aztec people.  The Archbishop encouraged this devotion.  The Franciscans who had custody of the shrine insisted that the painting had been done by an Indian named Marcos and discouraged veneration of the image as superstitious.  The Archbishop removed the shrine from the custody of the Franciscans. 
     The image itself is exceptional in several ways but not in any that might require a supernatural origin.  The material the image is on is most likely a fabric woven from the agave plant.  This fiber, called ixtle appears course as if it were a mixture of linen and hemp but in fact is almost silken to the touch.  The material has been treated in places with a primer to better hold the pigments. The pigments themselves seem chemically to be typical of sixteenth-century pigments but, despite the fact there is some flaking, are of an exceptional vibrant color and luminosity.  In other words, while they appear within the range of what could be manufactured in the sixteenth century chemically, the quality is extraordinary.   There are some signs of brush strokes but not significantly so.  There is no underpainting or sketching, the image—if painted—done in freehand.   It does seem, however, that through the subsequent centuries there are layers of paint that have been added—and some removed—however there is not any varnish finish to preserve or lock in the pigments.  All this only makes it more complex.  It technically would be within the scope of human manufacture but the quality makes it inexplicable for an amateur artist working under the minimal conditions of immediate post-conquest Spanish America. 
      Juan Diego is no less a mystery.  There is some difficulty in establish his existence in a historically reliable way.  Until 1995 the oldest documentary mention of him was mid seventeenth century, almost a hundred and thirty years after the alleged vision. However,  in 1996 with Pope John Paul anxious to beatify him, a parchment (actually deerskin) was produced illustrating the vision and scenes form his life. This previously unknown parchment was dated 1548 and bears the signatures of two well known Spanish priest Antonio Valeriano and Bernardino de Sahagun, active in Mexico at that time.  The authenticity of this document has as of yet neither been proved nor disproved but its being previously unknown for almost five centuries places the burden of proof on those who argue for its authenticity.   Probably more important than its factuality is the issue of what the image and story represent.
      The story that the Virgin Mary—patroness of the Conquerors—would appear to a peasant from the conquered peoples, appear as one of them, and appear pregnant is a story of tremendous hope for a vanquished people.  On the other hand there is something dubious in the story as well.  Locating the site of the vision amid the ruins of a temple to the Mother Goddess of the Aztec people, building a Church on the spot and installing the icon of the Aztec Virgin for the veneration of the indigenous people smacks of religious syncretism.  Of Course Christianity has long built Christian cult on the foundations of pre-Christian mythology.  But this explains the debate between Archbishop Montúfar who saw the evangelizing potential in the icon and was not adverse to building a Christian cult on an Aztec foundation and the Franciscans arguing for strict orthodoxy.  Over the centuries this image and the legends that have surrounded it have given the hope it symbolizes to millions and millions of the poorest and most oppressed victims of colonialism.  Whatever the “facts” the Virgin of Guadalupe has embodied the Good News for the poor, the liberation for the captives, that her Son came to proclaim.

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