Many readers, I imagine, will be familiar with the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. It is an image “not made by human hands” which was given to St. Juan Diego, a poor Aztec man, in 16th century Mexico, and which caused millions to convert. It influenced both the Aztecs and the occupying Spaniards who were convinced of its validity, and it continues to draw devotion today from Christians from all over the world.
In this article I thought I would point out some features of this image that are not generally well-known, and offer some personal thoughts as to what the implications of these features are.
It contains some details clearly derived from Aztec culture and others from traditional Christian culture and amongst these, interestingly, some not normally associated with the Spanish Christian culture of the day. What is remarkable about this image is how these disparate aspects are combined so as to form a unified image that has great appeal throughout the centuries.
The aspects that relate to Aztec culture are as follows: Our Lady’s hairstyle, with the central parting, was the sign of a maiden, a virgin. The ribbon and bow around her waist signified that she was pregnant. And then the quatrefoil roses articulated in sepia lines on the pale brown-ochre shawl signify royalty. The Aztecs looking at this would recognize immediately the meaning of these features.
But this image spoke to the Aztecs of more than their own culture because it has elements that come from traditional Christian culture too. These are universal in that they speak in some respects to all people of Christ. It is these elements which were noticed by the 16th-century Spaniards and which have resonated with so many Christians from all over the world since. We can see, for example, the blue shawl, a common color for Mary’s outer robe. It is said to denote royalty, and Marian chapels often have their walls painted in this color too.
Similarly, the eight-pointed stars represent her connection with the “eighth day” of Creation, ushered in by her Son, Jesus Christ, who rose on the eighth day of the week. Stars are not the only heavenly bodies represented. The moon is portrayed too. This is in accord with scripture in that it shows Our Lady as the woman of the Apocalypse (Apoc. 12:1-3), with the upturned crescent moon.
Another feature which interests me greatly is the nimbus of light around her. The account of the woman in the Book of the Apocalypse describes her as being “clothed in the sun.” The golden nimbus around her whole person might correspond to this. However, this is more complicated. I suggest that its presence here is to indicate the presence of Christ within her womb. It is not there so much for Our Lady, the “God-bearer,” but rather for her Son, who is God!
Take a close look at the gold envelope that surrounds her, called a mandorla. This is not, as one might first suspect, a series of bright gold darts emanating from Our Lady. Rather it is a series of dark darts emanating from her on a gold background, the outer limits of which describe the mandorla shape, which is a smooth almond. In other words, this mandorla is getting darker the closer it is to her. If you were to examine a traditional icon of Christ at the Transfiguration, such as that by Theophan the Greek painted in 1403 in Russia, you will see a mandorla that gets darker towards the center. This indicates that this is God who is a mystery and only known and seen directly through his decision to reveal himself to us. This feature is reserved for the Divine Person.
So what do we conclude when we see the nimbus around her getting darker? This is the Christian way of indicating that Our Lady is with child, the divine child which complements the visual symbolism of a woman with child that accords with Aztec culture. Remember that if this image had not spoken to the Spanish occupiers too, none would have taken St. Juan Diego seriously.
It is interesting to note that some copies of the Our Lady of Guadalupe icon get this detail wrong and invert the direction of the lines. For example, here is one painted around 1700.
The presence of all of these symbolic elements from different cultures and from different times creates a strong argument for the divine authorship of the image: for if the artist is not divine, then we have indeed a remarkable mortal artist, one who is simultaneously aware of Aztec culture, Scripture, and the Christian iconographic tradition that was not fashionable at that time in 16th-century Spain. I suggest that someone of this profile would have been hard to find in Mexico in 1530, considering the style of the image! Although it would never be mistaken for a Greek or Russian icon, it is nevertheless pretty much in accordance with the iconographic prototype. This would make sense theologically, for the iconographic style is the style of eschatological man. Our Lady is in glory in heaven and so it would be the most appropriate style for her apparition.
In accordance with the iconographic tradition, therefore, there is no strong cast shadow; the image is defined by line predominantly rather than tone. Again, if this was not a revealed image, then our artist aside from all else already mentioned is also a theologian of insight. He understood that the best artistic tradition to represent her should be iconographic, and then had sufficient familiarity with it to apply the principles of that tradition so as to create legitimate modifications of style that would make it more accessible to the local population, both Spanish and Aztec. In the case of the representation of the mandorla, this artist was seemingly more familiar with the iconographic prototype than many, at least, of his contemporaries (judging from the flawed copies made of it by other artists).
If on the other hand, we accept the tradition that this is an authentic icon “not made by human hands,” and instead was painted, so to speak, by the hand of God, then the remarkable degree of conformity to tradition tells how authentic and true its history is. This, I suggest, is the evidence for the authenticity of the style of icons. Historically, the iconographic tradition was developed by faithful Christians in the first centuries of the Church—and we have come to believe that they were divinely inspired in this work.