(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

That Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Christian belief system, really appeared to an Indian peasant, Juan Diego, Mexico, in 1531, is difficult to document. However, Mexicans rich and poor, clergy and lay, Indian, Creole, and Spanish, have from the sixteenth century to the present believed that this miraculous apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe happened. Further, they have believed that an image of Mary miraculously appeared on the lining of Diego’s cloak at the time of the apparition. David A. Brading, professor of Mexican history at Cambridge University, looks at the documents and events stemming from this belief, some of which contest the fact of the apparition.

Although Mexican history and culture predate the arrival of Spain’s Catholic explorers, conquerors, and missionaries, Brading’s account is concerned with the history that followed the arrival of the Europeans, since both Spanish conquest and Catholic conversion were under way when the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego began to be told. The majority of Spaniards, considering themselves the bearers of God’s true religion, were repelled by Aztec religious rites and dismissed them as barbaric and ignorant, as did most historians of Mexico. However, Barto de Ita y Parro, a seventeenth century homilist, and two of the most recent students of the Guadalupe narrative, Francisco de la Maza in El guadalupanismo mexicano (l953; Mexican Guadalupanism) and José Luis Guerrero in El Nican Mopohua: Un intento de exegesis (l996; The Nican Mopohua: an attempt at exegesis), view the Aztec culture sympathetically. De la Maza says the Guadalupe narrative filled the void left after the conquerors and missionaries destroyed both the icons and the spiritual heritage of the Indians. Guerrero posits that the Mesoamericans were open to believing in one god because their many gods were varied representations of this one god. They were faithful to the natural law, lived close to nature, and had a powerful tradition of myths. Indeed, the site where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared had once a place of worship of an Aztec goddess.

Brading takes no stand on this or on any of the contradictions he finds in his research. He presents an objective analysis of all the materials pertinent to his topic, pointing out as he goes on where a new writer agrees or disagrees with prior writers, and what new material a particular author offers. Reading Mexican Phoenix is not an easy task because of the complexity of what Brading finds. A timeline of texts and ideas would have been helpful to the general reader. Holding in one’s mind what a writer from the seventeenth century said that is either repeated or rejected by a a series of writers through the centuries is difficult and might require some rereading. Yet Brading’s work does make a scholarly adventure through five centuries of passionate writing accessible to anyone willing to traverse his pages.

The tradition that has held prominence for so long is a simple story. On December 12, 1531, Mary appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in a rural area called Tepeyac, near Mexico City, and instructed him to visit his bishop with her message that she wanted a chapel built in Tepeyac in her honor. As directed, Diego went, carrying in his cloak flowers that had miraculously bloomed on the winter landscape. In the bishop’s presence, Diego opened his cloak only to find on its surface a painting of Mary, the mother of God, with Indian features. Since the nineteenth century, the validity of the story and image has been argued among scholars. No one, however, has doubted the power of the image in the conversion of the Indians and the identity of Mexico.

The first published book about the Guadalupe was Image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Guadalupe. Miraculously Appeared in the City of Mexico. Celebrated in her History, with the prophecy of Chapter Twelve of the Apocalypse (1648) by Miguel Sanchez. He found no earlier written records of the apparition, but rather used oral testimony to support the validity of the narrative. As the first written account, Sanchez’s work was a major source for subsequent writers; not only did these writers use his account, many also continued his style of scriptural typology, that is, the use of scriptural prefigures in interpretations of the apparition. For Sanchez, the Guadalupe was both “simultaneously intensely Mexican and yet a faithful copy of St. John’s prophetic vision” of Mary “clothed with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” As the earlier image had traditionally been interpreted as both Mary and the Church, Sanchez called Our Lady of Guadalupe both a Mexican Mary and the Mexican Church. Sanchez’s frequent use of scriptural typology gave the apparition events theological significance, even as it made his text a heavy read.


(The entire section is 1992 words.)