Seventeenth-Century Painted Copies
The Stradanus Engraving
Physical Examinations during the Baroque Period
Disappearance of the Crown
Even if all the documentary evidence of the Guadalupan narrative should become irretrievably lost, most followers of the devotion would continue to believe the traditional story, holding that it is sufficiently attested by the Image itself. Claims by experts that it is impossible for the Image to have been created by human hands, and that its state of preservation defies natural law, would seem to indicate that the Image is truly of heavenly origin, and thus serves as a witness that the traditional narrative must be true in its basic outline.
It is hardly the province of historical research to determine if an artifact is of supernatural origin. Without pretending to attempt our own technical analysis, we will instead recount what other observers have reported about the Image over the centuries. In this way, we can verify if the Guadalupan icon has always been one and the same painting, and also if any alterations have occurred over time. This discussion is properly historiographical, since we are reviewing what various observers have said about the Image over different time periods.
The earliest definite mentions of the Guadalupe icon at Tepeyac give only the vaguest information about its appearance. The testimonies of 1556 establish only that it was a painting, rather than a statue. Its possible attribution to the master painter Marcos implies that it was of high artistic quality, and made in the indigenous style.
The Englishman Miles Philips recounts that the icon in 1568 was “an image of our Lady of siluer & gilt, being as high, & as large as a tall woman...” As the Virgin of Guadalupe is only four feet, eight inches tall, Philips was more likely describing the life-sized silver statue donated by Antonio de Villaseca two years previously.
Early codices give little if any testimony about the icon’s physical appearance. The Marian image in the Codex Saville resembles La Guadalupana only in theme, not in artistic detail, as it shows hills in the background, and inverts the blue and salmon color scheme of the Virgin’s robes. The Codex Escalada, even if authentic, shows few details of the Image, except for the starry mantle and the nimbus surrounding the Virgin, features common to many Marian depictions.
Our best early testimonies regarding the icon’s appearance are in the form of artistic copies made by baroque artists. These copies allow us to establish the antiquity of various features of the Image.
The oldest known copy of the Guadalupan Image is a painted canvas that was signed and dated by the artist Baltasar de Echave Orio (1540-1620) in 1606. Its provenance and authenticity were attested by the great Mexican art historian Manuel Toussaint (1890-1955). Echave Orio was a Basque who lived in Mexico since around 1580, and many of his commissioned works were for the friary of Tlatelolco. Significantly, his rendition of the Guadalupan icon emphasizes the cloth itself, showing pronounced folds on both sides. This suggests that the legend of the tilma was already widely known at this time, as is consistent with the 1666 testimonies.
Remarkably, this expert and detailed copy contains all the major features found in the Image today. These include: the angel with tricolored wings, the dark crescent moon, the embroidery on the Virgin’s robe, the stars on her cloak, the rays and nimbus emanating from her body. The artist even shows the vertical seam between the two cloths, just right of center (through the Virgin’s left shoulder). His rendition differs from later copies only in the color of the Virgin’s face, which he makes almost white.
There is one striking difference from modern representations of the Image: the rays above the Virgin’s head are depicted as forming a royal crown, which creates a break in the nimbus above. This depiction of a crown is also found in all other copies of the Image from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Given this corroboration and Echave Orio’s manifest attention to detail, it is practically certain that a crown really did exist on the Image as of 1606.
As early as this painting is, it was nonetheless made seventy-five years after the traditional date of the apparition, and fifty years after the devotion had spread through the capital. There is no guarantee, then, that the features depicted in 1606 were all original to the Image. If it seems incredible that anyone would have dared to apply a brush to an icon from heaven, we must keep in mind that some custodians of the Image may have been unaware of the tilma legend, which did not become widespread among the Spanish in Mexico until the 1580s at the earliest.
Other purportedly early copies of the Guadalupan icon probably date to the late seventeenth century. The first of these is a painted canvas by Lorenzo de la Piedra, which is kept at the Iglesia de Santo Desierto in San Luis Potosí. This is sometimes wrongly attributed to the artist’s father, Rodrigo, though the signature clearly reads: “Lorenso Delapyedra.” The date appears to read “1625,” but this cannot be correct, since Lorenzo was baptized (as an infant, per the norm) in 1639. Accordingly, Velia Morales Pérez believes this date is a misreading of 1675. [Velia Morales Pérez, "Rodrigo de la Piedra y su familia," Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (2007) 90, p. 55.]
Another canvas, kept at the Convento del Desierto, Tenancingo (southwest of Mexico, 40 km from Toluca), bears the signature of “D. Luis detexeda” and the apparent date of 1632. In Chapter V of Manuel Toussaint’s book, Pintura colonial en México [posthumous 1965 edition of Arte colonial en México (1948)], an annotation by Xavier Moyssen deduces from this date that Luís de Texeda was a contemporary of the Spanish painter Nicolás de Texeda, who arrived in New Spain in the mid-sixteenth century, and may have been a relative. Yet we know from other sources that a Luís Detegeda of indigenous ancestry was renowned for his highly skilled replicas of the Guadalupe icon. Elisa Vargas Lugo finds that, on closer inspection, the “3” in the date is a partially erased “8,” so that the correct date is 1682, consistent with Luis de Texeda’s known period of activity. [Elisa Vargaslugo, "El indio que tenía el 'don'..." Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (2005) 86, pp. 208-209.]
One of the most famous early copies of the Guadalupan icon is possibly the work of Texeda as well. In the Church of San Stefano in Aveto, Italy, there is displayed a Guadalupan icon reportedly given to Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria shortly before the battle of Lepanto (1571). Supposedly, Archbishop Montúfar of Mexico sent painted copies of Our Lady of Guadalupe to King Philip in 1570. The king gave one of these icons (directly or indirectly) to Giovanni Andrea Doria (grandnephew of the more famous Admiral Andrea Doria), who would command a squadron at Lepanto. Accordingly, that miraculous victory against the Turks has been attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin in honor of Admiral Doria’s devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe of Mexico.
While it is by no means incredible that Montúfar, a devout guadalupano, would send such icons to the king, there is reason to believe that this story is apocryphal. Its sole evidentiary basis is the written testimony of the scholar Antonio Domenico Rossi (1788-1861), which was published in redacted form by his descendant of the same name (1866-1915) in 1910, and is still preserved in manuscript. The manuscript, in my literal translation from the Italian, reads:
Discovered in Genoa in the palace of His Excellency the Lord Prince Doria two images of the Madonna of Guadalupe, one may have been a gift from Holy Excellence the lord Cardinal Giuseppe Doria, and it was that which with all certainty, as is recounted in the archive of that most noble family, had touched the original. It had been donated by His Catholic Majesty the King of Spain to the immortal Andrea Doria, grand admiral of the Spanish, to serve as the icon of the chapels of the principal galleys, which that celebrated captain directed; indeed it would have to be in the very same time as the celebrated battle of Lepanto, in which, by the intercession of Mary, Christendom had a most signal victory over the Turk.
Only the first part of this testimony is well substantiated, while the rest consists of inferences made by Rossi. We may trust that one of the Guadalupan icons found in the Palazzo di Principe in Genoa was donated by Cardinal Giuseppe Doria (1751-1816), third son of Giovanni Andrea Doria IV. Further, this icon had touched the original (a devotional custom with thaumaturgic icons, practiced at Guadalupe since at least the late seventeenth century), so it was likely painted in Mexico. The remainder of the testimony, however, is problematic. Grand admiral Andrea Doria died in 1560, eleven years before the battle of Lepanto. His grandnephew Giovanni Andrea Doria was only a squadron commander at that famous battle. Rossi’s association of the Guadalupan icon with Lepanto is therefore speculative at best. While this victory has always been credited to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, this intercession was sought through a rosary procession in Rome, for which reason Pope St. Pius V afterward instituted the feast day of Our Lady of Victory.
Further investigation has revealed that, while the icon was indeed in the Doria family collection as far back as 1684, it likely does not date to the sixteenth century. A plausible reconstruction of the icon’s provenance is made by Elisa Vargas Lugo in “El indio que tenia ‘el don’...” [Vargaslugo, op. cit., pp. 203-215.] She finds that Violante Lomellini Doria (1632-1708), widow of Andrea III and mother Giovanni Andrea III, wished to acquire a skillful copy of the icon of Guadalupe. This was accomplished on her behalf by a Jesuit priest who visited Mexico in 1675. He found that the Indian painters competed annually among themselves to see who could make the most faithful copy of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and so he sought out the one who received that year’s honor. This was likely Luís de Texeda, whose copies of the Guadalupan icon were widely sought at that time. Indeed, the icon at San Stefano matches Texeda’s style, particularly his choice of flesh tones. Violante’s efforts to obtain a copy at this time would have been pointless if the Doria family had already possessed a Guadalupan icon of illustrious history.
Luís de Texeda made many other painted copies, some of which are still extant. The most well known is that of 1669, which is stored in the Museum of History of Chapultepec, and we have already mentioned that of 1682. Other copies are in private collections; only recently, two life-sized oil paintings were offered at auction, dated 1671 and 1680. Recent auction value is around $50,000 to $70,000.
Another painter from the period who produced high quality copies of the icon was Juan Correa. Like De la Piedra and Texeda, he preserves all the features found in the modern Image, and he renders the top rays as constituting part of a crown. Correa was a free mulato, and he did not refrain from depicting the Virgin with dark skin. His earliest dated copy of the Image is from 1667.
There is one more painted copy of the Image that is putatively dated to the early seventeenth century. This is a mural in the convent of Yuririapundaro, Guanajuato (300 km northwest of Mexico). Elisa Vargas Lugo ascribes it to Fray Pedro de Salguera, which would date it to about 1621-27. [Elisa Vargas Lugo, "Algunas notas más sobre iconografía Guadalupana," Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas(Mexico: UNAM, 1989), 60, pp. 59-66.] Art historian Jeanette Favrot Peterson finds this attribution problematic, however, and would date the mural to the eighteenth century. [Jeanette Favrot Peterson, "Canonizing a Cult," in Religion in New Spain, eds. Susan Schroeder and Stafford Poole (Univ. of New Mexico, 2007), p. 152.] In any event, the mural is too badly damaged to offer much testimony about the Image’s early appearance beyond what we may gather from other sources.
These seventeenth-century copies retain the original light pink or salmon of the Virgin's tunic, in agreement with Sánchez's (1648) description as rosado muy claro. The mantle, however, is colored in most copies with the deep blue that is conventional for Marian icons, instead of the azul celeste mentioned by Sánchez. Correa's Virgin with Four Apparitions at Texcalyacac wears a cloak that is more aquamarine, in agreement with eighteenth-century observers and seen in the Image today.
Besides the 1606 painting by Echave Orio, there is one other copy of the Image that can be definitely dated to the early seventeenth century. This is a copper engraving made by the Flemish artist Samuel Stradanus circa 1615, to promote almsgiving for construction of the new Guadalupan shrine, which would be consecrated in 1622. It is dedicated to Juan Pérez de la Serna, who became archbishop of Mexico in 1613 and immediately resumed efforts to have the shrine completed. Favrot Peterson dates the engraving to 1613, since construction was already underway in 1614. [Favrot Peterson, op. cit., p. 131.]
The engraving's central picture shows the Guadalupan Virgin in a starry mantle, standing atop a dark crescent, with the fold of her robe supported by an angel. This entire image is surrounded by a nimbus. The rays are mostly faded due to repeated use of the engraving, but a few are still visible. Notably, the Virgin wears a crown with small points instead of long rays. This discrepancy means little, since Stradanus evidently took some artistic liberties, giving the Virgin a billowing robe and matronly features. Instead of depicting the Image as imprinted on a cloth, he makes the cloud hover over the altar, surrounded by lamps such as those mentioned by Miles Philips.
A closeup of the engraving shows that the Virgin is surrounded by winged faces. These are undoubtedly the cherubs that Francisco de Siles said (according to Florencia) had been added to the Image out of piety, but these soon became disfigured. As these cherubs do not appear in Echave Orio’s 1606 painting, we can date their addition to within a few years of 1610 (assuming Echave Orio did not deliberately omit them). They evidently had disappeared already by the 1660s, as no painter of icon copies included them.
The Stradanus engraving is especially noteworthy for its early witness to eight Guadalupan miracles, which are depicted on the sides. The factual details in the captions are generally consistent with, yet distinct from, the versions given by Lasso de la Vega, suggesting that there is no direct dependence between the two sources. Evidently these miracles were already well established by around 1615. The eight miracles are as follows, if numbered 1-4 down the left column, and 5-8 down the right column.
1. A man is cured of headaches and earaches by offering a silver head to the shrine. This matches the ninth miracle in Lasso’s narrative (and was possibly the fifth in the Alva manuscript), except we are here also given the man’s name: Bartolomé Granado. This is apparently the first miracle, and the subject might be the “ganadero” (cattleman) who had his health cured in 1555 or 1556 by going to shrine.
2. A woman depicted as a nun is accompanied by a caption saying that “Catharina de Niehta had dropsy for 11 years,” and she drank from a “fountain where Guadalupe appeared, and she was promptly cured.” This is evidently the same as the “Catalina” mentioned in Lasso's tenth miracle story, who was cured of dropsy by drinking from a miraculous spring. Note that the current account clearly mentions an apparition of the Virgin, which may have taken place during the miracle or at an earlier date.
3. The third miracle is the healing of fray Pedro de Valderrama’s cancerous toe. This is the eleventh miracle given by Lasso, the eighth by Florencia, and the sixth by Alva.
4. Next is the miracle of don Luis de Castilla, whose bad leg was cured when he offered a silver leg to the shrine.
5. On the top of the right column, we find the miracle of don Antonio de Carvajal, whose “horse dragged him through some canyons” while his foot was caught in the stirrup. Our Lady then appeared and protected him. This is the fourth miracle given by Sánchez, Lasso, and Florencia. This miracle is said to have taken place in 1555, and commemorated with two lost sixteenth-century paintings, one given to the shrine and another to the Carvajal hacienda in Tulancingo (90 km northeast of Mexico). [Pilar Gonzalbo Aizpuru, "Lo prodigioso cotidiano en los exvotos hispanos," in: Fundación Cultural Televisa. Dones y promesas: 500 años de arte ofrenda (exvotos mexicanos) (Mexico: Centro Cultural Arte Contemporaneo, 1996), p. 79.]
6. “A man was praying on his knees when a very heavy lamp fell on his head and he was not hurt nor was the lamp dented, nor did the oil spill out nor was the glass even broken.” This matches all the details given later by Sánchez, Lasso and Florencia, who list this as their fifth miracle.
7. Next is the miracle of the sacristan Juan Pavón. We are here told he cured his son’s throat by rubbing lamp oil on it. Florencia considered this to be one of the more recent miracles. It is included only in Lasso’s list, where it is the thirteenth.
8. Last, we find the miraculous lighting of the altar candles in the presence of Juan Vázquez de Acuña. This, we have noted previously, must have taken place around 1600.
If the Stradanus engraving gives the miracles in chronological order, we might resolve the chronological irregularities found in other accounts.
|2. Catarina/Catalina - dropsy||-||10||[late]||-|
|3. Pedro de Valderrama - toe||-||11||8||6|
|4. Don Luís de Castilla - leg/foot||-||12||9||7|
|5. Antonio de Carvajal - horse (1555?)||4||4||4||?|
|6. Falling lamp||5||5||5||?|
|7. Juan Pavón's son - throat||-||13||[late]||-|
|8. Juan Vásquez de Acuña - candles (c. 1600)||6||6||6||?|
Florencia believed (incorrectly, it turns out) that the miracles of Catalina and Juan Pavón were of later vintage, so he evidently did not find them in the Alva manuscript.
What the Guadalupan authors have as the fourth through sixth miracles are instead the last miracles in the engraving, coming after those which Lasso has as the ninth through twelfth. We recall that the Alva manuscript seemed to pass over these three miracles. Yet it now seems likely that they were included, but as the eighth, ninth and tenth miracles. Thus it seems that the Alva manuscript and the Stradanus engraving preserve the original chronological order. They both end with the Acuña miracle c. 1600, consistent with our inferences that both were composed in the 1610s.
The engraving omits the earliest miracles: the Indian killed by an arrow, the plague of 1544, Juan of Los Remedios, and the hydropic lady with a snake (this last found only in Alva). Their omission here might indicate that these stories are apocryphal, or at any rate were not given sufficient credence by the ecclesiastical authority to include in the engraving. Alternatively, they might have been deemed irrelevant to the engraving's theme of pilgrims being healed by devotion, as they pertain rather to the original Guadalupan legend. A further consideration is that the three oldest miracles involved Indians, while the eight miracles on the engraving all involved Spaniards, to whom the appeal for alms was being made.
What about the Guadalupan legend itself? There is no mention of the apparition to Juan Diego nor of the miraculous imprinting. This does not necessarily impugn the Guadalupan narrative, especially if we consider that the purpose of the engraving was not to recount the icon’s origin. Its purpose, rather, was to remind donors that the Image continues to work miracles for the devout, so they are contribution toward a worthy devotion.
The engraving also promises forty days’ indulgence (a modest amount) for those who pray the novena of Our Lady of Guadalupe and give alms for the building of the new shrine. (No minimum donation is specified, consistent with Pope St. Pius V's abolition of fees for indulgences in 1567.) Such indulgence could only be granted by the bishop, proving that this engraving had official church endorsement. Forty days was the most a bishop could grant on his own authority, except at the dedication of a church, for which he could grant a year's indulgence (i.e., remission of temporal penalty equivalent to a year's canonical penance). This further confirms that the engraving was commissioned well before the consecration of the new shrine.
Miguel Cabrera - Maravilla americana
José Ignacio Bartolache
The earliest recorded close physical examination of the Image is that which was ordered in 1666 as part of the Informaciones Jurídicas. On March 13, seven master painters (one of them a cleric) examined the Image in the presence of the Viceroy and other dignitaries. They testified that it is impossible for any man to paint such a well-formed image on that rough cloth. They praised the elegance of the Image, the beauty of the face and hands, the colors and gold stars. They could not determine if the painting was oil or tempera, for it had the appearance of both. Having touched the cloth, they said it was impossible to prepare or paint upon it. They also said that the entire image could be seen distinctly on the reverse of the cloth, with the same colors, so it could not have any sizing. The colors were incorporated even in the loose threads of the cloth. This testimony, given under solemn oath, is unfortunately brief, requiring supplementation by other witnesses of the period.
Miguel Sánchez and Luís Lasso de la Vega contribute few unique data about the physical attributes of the Image. In his 1648 work, Sánchez says the canvas is an ayatl, a type of cloak, made by two cloths woven together by a cotton thread. The canvas’ construction is consistent with the tradition that it was made from a poor Indian’s cloak. Lasso de la Vega notes (in 1649) that, in the sixteenth century, only wealthy Indians dressed in cotton garments.
Lasso says the height of the Image from head to toe is chiquacemiztitl ihuan ze zihuaiztitl, which Florencia translates as seis palmos y un jeme, roughly (depending on hand size) fifty-two inches. A palmo is the span of a man's hand or a quarter of a vara, about eight inches, while a jeme is the distance between the tip of the thumb and forefinger. Yet, as José Ignacio Bartolache later noted (1790), the Nahuatl zihuaizitl translates literally as "a woman's fingernail," an ancient idiomatic expression for the span of a woman's hand, used as a smaller unit of measurement. Bartolache considered this usage to be proof that Lasso was copying from a sixteenth-century source, as an Indian in Lasso's time would have no reason to resort to such an archaic manner of expressing length.
Becerra Tanco says (in his 1666 paper) that the rough cloth is made of a palm thread called iczotl, which is softer than other kinds of maguey. He explains that there are three kinds of maguey, one of which is akin to palm. The thread of this plant is cultivated like flax, and was used by the poor Indians for their tilmas or cloaks. These cloths are also called ayate, just like the coarser maguey fabrics used for sackcloth.
Becerra Tanco observes that the canvas itself has already undergone some corruption, but the colors of the Image are still vivid. He says the cloth had to have been the cape of a tall man, and he would know, since such garments were still worn by Indians into the eighteenth century. This is somewhat problematic, since Aztec men were rarely taller than five and a half feet.
Francisco de Florencia (d. 1695) briefly recounts the examination of March 1666, and then adds his own observations from when he saw the Image outside the tabernacle at some unspecified time afterward. Surprisingly, he and others invited by Francisco de Siles did not see the entire Image through the cloth, as the painters had testified, but only its shadow and some splotches of various colors that pressed through the cloth. It is unfortunate that Florencia did not inquire with Siles, who was present at both viewings, to see if the testimonies could be harmonized, but Florencia did not read the painters’ testimony until some time after he had viewed the Image.
In Estrella de el norte (ch. XXIV), Florencia also mentions that the tunic was damask in color. In Zodiaco mariano (published posthumously in 1755), he says that the tilma is more than two varas in height, and over a vara in width. (The most commonly used vara of that period was about 84 cm.) He describes the Virgin's cloak as being aquamarine (verde-mar) in color. (pp. 40-41)
Also in Zodiaco mariano, Florencia writes that the Image was painted not with oil but with tempera, which makes its preservation all the more remarkable. The cloth was very rough, woven with poorly spun threads of ixtle that the Indians extract from maguey. “Others say it is from a type of palm, from which was made of old, and today are made some cloaks called in the language of Mexico Iczotilmatli. The name of this cloth is ayatl, commonly ayate. In this the poorest Indians dress...” (p. 40) Note that Florencia misinterprets Becerra Tanco as contradicting the maguey theory, though we have seen in Becerra Tanco’s first edition that he considered the Iczotl palm to be a type of maguey. The Iczotl plant is the Yucca aloifolia, (formerly Palma sylvestre), which superficially resembles the other “maguey,” i.e., the various species of agave.
Another datum found in Zodiaco mariano is that the Image was kept under a glass as early as 1658. Florencia mentions that this glass (vidriera) was removed so that an Indian painter (likely Luís de Texeda) could make copies for the Viceroy and the Archbishop. Yet the Indian felt a trembling throughout his body, and found, miraculously, that he could not see the Image, but only the bare tilma. (p. 50) According to Cayetano de Cabrera y Quintero (1746), the Image was placed within two pieces of glass in 1647, at the behest of Viceroy D. Garcia Sarmiento de Sotomayor y Luna. The size of the holy icon made it desirable to replace the glass with a single piece that fell to the feet of the Image, which would have been costly then. The Viceroys who were Dukes of Albuquerque (Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva y Enríquez de Cabrera and Juan Francisco de Leyva y de la Cerda) promised to bring such a glass back from Spain, but the problems they faced upon their return to the Court (1660 and 1664, respectively) caused this to be forgotten. [Cayetano de Cabrera y Quintero, Escudo de armas de Mexico (1746), III, xiii, 721, p. 366. Also p. 357.]
Non-expert witnesses in 1666 all said that the Image was as vivid then as it was in their youth, which in some cases extended as far back as 1590. This state of preservation was considered miraculous, considering the extremely humid, saline environment. They also thought it was impossible for the image to have been made by human hands, given the coarseness and loose weave of maguey cloths.
In the 1666 Información, three protomédicos testified (March 28) that the preservation of the Image was miraculous on account of the humid, saline conditions in which it was kept. They also remarked that, although there were no green colors on the front of the Image, they found various shades of green on the reverse, like leaves of flowers, for which they had no explanation. Similarly inexplicable was the fact that the front side of the cloth was soft like silk, but the reverse was rough and hard.
There is a clear consensus among the witnesses of Cuautitlán about the composition of tilmas in Juan Diego's time. There were no looms or wool among the Indians back then, so cloaks were made of hand-woven maguey fibers (of a type called ixtli, according to D. Pablo Xuarez). The weave was sufficiently loose that this type of cloth was used to sift dirt, and painting on it was utterly impossible. It should be noted that the witnesses assume the Image to be printed on Juan Diego's tilma, without having inspected the cloth personally. Yet Becerra Tanco indicates that it was a somewhat less coarse type of maguey, properly a palm (or yucca), of a thread called iczotl.
On April 30, 1751, seven of the best painters in Mexico were gathered in the sanctuary of Guadalupe, so they could examine the Image with its glass removed. Their objective was to determine if the Image could have been made with the techniques of their craft. The result of this inquiry would be submitted with other documentation to the Holy See in order to obtain a more exalted status for the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was granted by Pope Benedict XIV on April 24, 1754, in the form of a feast day of the highest rank (double rite of the first class with octave), and recognition of Our Lady of Guadalupe as patroness of all North America.
In 1756, Miguel Cabrera, the most illustrious of the Mexican painters, published his findings under the title, Maravilla americana y conjunto de raras maravillas observadas con la dirección de las reglas de el arte de la pintura en la prodigiosa Imagen de Nuestra Sra. de Guadalupe de México. The work was accompanied by letters of approbation by the other six painters: Jóse de Ibarra (who had studied under Juan Correa), Manuel de Osorio, Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, Francisco Antonio Vallejo, José de Alcibar, and José Ventura Arnaes.
I. In the first of the report's eight "paragraphs" (more like chapters), Cabrera comments on the tilma's state of preservation. Like the witnesses of 1666, he attests that the area around the capital is still full of humid air and saline winds from lakes. Accordingly, the cloth should have deteriorated long before then.
The two pieces of cloth are sewn together by a very thin cotton thread, incapable of resisting much force, according to Cabrera. Yet this fragile thread has somehow held the two heavy cloths together for two centuries. It has resisted the wear from paintings and other pious ornaments that touch and have touched the image when the glass is open. Although this is not done every day, it must have happened many times over two centuries. On one occasion, in 1753, with the glass open, Cabrera saw innumerable rosaries and other devotional objects, as well as about five hundred icons that touched the cloth. (Recall the Doria claim that their icon had touched the original.) This took more than two hours.
II. Turning to the composition of the cloth, Cabrera says it is a coarse weave of threads commonly called pita, which the Indians took from palms native to this country, from which they made their poor cloaks, which they called ayatl, and we now commonly call ayate. Its weave and color is similar to a European coarse linen of medium quality, which is called cotense in Mexico. Recall that Becerra Tanco said the plant thread was cultivated like flax, which is why it seems similar to linen.
Others have said this weaving of pita is extracted from maguey. Cabrera disagrees, because the ayates (cloaks) made from maguey, which the Indians use, are too coarse compared to that of the Image. The Image’s cloth is not so coarse, though it appears that way because of some gaps in its weave, similar to what is found in cotense. In any case, it is idle to inquire whether the cloth is of palm or maguey, because either one is an inapt choice of material on which to attempt such an excellent painting.
Note that Cabrera's assessment agrees with that of Becerra Tanco in fact, though differing in nomenclature. Unlike Becerra Tanco, Cabrera does not classify the palm thread as a type of maguey, yet he agrees that this thread was used by poor Indians to make their cloaks or ayatl. Becerra Tanco mentions the kind of pita that is made from coarse maguey (i.e., agave), but here Cabrera says pita is made of "palms" (Yucca aloifolia). There is no contradiction here, for pita refers to the product (i.e., the woven thread), rather than the plant from which it is extracted. Today, the term pita is applied to woven ixtle, which comes from the maguey plant (various species of agave).
Although the cloth appears rough to the eye and is made of ordinary material, Cabrera finds it smooth to the touch like fine silk, such as he has felt on many occasions. No other ayates have this quality.
III. Cabrera agrees with previous observers that the Image has no preparation or sizing. He notes that the painting masters of 1666 had concluded there was no sizing, because the colors could be seen on the reverse side in all their vividness. Sizing serves not only to make the surface workable to paint over the threads, but also to impede the seeping of colors, as experience teaches.
Cabrera is convinced not only by this older testimony, but by his own observations. In his day, the back of the Image was covered with two sheets of fine silver, two or three fingers thickness apart from the Image. Between the two plates is a little crack through which you can clearly see the objects on the other side. Cabrera is thereby convinced there is no sizing, for if there was, it would impede our vision of the painting. If anyone has deceived himself into thinking that the painting was sized, he has based his judgment in another uncommon singularity of the painting, which also fooled Cabrera at first, to be discussed later (in paragraph V).
The crack through which Cabrera looked certainly went through the oil-painted portion of the Image, bisecting it either lengthwise or cross-wise. So why didn't Florencia see the Image? One possibility is a difference in lighting. In order to see writing clearly on the other side of the page, you want it to be lit primarily from behind. Cabrera could see the Image since the silver plates darkened the side he was viewing, so that the cloth was lit almost entirely from the other side (front).
IV. The painted Image follows the principles of art, using good proportion and symmetry. There is no contour that is not miraculous, in Cabrera's judgment.
The holy image is 8 1/3 faces high, or 8 2/3 if you account for the inclination (of the head). In Cabrera's judgment, it has the proportions of a young lady aged fourteen or fifteen, consistent with the actual stature of the Image. This assessment is corroborated by Becerra Tanco's testimony that Our Lady appeared to the Indians and was painted by them as a girl of that age. On the other hand, adult Aztec women had an average height of 4’8”, just like the Image.
At this point Cabrera includes some written testimony by José de Ibarra, who knew many seventeenth-century painters. Ibarra attests that none of the past illustrious painters of Mexico, from Alonso Vásquez onward, could have painted the Image of Guadalupe as perfectly. Some copies are so deformed, as the artists tried but failed to imitate its contours. The only way they could succeed is if they traced the profile from the original, "as did my master Juan Correa, as I saw and held in my hands, on oiled paper" (i.e. paper made transparent by drying oils). From this tracing all other good copies were made. There is no way the ancients could have done this without a profile. "I am not surprised that even now in Europe they have not been able to make the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe...," except by tracing.
V. Four types of painting are combined in the Image: oil, tempera (temple), gouache (aguazo), and labrada al temple. Cabrera finds this combination in a single work to be unprecedented and miraculous, due to the contradictory types of preparation required for each technique.
Oil paints need sizing in order to bind to cloth, though Cabrera has said the tilma has no such sizing. Tempera, the most ancient form of painting, refers not to a specific paint material but to the technique of mixing (tempering) colors with a binding medium, usually a gum or egg yolk. Gouache (called aguazo in baroque Spanish), like tempera, mixes pigment with binding medium, but results in an impermanent paint that can be dissolved by water. Gouache paint is applied to a moistened canvas. Pintura labrada al temple is a two-stage process. First, a white egg tempera is applied, and then color is overlaid on top. The white of this last technique is what other observers, before and after Cabrera, have mistaken for sizing. [Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, El Museo Pictorico y Escala Optica (M. Aguilar, 1947) Bk I, Ch VI, "De la pintura colorida o manchada, y sus especies"]
According to Cabrera, the four painting techniques are distributed as follows. Oil is used for the head, hands, tunic, and the angel with clouds. Tempera is used for the Virgin's mantle. The field beneath the rays surrounding the Virgin is done in gouache (aguazo). The rays themselves are labrada al temple. Seventeenth-century observers mentioned only oil and tempera, but recall that we are now discussing techniques rather than paint types. The products of the last two techniques were commonly regarded as types of tempera paint.
Each of these four methods requires distinct preparation or sizing, which is why you never see all four in the same work. This alone suffices to persuade Cabrera that the work is supernatural. For oil painting, you need to coat the support with a sizing (typically oil- or resin-based). Aguazo requires an untreated cloth, moistened from the reverse side. Labrada al temple requires a firm or solid material, like a table. In order to attempt this mixture of styles, you would have to give different kinds of treatment to different parts of the cloth, at the risk of destroying other parts of the painting. Accordingly, Cabrera believes that you could not paint all four styles on the cloth even after great effort. He considers this proven by the fact that no one had been able to perfectly match the Image, even when working on better cloths and using only oil paint, which is easiest to work with.
VI. When Cabrera first saw the gold on the Image, he thought it looked like actual gold dust. He describes its color as that which butterflies have in their wings. Yet upon touch, he found that the gold was not superimposed, but incorporated with the weave, as if the cloth had been woven with it. He could see distinctly that all the threads are of gold. Wherever there is gold, its presence is recognizable by touch only by a concavity which feels as if the gold were imprinted. He is not aware of any other practice whereby gold is impressed into cloth.
Gold is also in the tunic’s floral design, but here it is like a vein of gold. In the rest of the painting, where the gold is sunken or impressed, it looks darker.
Gold is in the stars, the rays of sun, and the crown. In the embroidery of the tunic, gold is traced in the contorno y dintorno, which is impossible for a human to do. (In baroque Spanish, dintorno was a painting term that referred to the delineation of parts within a figure, as contrasted with the contorno, or contour surrounding a figure.) The tracing is little more than a hair’s breadth, and it is so even, that only up close can one see how impossible it is to execute it. The gold in tunic is not as lustrous as that in the rays.
The cloak and tunic have a shaded outline, "little thicker than the edge of a peso," wrought with an elegance that is admired by all. A milled Spanish peso was 2.4 millimeters thick at the edge. Much like the gold embroidery within the tunic, this shaded outline displays an extraordinary degree of fine precision.
VII. Next, Cabrera addresses six objections identifying supposed technical flaws in the Image. Indeed, given what he has shown so far of the artist's exceptional ability, it is hardly credible that there should be elementary errors of proportion or perspective in the painting.
First, it is said that the Image is contrary to art because it does not stand with respect to the perpendicular line. Cabrera responds that this is not a defect in the painting itself, but reflects the fact that in those early days there was no painter in Mexico who knew the rules of art. Otherwise, that venerated painting would not have been mounted on its frame (bastidor) out of line. This error could be easily corrected by remounting it on the frame, lifting the left side about two fingers' breadth. Here Cabrera explicitly mentions the tilma being mounted on a stretcher frame, which he believes to date back to the sixteenth century.
The second objection is that the left leg from the knee down is too short. Cabrera responds that this is an instance of foreshortening (escorzo), as required by the rules of perspective. Since the Virgin is stepping forth with her right foot, the left is withdrawn in the background, and thus appears shorter.
Third, it is said that the hands are disproportionate. Properly measured, however, from the base of the palm to the fingertips, they are two and a half thirds (i.e., 5/6) of a face, which is the correct proportion.
Fourth, the right shoulder is said to be larger than what good symmetry demands. Cabrera measured this carefully, taking into account the Lady's height, as well as the fact that her body is slanted diagonally, and found that the shoulder is in conformity with good proportion.
The fifth objection is that there appear to be opposing light sources in the painting, instead of a single source. Cabrera answers that the special circumstance of the Image, surrounded by rays of sun which form as many light sources, makes it impossible and undesirable to follow this convention. Although there are multiple and contrary light sources, the result nonetheless is a good choice of light and shade, and all our most intelligent professors are unanimous in this.
The sixth and last objection is that it is bad technique for the Image to be outlined (perfilada). Indeed, many features of the Image, including the Virgin's mantle, hands and eyes, have a painted black outline, contrary to what has been considered good form since the Renaissance in realistic representations. Yet Cabrera reminds objectors that the reason for removing outlines is because they detract from the enjoyment of the painting, yet such is not the case with the outlines in the Guadalupan Image. On the contrary, it adds a little "yo no sé qué de gracia", which no painter has been able to imitate. In fact, Cabrera contends, the outlines make the miracle more credible, for no human painter would attempt such a work with outlines, for he would expect it to result in a totally disgraceful painting. Yet all the intelligent professors admire the painting as a masterful work of art.
Cabrera's claim that the painted outlines are a deliberate artistic choice rather than a technical flaw appears to be well founded. Only some of the features, not all, have painted outlines. In particular, most of the facial features, as well as the inner trim of the mantle, lack outlines, proving that the artist was fully capable of painting without them. Other aspects of the painting, already discussed, demonstrate familiarity with Late Renaissance painting techniques, so it is impossible for the artist to have been ignorant of how to paint without outlines. This was clearly a deliberate aesthetic choice. As to whether it was successful, this is a matter of aesthetic judgment. To assist the reader, I have digitally altered an image of the tilma, replacing the black outlines of the mantle on one side with adjacent coloring. By comparing the left and right sides, the reader may judge if the outlines enhance or diminish the painting's impact.
As a final note, Cabrera comments on whether the color of the Virgin's mantle has changed over time. In his day, the cloak was somewhere between blue and green in color (azul verdemar). Many claimed that the original color must have been blue. Cabrera replies that the angel’s wings still have a bright blue color, so if the blue paint in the mantle lost its color over time, we should expect the same to have occurred in the angel. Thus Cabrera is of the opinion that the mantle was always aquamarine, the color we observe even today. His reasoning is strengthened by the fact that the angel has retained a deep blue color in its wings for well over 450 years.
We have noted that most seventeenth-century copies of the Image paint the mantle deep blue, though Sánchez (1648) said it was celeste and Florencia (d. 1695) saw it as aquamarine. The Codex Saville uses a sky-blue pigment for a saint's cloak. All in all, it seems likely that the Virgin's cloak was always a lighter blue or blue-green, given the generally indigenous style and coloration. The copyists who used a darker blue were following iconographic convention.
Cabrera’s report is followed by letters of affirmation from the other six painters, confirming that they have read and agree with the judgments expressed therein. Manuel de Osorio notes that he is especially convinced by the fact that the Image has the small stature of a girl aged fourteen or fifteen (paragraph IV), and that he is grateful for the refutation of ignorant objections in paragraph VII. Francisco Antonio Vallejo agrees that the outlines on the clothing borders add a je ne sais quoi of grace, and that no human painter could achieve such an effect. He also mentions the lack of sizing, necessary for both oil and tempera painting, and the combination of different paint types on the same surface.
Maravilla americana focuses on the question of whether any man had the technical ability to paint the Image of Guadalupe. Cabrera decides (with the concurrence of the other six painters) that this was impossible, on account of its superb execution of various techniques on a single cloth of ordinary quality. He never denies that the Image is a painting; on the contrary, he presupposes that it is so. It is not supposed to be a photographic projection, nor made of foreign materials. He explicitly says that it is made of oil and tempera paints. He does not remark on whether there are any visible brushstrokes. This would have been an irrelevant criterion, as master painters since the Renaissance were adept at making their brushstrokes invisible if they so chose. Cabrera does not deny that the Image was painted, but insists that the painter must have been no mere mortal.
Cabrera's competence to pass judgment on the limits of technical possibility cannot be surpassed, since realistic representational art had already reached its perfection in the baroque period, indeed in the Renaissance. Later artists developed new techniques or concepts for more impressionistic or abstract works, yet they really have done nothing to improve upon representational realism. Thus nothing would be gained from further ocular inspections by artists. It is unsurprising, therefore, that there would be no more expert examinations of the Image from 1800 until well into the twentieth century, when new technologies made possible the observation of features not discernible by touch nor the naked eye.
Evidently, Cabrera was already a devotee of the Image before making his examination, as he says he was hesitant to touch the Image, and did so only with deep reverence. This devotion may have biased his aesthetic judgment of the Image's beauty and the perfection of its contours. While no one doubts that the Image is technically sound and indeed beautiful, it is another matter to make it the standard of perfection, as Cabrera seems to do, regarding all copies as inferior to the degree that they deviate from it. As such judgments are highly subjective, we would do well to limit our consideration to the technical aspects of his testimony.
The inability of painters to replicate the Image perfectly without tracing, even when using only oil paint on high quality canvas, is strongly suggestive of the technical impossibility of a man having painted the original. In the baroque period, it was common to make replicas of masterpieces by eyesight, and many of these were excellent enough to be mistaken for the original. Such is not the case with any of the Guadalupan copies, even those made by artists of unquestionable mastery. If Miguel Cabrera, the greatest Mexican painter of the eighteenth century, deemed such replication impossible or at least formidable, such testimony should give us pause.
The challenge to replicate the Image was not mere rhetoric. In December 1786, D. Joseph Ignacio de Bartolache (1739-1790), a scholar of medicine and physics influenced by the Enlightenment spirit of criticism, was permitted to inspect the Image. In a second inspection in January 1787, he was assisted by five highly accredited painters. Two of these, Andrés López and Rafael Gutiérrez, were entrusted with the task of attempting to copy on similar cloth using the techniques of oil, tempera and aguazo (i.e., gouache). Even after making exceptional arrangements to replicate the tilma, Bartolache attests that the two copies were altogether dissimilar from the original, both in drawing and in the mode of painting. Bartolache reported observations from both investigations in his work: Manifiesto satisfactorio anunciado en la Gaceta de México (Tomo I, Núm. 53). Opúsculo Guadalupano (1790).
Bartolache finds the dimensions of the cloth to be consistent with having originally been a tilma. (Nota 4, 107) The cloth is not too long, since some of its length is needed to the tie a knot around the neck. As for the width, one edge with rough threads appears to have received a straight cut, indicating that there was once a third piece of fabric, which would have made the cloth wide enough to serve as a cloak. He infers that this third piece, likely the back of the cloak, was long ago removed in order for the Image to be symmetrically centered. [Bartolache claims his opinion about a third piece is confirmed in the last part of Becerra Tanco's often-printed work. There is no such mention in Felicidad de México, but the discussion at the end of the original 1666 paper can be read to imply a third leg of cloth.]
To confirm the composition of the cloth, Bartolache had some iczotl or Palma silvestre brought to him from forty leagues away. Four ayates were spun and woven in his presence, two of iczotl and two of maguey (i.e., agave). None of these approximated the quality of the tilma, from which he inferred that the Indians were not as skilled at spinning and weaving as those of the sixteenth century. Still, he took the least bad replica and ordered that to be painted.
After Bartolache's two inspections of the Image in December 1786 and January 1787, the painter Andrés López was entrusted with attempting a copy of the Image on the replica iczotl cloth, with the consultation of the four other painters present at the January inspection (Rafael Gutiérrez, Mariano Vásquez, Manuel García, and Roberto José Gutiérrez). This work lasted from February 6 to March 14, 1787. The copy came out beautifully, but far from identical with the Image, both in drawing and in painting technique. A year later (December 1788), Rafael Gutiérrez attempted a copy on a more finely made ayate, without any sizing. The idea was to test how long these copies could endure while exposed to the elements, just as the Image had been for the first century of its existence.
The first inspection (December 29, 1786) was made by Bartolache alone, with the glass opened. He observed that the cloth was not rough, but fine and well-woven. Contrary to all previous observers, he found that the thread binding the two cloths was not cotton, but of the same material as the ayate, except a bit thicker than the thickest of the ayate threads, as can be seen in the stitches toward the bottom. This seems to contradict Cabrera's claim that the thread was especially thin, though we may note that handspun threads are usually of uneven thickness. Twentieth-century observers have agreed with Cabrera (and seventeenth-century witnesses) against Bartolache that the binding thread is thin and of cotton.
Neither the maguey nor the iczotl replicas matched the fineness of the original. While the maguey cloth was rough and loose, the iczotl, having a smoothness akin to cotton, was a much closer approximation of the original. Lastly, on the right border of the mounted cloth, there is a uniform fraying, which led to Bartolache's inference that there was once another piece of cloth there. The height of the ayate is dos varas y un dedo, or 2 1/36 varas (1.70 m). The width is 1 1/4 varas (1.05 m), divided between 23 dedos for the right piece of cloth, and 22 dedos for the left piece.
A second inspection (January 25, 1787) was conducted by Bartolache with the assistance of five painters: Andrés López, Rafael Gutiérrez, Mariano Vásquez, Manuel García, and Roberto José Gutiérrez. The Image was examined for two hours with the glass opened. Their observations were certified by a royal scribe, don José Antonio Morales, on March 1. First, the scribe attested that parts of the cloth had a certain luster, akin to something varnished or greased with soap. This luster appeared only on the face and hands of the Lady and of the cherub. Second, he noted that the ayate was a fine cloth, akin to cotense of medium quality (agreeing with Cabrera). Third, the sewing that united the two pieces seemed coarse, and to have been done with a thread thicker than that of the cloth, and of the same material.
After the glass case was locked, Bartolache asked questions of the painters, who responded as follows. First, they all denied that the gold flowers on the tunic were (1) outlined en sus contornos y dintornos, (2) "with skilled black outlines", (3) that were thin as a hair. All responded in the negative to all three parts. Next, they agreed that they were able to match the colors of the Image, but not their substance, by mixing oil paints they had brought on a palette.
In a rebuttal (1792) of Bartolache's investigation, Fray José María Tellez Girón notes that Cabrera never said that the hair-breadth outlines of the tunic's arabesques were black. Accordingly, the above denial proves nothing, except that the artists were looking for the wrong thing, having misunderstood Cabrera, who was describing something more subtle. It is true that Francisco Antonio Vallejo, in his letter accompanying Maravilla americana mentions "black outlines" (perfiles negros), but he says these surround the fringe (fimbria) of the Lady's dress, clearly referring to the black lines surrounding the gold trim of the mantle and tunic, not the arabesques.
Strikingly, Bartolache's painters affirmed that the ayate seemed to have sufficient sizing (aparejo) to support the paint, without the colors passing through the reverse. We should note that the painters had no means of verifying this opinion, since they could not see the reverse of the cloth, which was mounted on silver plates.
The painters saw nothing special about the number 8 that Miguel Cabrera had found in the tunic's gold decoration (over the right foot). Cabrera saw the 8 as symbolizing the octave of the Immaculate Conception, or suggesting that this is the eighth wonder of the world. In both cases, the observations are interpretive, and all agree (as do later observers) that there is a figure resembling an eight.
Despite their partial contradictions of Cabrera, the painters attested, following the rules of their art rather than any passion or zeal, that the holy Image was miraculously painted. This applied only to the original Image, excepting "certain retouches and flourishes, which without doubt are shown to have been executed later by daring hands." Here is the first clear testimony that the Image had ever been altered at some point, though we are not told where.
A year later, on January 24, 1788, the Image's glass case was again unlocked, in order to compare the original with two copies that had been made on ayate. The copies were painted by Rafael Gutiérrez and Andrés López. The painters agreed that neither of the two replicas was an identical copy of the original. López's copy was painted in early 1787 on the handwoven iczotl produced at Bartolache's command by Indians. It is unclear if Gutiérrez's copy was produced on the other Indian-made iczotl cloth (as Xavier Escalada suggests in María de Guadalupe), or if this was the unsized painting on finer ayate mentioned in one of Bartolache's footnotes (to paragraph 119). If the latter, then the December 1788 dating in Bartolache's note must be incorrect, and likely should read "December 1787".
In 1792, Fray José María Tellez Girón wrote a refutation of Bartolache's findings, titled Impugnación al Manifiesto satisfactorio del Dr. José Ignacio Bartolache. Tellez Girón regarded Bartolache's investigation as pointless, considering it a matter of indifference whether the tilma is made of iczotl or maguey, since either material is consistent with being made from Juan Diego's cloak, and with the miraculous nature of the painting. Second, it is irrelevant to the miraculous nature of the Image whether the cloth is corruptible or incorruptible. The miracle would be no less firmly established if the cloth were to be destroyed tomorrow. God has worked many miracles on corruptible materials, notably the Holy Eucharist itself is under corruptible accidents.
Conversely, Téllez Girón notes, there have been cases of extraordinary incorruption in fabric by natural means. There are exposed canvases more than a hundred years old in many monasteries. Though the paints have fallen away from them, the cloth itself remains intact. Even delicate fabrics can sometimes endure more than a century, as is proved by the perfectly preserved cadaver of a young lady, still wearing fine yellow stockings. Her tomb does not indicate she had any special saintly virtue, so this preservation was by natural means.
The friar suggests that a dust coating may act to protect a painting from corruption, as occurs with dust-covered papers and books in libraries. The tilma was uncovered for more than a century, so dust may have acted to preserve it. The copy made by Gutiérrez, already showing deterioration after just four years, was under glass, so no dust could accumulate, while corrosive agents, being more subtle, could still do their work. Téllez Girón was not a painting expert, and was only speculating. In fact, it is generally agreed by art conservators that unvarnished oil paintings need to be cleared of dust periodically. Further, it is highly unlikely that the tilma was permitted to accumulate a substantial dust coating for an extended period of time, for observers from all periods report the vividness of its colors, and devotees were regularly permitted to touch their icons against it.
Téllez Girón incisively criticizes the claims made by Bartolache's team regarding the supposed sizing or preparation done to the cloth. Was there sufficient preparation (aparejo suficiente) or not? If not, then why did Gutiérrez paint his copy without any sizing (sin aparejo alguno)? Either the painters' claim that the original has sizing is wrong, or Bartolache's claim that Gutiérrez exactly replicated the Image is wrong. In what sense did he emulate the Image? Any painter could include the basic features of the Image. Did he use the four techniques mentioned by Cabrera, who judged such combination impossible? As noted previously, Bartolache's painters never saw the reverse of the cloth, so they were unable to substantiate their claim that the canvas was sized.
More generally, the friar notes that Bartolache's examination of the cloth was unreliable, since he used only sight and touch. Eyesight is a notoriously unreliable way to determine the composition of a material. Bartolache only touched the silky smooth painted side, and did not examine the reverse, reported by earlier expert witnesses to be rough. There are hardly any bare threads on the front side, so Bartolache could not assess the quality of the cloth itself. This limitation, along with other inconsistencies noted, tends to indicate that Bartolache's investigation was inexact, compared with that of Cabrera and the Información of 1666.
Though Bartolache did not live to see the result of his experiment, the two copies became seriously degraded only a few years after his death, and were subsequently removed from public view. The original retained its brilliance and vivid colors in an extraordinary state of preservation throughout the nineteenth century.
During the nineteenth century, Mexico, like much of the world, was engulfed in revolutionary transitions toward republicanism and secularism. It is perhaps a fitting symbolism that the Virgin of Guadalupe should mysteriously lose her crown in this period, when men claimed a sovereignty that was independent and even opposed to that of Heaven. Determining the exact time when the crown disappeared, much less its cause, is a difficult puzzle.
Every baroque copy of the Image includes a royal crown, whose points consist of the rays above the Virgin's head. This cannot be a misinterpretation, as the artists are generally attentive to minute details, and a crown is very definitely depicted. Even today, the tilma bears traces of where the crown once lay, so there is no question that this feature really existed. Its presence in copies proves that it dates back at least to the early seventeenth century. It remains to be seen how and when it disappeared.
According to Cabrera, the crown had ten points or rays. This agrees with the depiction by Balthasar de Echave Orio (1606), who scrupulously includes all 120 rays. Other early copyists, including Lorenzo de la Piedra, Luis de Texeda, Juan Correa, and the artist of the Doria family's icon, painted a nine-point crown. (The Stradanus engraving has only eight visible points, but others might have been obscured from wear.) Though De La Piedra and the Doria icon generally depict fewer rays surrounding the Image, Correa and Texeda include the full complement of about 120, so there appears to have been a genuine disagreement in interpreting which points belong to the crown. Notably, all the crown rays are straight, unlike the other surrounding rays, which alternate between straight and wavy, with the latter being markedly thicker.
The tilma is not known to have suffered any accidental damage, except shortly after the period when it was removed while the collegiate church (now the old basilica) was being repaired. The church had been damaged during the construction of the Capuchin convent (completed 1787), so the tilma was removed on June 10, 1791, and returned on July 11, 1794. [La Virgen del Tepeyac, (Guadalajara: 1884), p. 109. Also: (Las Vegas, N.M.: Revista Católica, 1885), p. 78.] In 1795, nitric acid was accidentally spilled on the left side of the Image while cleaning it. Miraculously, there was no significant damage to the Image or to the cloth. This is documented in a notarized report from 1820. [Instrumento Jurídico sobre el agua fuerte que se derramó, casualmente, hace muchos años, sobre el Sagrado lienzo de la portentosa Imagen de N. Sra. de Guadalupe de México, 1820, AHBG, Correspondencia con el Supremo Gobierno, Caja 3, Exp. 54] Modern observers have verified that there is a subtle stain from this spill, visible especially from the back of the cloth.
The earliest attestation of the crown's absence is in 1887, when José de Jesús Cuevas (in La santísima Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico: Imp. del Círculo Católico, 1887, ch. xliv, p. 152) noted that the crown disappeared at some point, even though many people alive in his day had seen it previously. He considers the disappearance to be miraculous. Esteban Anticoli, in his 1897 history, attests that the crown was still visible in 1838. [Esteban Anticoli. Historia de la aparición de la Santísima Virgen María de Guadalupe en México desde el año MDCCCI al de MDCCCXCV. (Mexico: La Europea, 1897)]
In February 1888 the Image was translated to a Capuchin chapel, where it would stay while the church underwent reconstruction, in preparation for a ceremonial coronation of the Virgin approved by Rome. As the icon was removed from its frame, witnesses could clearly see that there was no longer a crown on the Virgin's head. The apparitionist Vicente de Paul Andrade later accused P. Antonio Plancarte y Labastida, who was in charge of the renovations, of having ordered the painter José Salomé Pina to erase the crown. P. Plancarte, in a letter to the bishop of Yucatán, D. Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona, affirmed under oath that he had first noticed the absence of the crown on January 23, 1887, when examining photos that had been taken three days earlier (January 20) while the protective glass was open. He immediately reported this to his uncle the archbishop, who noted that the Image previously had a crown. The following day they went to the church, and saw there was not even a trace (rastro) of the crown.
When the Image was returned to the renovated Church in 1895, its translation was verified in a notarized act. Three artists signed the act, attesting that the Image did not have any crown nor any vestiges of having had one. The signatories were Gonzalo Carrasco, Felipe de Jesús Palomares, and the aforementioned José Salomé Piña. The artists did not claim that the Image never had a crown, only that there were no longer any visible vestiges of it.
In the mid-twentieth century, two witnesses claimed to have received indirect testimony that Pina had erased the crown. José Castillo y Piña, in his 1945 book Tonantzin, Nuestra Madrecita, la Virgen de Guadalupe, claims that "the master Aguirre" told him that Pina had erased the crown. In 1953, P. Lauro López Beltrán records in his Cuestionario histórico guadalupano a similar story told to him by the scholar D. Antonio Pompa y Pompa. The painter Rafael Aguirre, while on his deathbed, told Pompa y Pompa that his former master Salomé Pina left his class one day with D. Antonio Plancarte, for the purpose of removing the remnants of the crown still visible.
Aguirre's testimony is consistent with twentieth-century analyses of the Image, which show that some remnants of the crown have been painted over with the blue mantle. Since these were only minor retouches, most of the crown must have already disappeared on its own, as Plancarte testified. Still, Plancarte's claim that no trace was left of the crown in 1887 cannot be accurate, unless the retouching happened at an earlier date. Regardless of who was responsible for the final retouches, it seems clear that the crown was mostly effaced through natural wear in the mid- to late nineteenth century. This makes sense, as it was made of the same material as the other surrounding rays, which also suffered the most visible loss. After the crown was almost completely effaced, some modern restorer painted the top of the blue mantle over the remnants of the horizontal band. This may have been motivated, as Beltrán suggests, by a belief that the horizontal band was not original to the Image.
All of the major features of the Image (including the crown, rays, stars, gold-trimmed mantle, black outlines, tunic arabesques, dark moon, and the angel) have existed continuously since at least the early seventeenth century. These features were all in a state of excellent preservation through the end of the eighteenth century and even into the early nineteenth. The original colors of the cloak and tunic remained the same (aquamarine and salmon, respectively), while the angel's wings were always tricolored.
The cloth was 1.70 m tall and 1.05 m wide during the baroque period. Its painted surface was smooth as silk, while the reverse was a bit rough. The weave was fairly fine, like a medium-grade linen. All expert examiners judged that it was most probably made of iczotl, then known botanically as Palma silvestre. It was composed of two vertical pieces woven together by a single thread of uneven thickness, though thinner in the upper portion of the Image. All witnesses except Bartolache's team consider the thread to be made of cotton.
The ayate was mounted on a wooden stretcher frame, which Cabrera believed to date to the sixteenth century. It was uncovered and exposed to the elements, including smoke from altar candles, for the first century of its existence. In 1647, it was finally kept in a reliquary with two pieces of glass, but even then it was regularly exposed for adoration for hours at a time, so people could touch their icons to it. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Image was backed by silver plates.
The expert examiners of 1666 and of 1751 (Miguel Cabrera et al.) all concluded that the painting had no sizing. In both cases, the basis of this inference was the visible seeping of colors through the back of the Image. In 1787, Bartolache's painters judged that the painting was sized, though they did not view the reverse. It is unclear what was the basis of their judgment. Cabrera notes that the white underlying the labrada al temple portion of the painting may be mistaken for sizing. Inexplicably, at least one of the replicas painted by Bartolache's team (that of Gutiérrez) was done without sizing. Both replicas, painted on iczotl, deteriorated within a few years.
The Image gives the appearance of using both oil and tempera techniques. Cabrera identifies four distinct techniques: oil, tempera, gouache (then called aguazo), and labrada al temple. The last two may be considered types of tempera techniques. The contradictory support treatments required by these techniques persuaded Cabrera that their combination in a single work was miraculous.
All are agreed that the painting of the Virgin is of sublime beauty, and that its contours are not replicable. Particular admiration is shown toward the face, which is at once brilliant and subtle in expression. The concurrence of all the painters that the Image is of heavenly origin derives in no small part from the powerful aesthetic impression of the Image, especially when contrasted with the poverty of most of its materials.
The painting was generally perceived to be unvarnished, except Bartolache's painters attributed the luster of the face and hands to the possible use of varnish or soap grease. As this is the oil-painted portion of the Image, it would be most in need of varnish.
The original painting has no defects of technique. Even the dark outlines enhance the Image's aesthetic impression. According to Cabrera, the mantle is surrounded by shaded outlines about the thickness of a peso (2.4 mm). Additionally, he claims that the skillful arabesques are surrounded by outlines that are only a hair's breadth, but this was not confirmed by Bartolache's painters.
The gold stars, rays, crown and mantle fringe appear to have been made with genuine gold dust, and Cabrera felt concavities indicating that they were imprinted into the cloth, unlike any known technique. The gold seems to have been incorporated into the cloth, as it can be seen on individual threads. The gold in the tunic's decorations is different from that of the rest of the Image. It is not impressed, and is less lustrous.
The only known early alterations to the Image are the cherubs that were added to the background around 1610, only to fade away shortly, and "certain retouches" mentioned in Bartolache's report. We are not told what these retouches were, but they likely were relatively minor, and did not include entire features, as Bartolache seems to take for granted that all the features are original to the Image.
The first sign of deterioration to any part of the Image was noted in 1887, as the rays constituting the crown had mostly disappeared. Early copies of the Image agree that a crown was present, though it is uncertain whether it had nine or ten points.
In general, all testimonies about the icon's physical condition through 1900 agree that the tilma was in an exceptionally good state of preservation, with only minimal alterations. Its construction was considered inexplicable by any natural techniques known to the best Mexican painters of the baroque period. Apart from the perceived technical impossibility of accomplishing such artistry on mediocre, unsized cloth, the examining painters from every period were duly impressed by the aesthetic value and technical mastery displayed by the artwork itself. While such assessments are, to large extent, subjective and unquantifiable, the baroque painters at least attempt to give definite reasons for their admiration of the icon. Notably, none were able to make an exact copy of the Image, even when using superior materials, though skillful copies of masterpieces were then commonly achieved. Using the technical resources available at the time, all due diligence was taken to demonstrate that the Image could not have been made by natural means.
We may remark that perceptions of the tilma varied according to the spirit of the age and the disposition of the observer. Contrast, for example, the credulity of P. Sánchez with the more exacting analysis of Cabrera, followed by the Enlightenment spirit of criticism found in Bartolache. We will find that even modern scientific observers, with all their technological instruments and pretenses of objectivity, also have their perceptions colored by their philosophical inclinations and intellectual culture. When we examine these more recent reports, we must keep in mind that the Image, like all physical evidence, does not simply speak for itself, but is conveyed through historically and culturally contingent human testimony.
Continue to Part XIII
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