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Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe

Daniel J. Castellano (2013)

Part XIV

Epilogue: Plausible Reconstructions of the Icon's History

An "Apparitionist" Account
An "Anti-Apparitionist" Account
Final Remarks: Miracles in History

Given the abundance and complexity of historiographical evidence regarding the provenance of the Guadalupan legend and of the iconic tilma itself, we cannot fix upon one definite history favored by the facts. Rather, we may speak of a range of scenarios that are more or less harmonious with most of the evidence, depending on how we evaluate the relative quality or credibility of various testimonies. Yet, from what we have seen, we may exclude two of the more extreme sets of opinions. On the one hand, we may set aside the belief that the present Image of Guadalupe was produced in its entirety according to the exact details specified in the Nican mopohua, and that the Guadalupan legend was always widely known in Mexico since 1531. On the other hand, we may disregard as similarly unfounded the belief that Juan Diego was not a historical individual, but an invention of pious imagination. This still allows for a wide latitude of interpretation, and I will attempt to depict what, in my judgment, is the range of plausible scenarios that are congruent with most of the received data.

First, I will consider an "apparitionist" account, which gives due regard for the evidence that the tilma is likely of supernatural origin. Such an origin does not imply that the Nican mopohua is historically accurate in all its details, nor that the story of the apparitions was always widely known. We shall have to also give due credence to the historiographical findings and to expert judgments about additions to the Image.

Second, for those who are unpersuaded or unwilling to accept a priori that the Image could be miraculously imprinted, I offer an "anti-apparitionist" account that still gives due weight to early testimonies about Juan Diego by the Indians of Cuautitlán. Instead of dismissing sober, reputable witnesses as prevaricators, we will try to envision a scenario whereby the saintly Indian came to be associated with the icon and the story of its miraculous imprinting. This will involve speculation based on comparison with the origins of other legends.

The historical truth of the matter likely lies somewhere between these two extremes. In my evaluation, it is probably closer to the "apparitionist" account than the "anti-apparitionist" account, on the strength of the physical evidence of the Image's miraculous origin and preservation, as well as the Cuautitlán testimonies and the extraordinary esteem in which the icon was held since at least 1556. Still, even devout Catholics are not obligated to agree with this opinion, if they cannot conscientiously reconcile it with their own honest evaluation of the evidence. In this, they enjoy greater intellectual freedom than those materialist "skeptics" who have an a priori metaphysical doctrine against the possibility of miracles, so that we already know what their conclusions will be before reading them.

Both scenarios are "minimalist" accounts, in the sense that I will not assume more factual details than can be established with a high degree of probability. On some points, I will even suggest variant interpretations.

An "Apparitionist" Account

Sometime before 1548, in early December, a poor Indian named Juan Diego saw an apparition of a beautiful Lady whom he believed to be the Mother of God. The Lady told him to go the governing priest, and express her wish that a house be built for her on Tepeyac. There believers could offer petitions for her aid and she would make herself present.

Juan Diego dutifully brought this message to the Franciscan that he perceived to be in charge, either a friar at the monastery of Tlatelolco or Juan de Zumárraga himself. This Franciscan disbelieved in the Indian's story, thinking it to be a delusion or a fabrication. He demanded that a sign be provided before the story should be given any credence.

Returning to the hill, Juan Diego reported to the Lady what had happened, and she told him to return there the following morning, so she could provide him with a sign to bring to the priest.

On a subsequent morning, Juan Diego again encountered the Lady, and she told him to gather flowers at the top of the hill. As it was winter, and the hill was barren, these flowers would serve as the sign. He carried these flowers in his tilma to present them to the head priest.

When he was admitted to the priest's presence, Juan Diego opened his tilma to reveal the flowers, yet at the same time there was revealed the Image of the Lady imprinted on the cloth.

The Franciscan who beheld the Image might not have understood the full import of the miracle, as he spoke with Juan Diego through a translator. Perhaps he thought the icon was an indigenous painting, and received the flowers in winter as a sign that this icon should be venerated. Alternatively, he may have considered the painting to be a providential or miraculous discovery, though not necessarily of heavenly origin, as had occurred with various Spanish icons. Even if he did believe the Image to be miraculously painted, perhaps he considered this to be unprovable, since there was yet no ecclesiastical court, and so thought it prudent not to publicize it among the Spanish, as this might breed suspicion that the Indians remained in idolatry.

Whatever his thoughts may have been, the Franciscan sanctioned Juan Diego's request that a house could be built for the icon. A makeshift adobe chapel was put together in a few weeks by the Indians of Cuautitlán, Juan Diego's hometown. The Franciscan led a procession translating the icon to its abode, permitting the Indians to keep a lay shrine to the Virgin here.

Due to its strategic location near a major highway, the little chapel was frequented by many Indians, though only those of Cuautitlán knew the story of the icon's origin. For the others, it was simply a place to honor the Mother of God, at the same site where the mother-deity Tonantzin was once worshiped. This development irritated the Franciscans, accounting for the negative reports by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and others. They did not object to the Indians' devotion to the icon per se, but to their apparent regard of the canvas and paint itself as divine, which would be idolatrous even on the assumption of a miraculous imprinting.

Juan Diego himself acted as an intercessor with the Virgin in the remaining years of his life, living in a little cell that was built for him adjoining the shrine. The Indians of Cuautitlán brought their petitions for temporal goods before the hermit, whom they regarded as a holy man. He died some time before 1556, after which knowledge of the miracle was mostly or completely confined to distant Cuautitlán.

Spanish travelers also frequented the chapel on occasion, treating it as just another Marian shrine, though perhaps impressed by the Indians' reverence. When a Spanish herdsman was miraculously cured after praying to the Virgin of Tepeyac around 1555, it caused a sensation in Mexico City. Soon many Spaniards, including ladies of the upper classes, were making pilgrimages to the shrine, and reports of miracles proliferated.

By 1556, Guadalupan fervor had swept through most of the Spanish in Mexico City, to the point that all the city's dignitaries were scandalized when Fray Francisco de Bustamante preached against the devotion's perceived excesses. None of them had any knowledge of the story of Juan Diego and the miraculous imprinting, but they did firmly believe that the Image worked miracles.

The name Guadalupe was by then in use for some time, though already no one could account for its origin. The Virgin of Tepeyac did not look at all like that of Extremadura, so perhaps 'Guadalupe' was a corruption of a Nahuatl expression. The indigenous pronunciation was Tequatalope.

Archbishop Montúfar soon became a stalwart guadalupano, as he was evidently impressed by the great devotion the icon aroused even among the spiritually indolent. In early 1556, he followed Church law in refraining from preaching unconfirmed miracles, though he investigated the claims at some point. He considered the devotion sufficiently well established to merit building a new shrine, still a relatively modest adobe structure. He personally led a barefoot procession installing the icon in its new shrine. This was a major event long remembered by the Indians of Cuautitlán. The house at Tepeyac was no longer a lay shrine, but a true hermitage, where Mass could be held, though lacking a resident priest.

As there was now universal interest in the shrine, rumor spread about the legend of Juan Diego, likely from the Indians of Cuautitlán to those of Azcapotzalco and its environs, and eventually to those of Mexico City and to the Spaniards. By the 1580s, the story was widely known throughout the capital. Still, it did not have official ecclesiastical sanction. When funds were being raised for a more impressive shrine was built in the early seventeenth century, the archbishop issued certificates of indulgences featuring eight Guadalupan miracles. The thaumaturgic quality of the Image, at least, had by then become officially recognized.

By the mid-seventeenth century, no one in Mexico was unaware of the miraculous origin of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, the investigations of P. Miguel Sánchez brought to light that there were no extant juridical documents establishing the miracle. In order to obtain Roman sanction of the Guadalupan cult and a designated feast day, it was necessary to conduct the Informaciones of 1666 to juridically establish that the tradition was credible and continuously held.

An "Anti-Apparitionist" Account

For those who are not persuaded that the Image is of miraculous origin, it is not necessary to deny the historicity of Juan Diego, which is well established by the testimonies of Cuautitlán. It is not even necessary to deny that the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, or that she worked the miracle of the flowers. In these latter variants, the present account is only equivocally "anti-apparitionist."

The reclusive Juan Diego was revered as a holy man and a good Christian by the Indians of Cuautitlán. As was common among indigenous holy men, Juan Diego claimed to have had heavenly visions. In at least one of these visions, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him on the hill of Tepeyac.

Juan Diego spent his later years at a makeshift hermitage on Tepeyac, where he brought the Indians' petitions for temporal goods before the Virgin, with whom he communicated regularly. According to legend, this house was built after Juan Diego had brought flowers in winter to the governing Franciscan as a sign. In any case, the little adobe shrine was already a site of Marian devotion during the time of Zumárraga.

By 1555, the little lay chapel housed a painted image of the Virgin on cloth. This may have been as old as the chapel, or it may have been painted upon the cloak upon which Juan Diego brought the miraculous flowers. The artist must have been a master of Renaissance realism. There were at most a handful of indigenous artists with such expertise, and their ability to paint such a work is doubtful. Assuming that there was at least one with such ability, this artist worked on a loose, unsized, unmounted canvas. Without undersketching, he used the aguazo technique to apply water-based tempera pigments to the moistened cloth, forming the cloak and mantle. We cannot determine the technique he used for the hands and face, but somehow he was able to take advantage of providentially situated irregularities in the threads to create a subtle, textured face with tender expression, and to exploit the diffractive properties of the cloth to make the face refulgent.

When a Spanish herdsman was miraculously healed after praying to the Image, Guadalupan fervor swept over the capital. As Spaniards flocked to the shrine, more miracles were reported, sparking even greater devotion. No one supposed that the Image was heaven-sent, and some may even have known or at least guessed the name of the painter.

Archbishop Montúfar established a proper shrine at Tepeyac, though Our Lady of Guadalupe could not have her own special cult or feast, per Church law. He may have investigated the miracles, but even this devout guadalupano appears to have had no knowledge of a miraculous origin for the Image.

The Indians of Cuautitlán naturally associated the Image with their local saint Juan Diego. This is either because the Image was painted on his tilma which carried the miraculous flowers, or simply because of his visions and intercessions at Tepeyac. In a brief period of time (1550s-1580s), the legend of the miraculous imprinting was elaborated and propagated throughout Mexico City and its environs. It is conceivable that this legend originated from a single source, the author of the oldest version of the Nican mopohua, an embellished history of the apparitions.

Although this romanticized version of the story of Juan Diego was widely known by the 1580s, it was not given any official credence, as proved by its omission from the Stradanus engraving. The real basis of the extraordinary fervor of Guadalupan devotion was the miracles that the Image worked, and this continues to be the case to some extent even today. It is because of confidence in this ability to work miracles, not its reputed miraculous imprinting, that the Image was brought to Mexico during the great flood of the 1620s. It is only after the work of the "four evangelists" of Guadalupe and the Informaciones of 1666 that the legendary narrative became the centerpiece and foundation of the cult.

Final Remarks: Miracles in History

It may be questioned whether it is even appropriate for historians and historiographers to address the question of miraculous occurrences. Yet if anti-apparitionist historians can pretend to disprove the occurrence of the Guadalupan miracle with historical evidence, it logically follows that the question is in the historian's domain.

Since history does not deal in metaphysical certainties or even physical necessities, we can never pronounce that any event, natural or supernatural, definitely did happen. We can only establish facts with degrees of moral certainty, based on our evaluation of the quality of testimonies. Human testimony is the data of history, and the scrupulous historian will carefully consider all that is contained in that data. History, unlike physics and metaphysics, has no iron-clad laws to tell it what "must have" happened or not have happened. Dealing with the radical contingency of historical development, we must instead content ourselves with finding what likely did happen in some particular circumstances. Without laws of necessity, we can make no declarations except those of a probabilistic character.

Those who absolutely exclude miracles from their histories—itself a historically recent development—must do so either by introducing the unproven (and indeed refutable) doctrines of metaphysical materialism, or by introducing their own aesthetic judgments. As an example of the latter, consider Stafford Poole's assessment of the miracles in the Nican moctepana:

These miracle accounts obviously belong to a more credulous age. Viewed from today's standpoint, they are fanciful, legendary, and even frivolous or grotesque. No serious credence can be given to any of them. [Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol (1995), pp. 121-22.]

It is impossible to say how he makes this determination, save by subjective feeling. Many sober, educated men believed in these miracles for centuries, though they were no less aware of their unnatural and unusual character. Poole, as a Catholic priest, presumably believes in the miracles of the Gospels, though these are no less fantastic, so there is no question for him of a priori impossibility. Something in them strikes him as ridiculous or silly, but this says nothing more than, "It tickles me the wrong way," hardly a properly rational judgement. In our own lives, we may have witnessed many freakish occurrences, natural or supernatural, that would sound contrived or fantastic as fiction. Modern physics requires us to believe many things that sound bizarre, some of which, to this day, have not been harmonized with our intuitions of what is possible. Therefore, "sounding ridiculous" is a very poor standard for eliminating a possibility from consideration.

Still, it must be admitted that, once we allow for the real possibility of miracles in our history, a serious methodological problem arises. There are no longer any consistent rules about what is possible to guide us in our inquiry. For example, Callahan claimed that the face and hands of the Image could not have been painted with oil, since this would have eaten away the unsized cloth. Yet he confesses elsewhere that the painting is miraculously preserved, even that it was beyond human capacity to create. What is one more miracle? This dangerous potential to multiply miracles accounts for the increasingly extravagant claims of some modern apparitionists. Anything unexplained or seemingly contradictory must be accounted as a further miracle or marvel. Surely, physics should act as a guide, if not an absolute constraint, for determining the possible.

Yet if we absolutely exclude miracles from consideration, we can run into a no less serious methodological failure. Rosales, for example, judges that the Image's face was made with oil or resin pigments. Since these would eat away at an unsized cloth, he deduces that this area must have sizing. Yet this is contrary to visual evidence showing the near barrenness of the cloth and the emptiness of the interstices. An absolute exclusion of miracles can lead to a willful ignorance of inconvenient evidence, favoring a priorism over empiricism.

These considerations have led me to favor the approach used in this work, which is to ignore or dismiss no evidence on account of any arbitrary aesthetic judgments about what is "reasonable." Instead, the usual forensic standards are applied to assess the quality of testimony: the character, competence and circumstances of the witness, and the cogency of its content (i.e., its internal consistency and independent corroboration by other witnesses). In this manner, we can construct likely scenarios of the historiographical development of the Guadalupan legend. By adhering to forensic criteria, we guard against needless multiplication of miracles, yet at the same time take care not to dismiss any testimony on account of philosophical or aesthetic biases.

Still, in the end, historical inquiry is only as good as its data. If the reader is persuaded that all the principal witnesses are unreliable, he may discard the historian's conclusions and consider the truth of the matter unknown or unknowable. This is no less true for accounts of natural occurrences than those of the preternatural.


© 2013 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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