Thursday, December 6, 2007
A Thought About the Virgin of Guadalupe
When I first started kicking around the idea of writing Madonna of the Toast, about three years ago, one of the things that really got me jazzed was the fact that people see secular icons as well as religious ones. It really drove home for me the power of the image to influence people and their interpretations of the physical world that we all inhabit. With that said, and as regular visitors to this blog know, most of the iconography spotted on trees and foodstuffs is religious, and most of these sightings are of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The creation and dissemination of the visual representations of both of these figures over time canvases the world and while variations of how they looked exist, both icons can be recognized by shapes and shadings that echo the most common aspects of the images, like a flowing gown and facial hair.
Many people think these phenomena are new, resulting from our digital, screen-dependent culture, and this is just plain wrong. Our high-speed technological landscape certainly helps promote these sightings and spread the word about them, but such visual manifestations have surfaced for centuries. As I mention in the book, references to the Man in the Moon can be found in texts from Europe and Asia that date back at least 500 years.
December 12 marks the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is inspired by the story of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s walk up a hill called Tepeyac in 1531, not too far from Mexico City. The story states that the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego, telling him to build an abbey on the hill. Juan Diego relayed the message to a Spanish bishop who needed to observe a miracle to be convinced. In response to the bishop’s request, the Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers, although it was winter and nothing was in bloom. However, atop Tepeyac, Juan Diego found roses, which he gathered and presented to the bishop, after which the Virgin’s form appeared on the cloth of Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak). This story is believed to be an amalgamation of Catholic ideology and indigenous Mexican lure, particularly that of the goddess Tonantzin. Since the 16th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been used as a symbol of Mexican independence.
I couldn’t help consider the roots of this myth after reading this article in the Los Angeles Times about the appeal of the Virgin of Guadalupe to people with cultural and religious heritages that span the globe. According to the article, “An estimated 10,000 devotees turned out Sunday [December 2] for a procession in honor of the Virgin, among them ethnic Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Tongan and Vietnamese worshipers.” The story of this visual manifestation compels people from all walks of life in a way that seems more about sharing a personal touchstone, as opposed to dogma, allowing these people to celebrate diversity and individuality under the guise of a single iconic image.
It's true that people may look a little too hard for these images, or try too hard to convince others that a holy sign is embedded somewhere surprising (like in this eBay item claiming to display the images of Mary and Jesus wound into Mother Teresa's fingerprint). But by the very virtue of these stories and ideas existing, they are important and worth examining, because they reveal a great deal about the culture at large: our tendencies, weaknesses and desires. And in considering what so many others claim to see, it really boils down to this: What do you see?