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The Americas 61.4 (2005) 571-610

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Creating the Virgin of Guadalupe:

the Cloth, the Artist, and Sources in Sixteenth-Century New Spain

University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California

It was in 1531 that, according to the apparition legend first recorded over a hundred years later in 1648, Juan Diego's visionary experience of the Virgin of Guadalupe was miraculously mapped onto his tilma (tilmatli in Nahuatl) or woven cloak. This painted cloth, hereafter referred to as the tilma image, is said to be the same relic venerated today in the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City (fig. 1). However, no sacred image is invented from whole cloth, to use a highly appropriate metaphor here, and the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe is no exception. Moreover, its very materiality makes it vulnerable to the passage of time, the laws of physics and human intervention. As an object of human craft produced post-Conquest, it has a traceable genealogy within the combustible mix of art modes, mixed media and theological tracts found circulating in early colonial New Spain.

The stunning lack of any visual similarity between the cult images of the two preeminent Guadalupes, the diminutive Romanesque sculpture of a black madonna in Extremadura, Spain, and the two-dimensional painting on cloth in Mexico, has forced scholars to look elsewhere for prototypes. The fashioning of the American Guadalupe is squarely situated in a nexus of European artistic and iconographic conventions, including those emanating from the workshops of the Spanish monastery of Guadalupe that produced exquisite embroidered liturgical garments and manuscript illuminations. In representing the Virgin Mary in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe, artists were inspired by a multitude of small portable artworks capable of ready transmission overseas. By the 1550s, Marcos Cipac (de Aquino), the putative native artist of the Guadalupe painting, was working in the fertile cross-currents of viceregal visual culture. As one of many indigenous artists whose skills were nurtured within a Franciscan curriculum in New Spain, the painter Marcos would have been inspired by an array of Marian images such as woodcuts, illustrated books, painted panels, textiles and monumental [End Page 571] murals that were beginning to adorn the walls of newly constructed mendicant monasteries. The sources, authorship, dating, and motivations for the creation of a new Mexican Guadalupe under the patronage of the archbishop, Alonso de Montúfar, are here explored.

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Figure 1
Virgin of Guadalupe: tilma image
Anonymous, 16th century
Oil and tempera on cloth; 172 X 109 cm.
Basílica de Guadalupe, Mexico D.F.

The Tilma Image

The Mexican Guadalupe one sees today is a prayerful Virgin without Christ Child who bears no physical resemblance to her Spanish namesake, a carved twelfth-century madonna and child. The cedar sculpture in the Extremaduran monastery to the Virgin of Guadalupe stands less than 3 feet (59 cm.) high, holding a scepter in her right hand and the Christ child in her left, both figures encased in a triangulated gown and both with blackened skin. In marked contrast, the much larger Mexican Guadalupe displays an oval face and regular features that are decidedly those of a Renaissance Virgin Mary and her skin tonality is an ashen olive, a complexion referred to [End Page 572] as light brown or wheat-colored in most later chronicles.1 Guadalupe's skin color and black hair mark important ethnic signifiers which, I will argue, were intentional and help to verify the indigenous authorship of the painting. The youthful figure is doubly framed, on the outer margins by a scalloped cloud bank and more immediately by an oval mandorla composed of gilded solar rays, alternately rigid and undulant in their form. The body-length aureole backlights Mary, who appears more intensely luminescent at the borders of her clothing. Her voluminous dress, an aquamarine shawl over a rose tunic, protectively shields the woman, eliding her sex and reinforcing her demure virginal state. The sleeves of her embroidered tunic are fur-trimmed; the robe...


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