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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 773-777

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Book Review

Mexican Phoenix. Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition, 1531-2000

Mexican Phoenix. Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition, 1531-2000. By D. A. Brading. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Pp. xvii, 444. $39.95.)

Our Lady of Guadalupe is arguably history's greatest example of the fusion of religious devotion and nationalism. From the time that the story of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to the indigenous neophyte Juan Diego was first made known in 1648 it was identified with mexicanidad, all that it means to be Mexican. As one devotee expressed it, "without Guadalupe we would cease to be Mexicans." Yet the history of the devotion and its development is anything but simple. It is full of inconsistencies, mysteries, contradictions, and even forgery. Beginning in the late nineteenth century the story of Guadalupe has involved intense controversy that has divided both the nation and the Church. This controversy reached its most intense points in the last thirty years of that century and the last twenty years of the twentieth.

In the period between 1531 and 1648 there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of documents written in Spanish and the native languages for use in the evangelization of the natives. These included sermons, catechisms, chronicles, sacred songs, reports, and dramas, and yet there is not one single mention of Juan Diego or the apparitions. In 1648 a Mexican priest, Miguel Sánchez, published the first known account, Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe. In the following year the vicar of Guadalupe, Luis Laso de la Vega, published an account in Nahuatl (Aztec) that was intended for a native audience. Today it is commonly known as the Nican mopohua ("here is recounted"). From the beginning the major difficulty of the apparition tradition was the lack of any documentary evidence to support the story. Because of this apologists fell back on the concept of tradition, that is, that the story had been passed on orally from generation to generation. When this proved insufficient, they turned to other arguments. One was that the image itself in its beauty and miraculous preservation was the best witness to its own supernatural origin. Another was that the various approvals by Rome and grants of a proper feast and office proved the historicity of the traditional account. Finally, the apologetics came full circle with an attempt to find documentary proof. This led to the citation of numerous wills and testaments that made bequests to the shrine of Guadalupe and the acceptance of the Nican mopohua as almost contemporaneous with the apparitions themselves. All of these arguments are still used today.

As Brading explains in his introduction, the purpose of the book is "to illumine the sudden efflorescence and the adamantine resilience of the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe" (p. 11). From there he takes the reader on a journey through a convoluted history, beginning with the role played by sacred images in early Christianity. He sees the theological significance of such images as deriving more from the Eastern than from the Western Church. He investigates the role of images in Spanish religious devotion at the height of empire. In dealing [End Page 773] with Miguel Sánchez and his book, Brading is vastly more laudatory than most other commentators have been. He calls it "a book brimming with devotion in which religion and patriotism were inextricably meshed, and where audacious claims were sustained by deep learning" (p. 59). Sánchez "must count among the most original, learned and audacious of Mexican theologians" (p. 75).

The author goes on to deal with Mateo de la Cruz's abridgment of Sánchez's work (1660), Laso de la Vega's Nahuatl account (1649), and the two works of Luis Becerra Tanco, one of the most influential of guadalupan commentators (1666, 1675). He then goes on to consider three other important figures in the development of the tradition, Francisco de Florencia, Carlos de Sigüenza y...


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