Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Miguel Sánchez published his Imagen de la Virgen Maria, a celebration of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which spawned the most important Catholic cult in the Americas. This book was the first written account of the apparition and became the focus of native devotion dating to 1531. The cult itself became an important component of criollo culture.

Summary of Event

In 1648, the creole priest Miguel Sánchez Sánchez, Miguel wrote Imagen de la Virgen Maria Imagen de la Virgen Maria (Sánchez) (image of the Virgin Mary), the first published account of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe and her miraculous appearance to the native convert Juan Diego Diego, Juan . According to Sánchez, this event occurred in December of 1531, only ten years after the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Writing more than one hundred years later, Sánchez recounted the story of the recently Christianized Juan Diego, who was passing by the hill of Tepeyac when the Virgin Mary appeared to him as a native Mexican woman. [kw]Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe (1648) [kw]Guadalupe, Cult of the Virgin of (1648) [kw]Virgin of Guadalupe, Cult of the (1648) Religion and theology;1648: Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe[1610] Cultural and intellectual history;1648: Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe[1610] Mexico;1648: Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe[1610] Virgin of Guadalupe, cult of the

Speaking Náhuatl, the Aztec language, she told Juan Diego to descend the hill to see the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, Zumárraga, Juan de and instruct him to build a church in her honor on the site. Juan Diego dutifully did as he was told, but Zumárraga refused the request. Upon Juan Diego’s return to Tepeyac, the Virgin reappeared, repeating her demand. Juan Diego returned to the bishop, who, this time, requested a sign from the Virgin Mary. Returning to Tepeyac a third time, the Virgin assured Juan Diego that she would provide the requested sign but first instructed him to return to his village. There, he discovered his uncle, Juan Bernardino, sick and near death.

Rushing to the church at Tlatelolco to find a confessor, Juan Diego hurried past Tepeyac. The Virgin stopped him, telling Juan Diego that his uncle was cured, and instructed him to ascend the hill to gather roses, miraculously blooming in December, to show to the bishop. Carrying the roses in his native cloak, or tilma, Juan Diego returned to Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak to reveal the blooms, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was miraculously revealed, imprinted on the fabric. Awestruck by the miracle, the bishop fell to his knees, promising to build the church. This is the image venerated in Mexico City’s Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe.

The tilma is widely regarded as miraculous in origin by Catholics, particularly in Mexico. It represents a dark-skinned Virgin, head bowed and hands clasped in prayer, wearing a crown and starry blue cloak. A mandorla of light surrounds her figure. She stands on a crescent moon, ancient fertility symbol and traditional attribute of the Immaculate Conception, held aloft by a single angel. The depiction appears on a support of maguey cloth, a type of rough native fabric.

Although today the Virgin of Guadalupe is associated with the struggle of native and mestizo peoples for justice, recent historians have convincingly demonstrated the creole origins of the cult. In fact, the 1648 publication of Miguel Sánchez’s Guadalupan text was instrumental in fomenting creole nationalism. This creole movement, originating in the seventeenth century, eventually led to the Mexican fight for independence from Spain, attained in 1821. Sánchez’s text emphasizes the divine favor the Virgin bestowed upon the creoles Creoles , people of Spanish origin born in the Americas, recounting miracles worked on their behalf. Indeed, according to Sánchez and others, the Virgin’s appearance in Mexico in 1531 was proof of the special status of Mexico, or New Spain, as it was then known. New Spain;Catholicism and

The book, which contains little about indigenous devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, inspired the publication of similar texts, most importantly a simplified revision issued in 1660 by the Jesuit Mateo de la Cruz Cruz, Mateo de la that circulated widely. Books by Luis Becerra Tanco Tanco, Luis Becerra (1666 and 1685) and one by Francisco de Florencia Florencia, Francisco de (1688) followed. Other events testify to the creole orientation of the cult in the seventeenth century, most notably the rebuilding of the church on the original site under Archbishop Juan Pérez de la Serna, Serna, Juan Pérez de la an occasion commemorated in a 1615 print by Samuel Stradanus.

Only six short months after the appearance of Sánchez’s historic text, another version of the Guadalupan story in the native language of Náhuatl was published, entitled Huey tlamahuiçoltica Huey tlamahuiçoltica (1649; by a great miracle). This text, composed of writings from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by various authors, was compiled by the creole priest Luis Laso de la Vega Vega, Luis Laso de la . He intended his version, which focuses on indigenous devotion to the Virgin, for native readers. It had no influence on Mexico’s creole population and only became widely known in the twentieth century.

The evolution of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s cult highlights one of the major problems facing historians who work on Latin America, that is, disentangling the European and indigenous origins of cultural phenomena. Although scholars are increasingly coming to the conclusion that devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe was initially propagated by those of Spanish descent, many others still insist on its native genealogy. They believe that the devotion was passed down orally among native worshipers, thus explaining the lack of written documentation.

A third group of scholars has proposed that the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe was foisted upon native converts by missionaries eager to replace the Aztec mother goddess with a similar Catholic figure. This argument is strengthened by the claims of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún, Bernardino de who, writing around 1576, claimed that Indians’ devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe was a clever pretense masking worship of the Aztec goddess he identified as Tonantzin, or Our Mother. While many historians have accepted Sahagún’s claim, some specialists in Precolumbian culture have questioned the existence of such a goddess, the name of which does not correspond to any documentable native deity.

The tilma painting, regarded by many believers as a divinely crafted image, similarly presents scholars with interpretive challenges. Close analysis of the textile, including radiography, has revealed numerous changes and additions to the original, particularly in the areas of the mandorla, moon, angel, and the Virgin’s hands. Furthermore, its combination of indigenous drawing technique and Christian iconography closely resembles other Indo-Christian Mexican artworks of the sixteenth century. Based on stylistic analysis, the art historian Jeanette Favrot Peterson has posited a date in the 1550’s for the image. Others have suggested a possible author, the celebrated sixteenth century Indian painter Marcos Aquino. Finally, the Mexican image closely resembles a Spanish sculpture found on a choir stall in the monastery of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain, after which the former was probably named.


The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most important Catholic cult in the Americas and one of the most widespread throughout the world today. In addition, the Virgin is a major icon of Mexican national identity. Although the origins of her cult remain shrouded in mystery, her image has taken on powerful political meanings over time. Most notably, she is viewed as a symbol representing the rights and humanity of native and mestizo peoples. Some view her as the perfect hybrid symbol, representing the confluence of European and Precolumbian cultures. Others insist she is a thinly disguised Aztec mother goddess.

The cult attained its greatest success in the eighteenth century. After being credited with stopping a deadly epidemic of disease in Mexico City in 1737, the Virgin of Guadalupe was named patron of Mexico City and was elevated principal patron of both Mexico and Guatemala in 1746. At the same time, the Virgin of Guadalupe became the object of increasing indigenous devotion, as indicated by surviving Náhuatl sermons and religious dramas. Despite claims of the indigenous origins of the cult, there is little tangible evidence of the cult’s popularity among native worshipers until the eighteenth century.

As the meanings attached to her figure shifted, representations of the Mexican Virgin expressed different points of view. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the story of her apparition to Juan Diego was understood as proof of Mary’s love for native peoples. In the nineteenth century, pro-independence forces, led by Miguel Hidalgo, deployed her image as a symbol of national pride. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), she came to represent social justice for the disenfranchised. In the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States, Mexican American farmworkers carried her image in demonstrations as an emblem of peace and justice. Today, representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe can be found throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the American Southwest, a sign of Catholic faith and Latino identity.

Beginning in the 1970’, however, feminist artists, particularly in the United States, began to question the pious, humble image of the Virgin as a model for women to follow, producing iconoclastic representations of her in high heels, as the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, and even in a bikini (Alma López, 1999). In the 1970’, the Mexican American artist Yolanda M. López created portraits of her grandmother, her mother, and herself in the guise of La Guadalupana, activating what many Chicanas see as a passive, traditional image.

Despite historians’ challenges to the cult’s facticity, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe continues to thrive today. A new basilica in the Villa de Guadalupe, built by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez in the 1970’, holds ten thousand worshipers. Pilgrims continue to flock to the site, and Mexicans and other Latinos regard the dark-skinned Virgin as their special protector. As a measure of the cult’s continued vitality, in 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego. It matters little to the Catholic faithful that some historians believe he never existed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkhart, Louise. “The Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.” In South and Meso-American Native Spirituality: From the Cult of the Feathered Serpent to the Theology of Liberation, edited by Gary H. Gossen and Miguel León-Portilla. Vol. 4 in World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest. New York: Crossroad, 1993. Important analysis of the Precolumbian context of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe with critique of her supposed conflation with the goddess called Tonantzin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lafaye, Jacques. Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813. Translated by Benjamin Keen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. A classic study of two important nationalist symbols. The author locates the flowering of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s cult in the first third of the seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation?” Art Journal (1992): 39-47. The definitive art historical study of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poole, C. M. Stafford. Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican Nationalist Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996. The only thorough study of the primary sources documenting the history of the cult, with methodical analysis of their credibility. The author is a major promoter of the idea of the cult as creole in origin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, William B. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: An Inquiry into the Social History of Marian Devotion.” American Ethnologist 14 (1987): 9-33. An important article that focuses on the creole development of the cult.
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