The History and Story Behind Our Lady of Guadalupe


Inside the new basilica, Mexico City, finished in 1976

The Roman Catholic Church's emphasis upon Mary is one of the things that most distinguishes it from other Christian groups and with thousands of claimed Marian apparitions over the last centuries the Church has to employ a rigorous investigative process in order to advise the faithful whether or not a reported apparition is "worthy of belief". Out of the thousands of Marian apparitions that have occurred over the centuries fewer than 20 cases have received Church approval. The Church is very conservative about such matters, and even when approval is given it indicates only that there is nothing associated with the apparition that is clearly contrary to the Catholic faith and morality.

The Church seeks to determine whether or not an apparition is truly of the supernatural - and not a figment of a "seer's" imagination or a "diabolical deception". Unexplained "phenomena" do not guarantee the authenticity of an apparition. Satan was once an angel of light and can still use that light to deceive the elect and even simulate "miracles". As Jesus warns us in Mt. 24:24: "False messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect." Thus, a rigorous process is applied by the Church to discern an apparition and it can take decades and sometimes centuries to make a declaration. However, the Church does not guarantee that any approved apparition is genuine or require belief in any apparition. Devotees are free to believe or not believe the approved apparitions but they are not to promote or propagate information from unapproved apparitions, and Catholics should reject apparitions that the Church deems unworthy of belief.

Saint Ambrose, who lived in Rome before going to Milan as its bishop, venerated Mary as an example of Christian life and is credited with starting a Marian cult of virginity in the 4th century. Marian veneration was theologically sanctioned with the adoption of the title Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Her popularity accelerated in the 6th century and was known as the Cult of the Virgin Mary (originally “cult” was not a negative word).

In the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, a cult is defined as a "collectivity centering around a real or imaginary figure whose followers believe that their lives are made better through activities which honor or are proscribed by the leader." Clearly, the cult of Mary fits this definition. The Mary cult has attracted far more adherents than any other cult. Today there is estimated to be over twenty million enrolled members in Catholic Marian movements and societies. This, of course, does not include Catholic devotion amongst the members of the Catholic Church. n comparison, one of the largest cults around the world is the Church of Latter Day Saints which has about sixteen million members, and another large cult, the Jehovah's Witnesses has over eight million.

Many people, Protestants particularly, object to the figure that Mary has become. She is seen almost as a goddess figure, possibly derived from the fact that many Pagans became Christians in the early centuries of the church and they believed in goddesses, so Mary became to them the goddess. Many people would say that something went wrong with Christianity. There's nothing about Mary being a goddess in the New Testament.

Protestants certainly hold Mary as the mother of Christ, but she plays a much more central role in both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. And in countries of Spanish Catholic heritage especially, images of the Virgin Mary often outnumber those of Christ or Christ alone (unaccompanied by Mary).  In the Americas, this Hispanic reverence for Mary is perhaps most commonly associated with the cult of Our Lady Of Guadalupe.  6And no place in the world is this more exemplified than in Mexico where the Lady of Guadalupe has played an important role in Mexican nationalism and identity and images of her are found in most homes and churches.

Several historians in the last century (Eric R. Wolf, 1958, Professor Jacques Lafaye, 1976, Donald V. Kurtz, 1982) have argued that the cult of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is largely credited with the conversion of Mexico and then Central and South America into Christian countries and others, especially since the end of the eighteenth century, contend the story was devised to support the transition of the natives to Catholicism and away from their pagan beliefs. Since there are no contemporary notes on whether Bishop Zumárraga (the bishop at the time of the apparition) knew about the alleged miracles or Juan Diego there is little to support the legend that did not become well known until one hundred years after the event.

When, for example, the Mexican historian Joaquín García Icazbalceta, published his well-known biography on Bishop Zumárraga in 1881, he did not include any notes on Our Lady of Guadalupe, due to the total lack of contemporary sources. In fact, nobody has yet found any palpable contemporary evidence that Bishop Zumárraga knew anything about the apparitions, let alone accepted them as true. Historians have found that while Bishop Zumárraga was a prolific writer, not in any of his known letters is one mention of Diego, the Virgin, and the tilma. Critics have also noted that the bishop approached by Juan Diego was not consecrated until 1534, and would not have been able to sanction any shrine. On the other hand, an increasing number of works appeared in the 1880s and onwards, ardently defending the historicity of the apparition account and the tradition.

Previously, in my article on Apparitions and Their Visionaries, I mentioned sharing more examples in regards to certain Catholic approved Marian apparitions. In that series, I shared much detail in part II and III on the Knock Apparition in Ireland in 1879. In this article, I will share the Church-approved apparition of Guadalupe and some interesting points about that most popular shrine. Eighteen to twenty million pilgrims a year go to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which makes it the most popular Marian shrine in the world. In comparison, six million visit the shrine of Lourdes each year and about one million to Medjugorje.

In another article called Visionaries and the Virgin Mary I covered some of the unapproved apparitions. That article included information on Veronica Lueken, Bayside, New York; Nancy Fowler, Conyers, Georgia; Ezkioga, Spain visionaries and another Spain apparition "Our Lady of Mount Carmel of Garabandal".

So let us take a look at the legend of Guadalupe and other important details connected to it as well as the veracity of the cult and Juan Diego's existence, which had been questioned by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but was confirmed by the Vatican with Juan Diego's beatification on May 6, 1990, and canonized on July 31, 2002, by Pope  John Paul II. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Legend
The Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in 1531 four times to Juan Diego, an Aztec Indiana and recently baptized Catholic. According to tradition, the story goes that Juan Diego was on his way from his home where he was going to attend mass at the Franciscan church. Passing by a hill known as Tepeyac Hill, a young woman appeared to him introducing herself as Virgin Mary. The Virgin said to Juan Diego that she wanted a shrine dedicated to her to be built on the hillside. Juan Diego went to the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, to tell him what he had experienced. The bishop heard him out but gave no sign of doing anything.

Diego went to the hill again where the Virgin appeared to him for the second time. She told him to prevail and try again. So the next day Diego went again to the bishop. The bishop was still reluctant to accept the story as true and wanted some proof. Very disappointed, Juan Diego turned home and passing by the hill he met the Virgin for the third time and told her what the bishop had said to him whereupon she told him to return in the following day and she would bring forth a sign the next day.

In the fourth appearance, it was said that Diego was directed to pick some roses that were blooming out of season and returned with them to the bishop as he would believe him. When he opened his tilma, or cloak, to show the bishop the sign, the flowers fell to the ground. Then there appeared upon the fabric of his tilma a beautifully colored image of the Virgin Mary exactly as Juan Diego had previously described when she appeared to him at the Tepeyac Hill. This tilma and the image imprinted upon it, remains perhaps the most sacred object in all of Mexico.

The History of Tepeyac Hill

It was in 1519 that Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) and his men disembarked on the Mexican coast and by 1521 had conquered the Aztec Capital City of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City). Tenochtitlan ruled an area of about 500 small states with a total population of five to six million. Cortés having conquered the country for Spain was not lacking zeal for evangelizing the Aztecs. The main challenge was to establish the Christian religion as the only one. Priests of different orders came, such as the Franciscan and the Dominican, both trying to use faith in their gods as a way to control the population. The first twelve Franciscans priests arrived in Mexico City in 1524. They had little success with the evangelization of the Indians even though many churches were built. The Indians were reluctant to abandon polygamy that would be required if they were baptized. Something else needed to be done.

Prior to Juan Diego's vision on Tepeyac Hill and long before the Spanish conquest, there was a temple of adoration to the goddess Tonantzin, the mother of the gods, which was attended by settlers from all over the empire. Stories collected by the Spanish friars related the Mexicas and other Nahua people believed that on the top of the hill of Tepeyac Tonantzin would appear.

Supposedly, if you ask an Indigenous person about who Our Lady of Guadalupe really is they may answer that she is really Coatlaxopeuh, another name for Earth Mother Tonantzin, to whom offerings were made on that same hill of Tepeyac hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards. Tonantzin means “Our Mother” in the Aztec language of Nahautl. For the Indigenous, Tonantzin/Coatlaxopeuh appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin (the real name of Juan Diego) to inspire hope in a people who were being oppressed by the Spanish and to remind her people, through him, that she still walked the hills of her people. Thus, they believe that as a result of this vision that Tonantzin became Christianized as Our Lady of Guadalupe and later when the Church acknowledged Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Patroness of Mexico, they were given a way to continue to honor their Earth Mother in safety. Yet if a devout Catholic is asked who appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill and why, they will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary, appeared to the peasant Diego in a demonstration of faith for the conquering Spaniards.

Following the Spanish Conquest, the temple of Tonantzin at Tepeyac was destroyed but this did not stop the natives from going to the mountain to thank their "mother goddess". Sometime after another small temple was built in the same place, and according to the Diego legend it was built after 1531 but that remains unclear. Today, a much bigger temple, the Basilica of Guadalupe at Tepeyac, lies on the same site as the former temple of Tonantzin. Whether it is the Aztec Mother Tonantzin or the Christian Mother Mary that is venerated at the site eventually it became an issue with the Franciscans which will be further discussed below.

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Alan Sandstrom, Indiana University Purdue University Ft Wayne, has this to say on the subject,

"According to tradition, the Virgin appeared to a Nahua man named Juan Diego in December 1531 on Tepeyac Hill, north of Mexico City, where there was a shrine dedicated to the female Aztec earth deity Tonantzin. To this day, in Nahuatl-speaking communities (in other communities as well), the Virgin continues to be called “Tonantzin” and her appearance is commemorated on December 12 each year. Tonantzin means “Our Sacred Mother” in the Nahuatl language and she continues to be connected symbolically to fertility and the earth. It is not known precisely how the pre-Hispanic deity Tonantzin became connected to the Christian Virgin of Guadalupe, however, we can assume that many people of the time believed that her appearance represented a return of the Aztec mother deity” []

"In the minds of many people living within and outside of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the ancient Tonantzin are one and the same. This sacred figure can be seen to represent the emergence of Mexico as a unified nation born out of the destructive encounter between European and pre-Hispanic civilizations.” 

Historian Eric Wolf, cited above, wrote in his The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol (1958) about Tepeyac Hill's history:

The shrine of Guadalupe was, however, not the first religious structure built on Tepeyac; nor was Guadalupe the first female supernatural associated with the hill. In pre-Hispanic times, Tepeyac had housed a temple to the earth and fertility goddess Tonantzin, Our Lady Mother, who—like the Guadalupe—was associated with the moon. (The) Temple, like (the) basilica, was the center of large-scale pilgrimages. That the veneration accorded the Guadalupe drew inspiration from the earlier worship of Tonantzin is attested by several Spanish friars.

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – 1590) was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and anthropologist who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain. Sahagún was among the first to develop methods and strategies for gathering and validating knowledge of indigenous New World cultures and he was a gifted linguist, learning the indigenous language of Nahuatl quickly.

In one of Sahagún's writings, the Florentine Codex, he denounces the association of the Virgin of Guadalupe with a pagan Meso-American deity. Friars into the seventeenth century noted this Tonantzin goddess worship continued and not to the Most Holy Virgin. The Franciscans were then particularly hostile to this cult because of its potential for idolatrous practice, as it conflated the Virgin Mary with an ancient goddess. He wrote:

At this place [Tepeyac], [the Indians] had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means Our Mother. There they performed many sacrifices in honor of this goddess...And now that a church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is built there, they also call her Tonantzin, being motivated by the preachers who called Our Lady, the Mother of God. It is not known for certain where the beginning of this Tonantzin may have originated, but this we know for certain, that, from its first usage, the word means that ancient Tonantzin. And it is something that should be remedied, for the correct [native] name of the Mother of God, Holy Mary, is not Tonantzin, but Dios inantzin. It seems to be a satanic device to mask idolatry…and they come from far away to visit that Tonantzin, as much as before, a devotion which is also suspect because there are many churches of Our Lady everywhere and they do not go to them.

First Published Account of Guadalupe
Many skeptics contend that the Spanish colonial Church concocted the story of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego as a way to convert his fellow Nahuas and other Indigenous to Christianity. It was over a hundred years before the first published full story of Guadalupe appeared with what some believed was the campaign to legitimize Guadalupe as the primary Virgin Mary in New Spain. Published in 1648 by the Mexican priest Miguel Sánchez (1594-1674), it is an extensive theological reflection on the apparitions and the miraculous image, entitled Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe. Yet, the people of Mexico City were surprised to hear about the story as either they had never heard it before or believed it was some forgotten story. Padre Sánchez claimed to base his account of the apparitions and subsequent miracles on the traditions with which he had been familiar for most of his life as he was unable to find any written records in official archives, and the writings he did find were evidently inadequate to establish the tradition. 

He wrote:

With determination, eagerness, and diligence I looked for documents and writings that dealt with the holy image and its miracle. I did not find them, although I went through the archives where they could have been kept. I learned that through the accident of time and events those that there were had been lost. I appealed to the providential curiosity of the elderly, in which I found some sufficient for the truth. Not content I examined them in all their circumstances, now confronting the chronicles of the conquest, now gathering information from the oldest and most trustworthy persons of the city, now looking for those who were said to have been the original owners of these papers. And I admit that even if everything would have been lacking to me, I would not have desisted from my purpose, when I had on my side the common, grave, and venerated law of tradition, ancient, uniform, and general about the miracle.

The Nican mopohua
Having a publication date so long after the events caused some to doubt not just the apparition but also the very existence of its witness. In our own times, this all changed when, at the end of the 1980s, a discovery was made in the New York Public Library, namely, a copy of the Nican Mopohua which they dated from the 16th Century and who was the real author.

The Nican mopohua was published the year after Sánchez wrote his account of the apparition by Luis Lasso de la Vega (1600-1660), the chaplain of the shrine of Guadalupe. Published in the indigenous Nahuatl language (then called mexicano) it is a simple narrative of the apparitions and the later miracles attributed to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The tract was published under the title Huei tlamahuizoltica Omonoxiti ilhuicac tlatoca ihwapilli Sancta María, which means The great occurrence in which appeared Our Lady the Queen of Heaven, Holy Mary. It is more commonly known by the titles of two of its components, namely the Nican mopohua, ("Here it is Told") which is the account of the apparitions, and the Nican moctepana, which is the account of the later miracles. 

Since then, the Nican mopohua has become the most widely published version of the Guadalupe narrative partly because its authorship is widely believed to be Antonio Valeriano a Nahua writer and Mexican governor (1520-1605). It was in the 1980s that doubt in Vega’s original authorship came about when a very old and battered partial manuscript copy of the Nican Mopohua was discovered at the Public Library of New York. The copy was incomplete, only comprising sixteen pages, but it was dated to the sixteenth century. It had been in the library since 1880, together with two later copies, one of which is complete.

Many Nahuatl scholars and historians in Mexico lean to or accept that the 16th-century Nican Mopohua copy was authored by Antonio Valeriano and that Vega copied his early account. The New York manuscript is identical word for word in content with the published Nican mopohua of Vega’s.

Ernest J. Burrus, SJ in “The Oldest Copy of the Nican Mopohua” written in 1981 dated the manuscrpt to the mid-sixteenth century because of the watermarks he supposedly found on the paper, as well as the spelling of the words and individual letters used.  Yet, no one else has found the watermarks and Burrus never gave a drawing of them although he said he would. Rev. Poole, who has done extensive studies on the apparition, along with other scholars claim the language in the Nican mopohua could very well reflect the “linguistic renaissance of the mid-seventeenth century". Those who still believe that this was the work of Vega’s own composition do so because he does not refer to any other sources, nor any connection to Sánchez. They believe it is likely that Valeriano accessed that manuscript through the work of Sánchez. Vega also wrote in his prologue asking the Virgin to cause the same Spirit to alight upon him, that he may obtain His tongue of fire, in order to write in the Náhuatl language the most exalted miracle of her apparition to the poor natives, as well as the equally great miracle with which she gave her image. This humble prayer again suggests that Lasso de la Vega is composing a narrative, and not merely transcribing an indigenous document, nor translating the work of P. Sánchez or Valeriano's. 

If Valeriano was the author, the Nican mopohua would date closer to the apparition and give validation to the apparition's authenticity due to its being the oldest written tradition about Guadalupe. However, the editors of the Nahuatl-English version of Lasso de la Vega’s work ( Lisa Sousa, Rev. Stafford Poole CM, & James Lockhart) think that the same author or at least the same group of authors wrote the entire work. For them, the most plausible solution to the problem of authorship is that the whole work was written by Lasso de la Vega around 1649—certainly with the help of indigenous aides—using the earlier Spanish work by Miguel Sánchez as the main basis.

Rev. Poole later wrote a book, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, where he examined in depth every historical source of the Guadalupe apparitions where he challenges common interpretations and assumptions about the Guadalupan tradition.

Daniel Castellano goes into much more detail on the authorship, both pros, and cons, in his Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe. Because of the European watermark believed found on the paper that would make the paper to have been written sometime after 1556. Castellano said on the Nican Mopohua,

There probably would be no controversy in giving this manuscript an early date were it not for two facts: (1) several scholars are heavily invested in the thesis that there was no written history of the Guadalupan apparitions before 1648; and (2) Lasso de la Vega himself gave several strong indications that he was either the sole author or at least played a substantive role in the composition of the Nican mopohua.” And he later states,  “It is impossible to trace the origins of the Nican Mopohua.

Although he eventually overrides all of the doubts that the apparition and Juan Diego are made up, to do so, for one, he accepts the documents as authentic that Poole and others claim are false such as the will of Cuautitlán and other documentation proving Juan Diego’s existence and the apparition. The Cuautitlán will mentions Juan Diego’s hometown, marriage, and other details of his existence.

Scholar Richard Nebel insists that the Nican Mopohua is not necessarily a historical account, but a document designed to convert the Nahua and "bring about a state of harmony between different peoples, cultures, and religions, in order that, during a period of radical change, new possibilities of coexistence could be envisaged".

Today, Catholics, especially those in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, accept the Nican Mopohua, whether written by Laso de la Vega, Valeriano, or another, unknown author, as the primordial telling of the Virgin Mary's personal evangelism to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Codex Escalada
Shortly after the New York library papers were discovered another important document was unearthed in 1995. It was the Codex Escalada, (or Codex 1548) the oldest account of the apparitions dating from 1548 discovered by a Jesuit scholar. It is a single sheet of parchment prepared from what is probably deerskin. On it, there have been drawn, in ink and in the European style, images (with supporting Nahuatl), and which includes a drawing of the relic’s image. On the Codex is a drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego on Tepeyac, and accompanying text mentions the apparition in 1531, the death of Juan Diego, and the year 1548. The codex bears the glyph of Antonio Valeriano, who some claim to be the author of the Nican mopohua or one of its copies, and is signed by Bernardino de Sahagún, the same Franciscan mentioned above who had criticized the Guadalupe devotion.

Experts from the Physics Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the Churubusco Museum Laboratory confirmed that the inks used in Codex 1548 were of natural origin and of the 16th century. Because of a yellowish patina covering the entire surface, it had been speculated that the codex was free of any tampering. Photographs taken with ultraviolet light confirmed the absence of retouches or modifications. Computer scanning and infrared photography show that the entire codex has never been tampered with in any way whatsoever. Víctor Manuel Castaño, who participated in the investigation, denied the absolute scientific certainty of the investigation in 2002,  and reported that the 1997 tests were done only visually, since Escalada asked him to perform them without taking direct samples from the codex, which reduces the certainty about the claims. 

However, other experts reveal otherwise. Castellano's in-depth analysis of the Codex is the most documented and detailed facts about it found in English and can be read in his Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe. He states:

Naturally, such a fortunate amalgam of data in a single document seems too good to be true, and the document’s authenticity has come under heavy criticism on several points, which we shall examine in turn. We need not take an all-or-none approach to the document’s authenticity; there may be authentic elements mixed with later glosses, as is often the case with privately held antiquities.

He concludes that part of codex is original as the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México also claimed stating that the cured deerskin was from the sixteenth century. Yet there have been alterations along the way by the addition of several parts and some of those parts have errors. The pictographic signature of Antonio Valeriano is crudely drawn in comparison with the landscape and appears to be one of the later additions to the codex. There is a misspelling of Valeriano's name and his title which was governor, not judge as depicted on the codex which happens to be an identical misspelling with an accompanying glyph of Valeriano in the Codex Aubin drawn between 1576 and 1608. Since Valeriano did not become a judge until 1573 the drawing could not be from 1548, the year that is written on the codex.

Another addition to the drawing seems to have been made in a more reddish ink, covering much of the lower left side with a rendering of Juan Diego kneeling. It is the same ink as the 1548 date. The picture of the shrine on the far right is also a later insertion. There is an unquestionable match between the left side of the Codex Escalada and a 1669 copper engraving attributed to Antonio de Castro. The foreground image of Juan Diego and the background plants are a perfect match when superimposed.

Below the 1548 date is the signature of a Franciscan historian, Bernardino de Sahagún. A copy of the signature was sent to Dr. Charles E. Dibble, a professor of anthropology and one of the leading scholars in Sahagún studies. He concludes that it is probably the signature of Sahagún but it is not contemporaneous with the 1548 date and would assign the signature to the 50s or the 60s of the 16th century.

If Sahagún's signature is genuine, it is suspicious nevertheless because the friar never published any information about the apparitions of Guadalupe, the indigenous or Christian name of the seer, the date of his death, or Valeriano's supposed knowledge of the portent. Alberto Peralta de Legarreta, Doctor in History and Ethnohistory from the National School of Anthropology and History said in his Proyecto Guadalupe website (Project Guadalupe) that Sahagún is known to have written the final version of his Historia towards the end of his days, and it is highly unlikely that around 1548 he would have signed a document of the nature of "Codex 1548". He noted that as far as possible from its text, Sahagún deplored the cult for seeing in it a reminiscence of the indigenous devotion towards a goddess of the Coatlicue family or group. Coatice is translated as  'Serpent Skirt' and is a major deity in the Aztec pantheon and regarded as the earth-mother goddess.

Based on its dubious unveiling, (originally made known almost mid-way between the 1995 beatification and the 2002 canonization of Juan Diego) with numerous inconsistencies, and other factors, Dr. Legarreta concludes that it's impossible for the document to be authentic. Dr. Legarreta also denounces any authenticity of the seer Diego. He wrote in his Objectario de la Ciudad de Mexico, that the seventeenth century gave birth to the seer of Tepeyac,

...but the 20th century was responsible for its reinvention, and worse still, for its mysterious materialization. "Evidence" and "sources" such as the Escalada Codex, which in the end turned out to be the main document to prove to the Congregation of Saints the alleged existence of Juan Diego (and that it is nothing more than a forgery) are common in the books of the partisans of the sanctity of the seer Indian. Making a dead man walk who also never existed is perhaps the true miracle of Tepeyac .

Basically, no serious historians have supported the codex's authenticity. Poole contends that the codex is filled with numerous anachronisms and inconsistencies such as the date written at the top of the codex as “154-8” which is not in a sixteenth-century hand and is written in an ink different from the from that of the rest of the document.

Continuing in part II, on the tilma, the 1556 Información church investigation and the canonization of Diego.