Review: Mexican Phoenix, Our Lady of Guadalupe

Donal Anthony Foley reviews, Mexican Phoenix, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries, by D. A. Brading, (Cambridge University Press, 2001, £27.95, 444 pp.).

Mexican Phoenix, David Brading’s intriguing book on the impact that the Image imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma has had on Mexican life and history, is in large part sympathetic to both its subject and to Catholicism—which is unusual nowadays!

It details the marvelous apparitions to Juan Diego at Tepeyac, near Mexico city in 1531, and their aftermath, and looks at the history of the cult surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary appeared on a number of occasions, and these events, and the Image she left behind, were instrumental in the conversion of millions of Aztecs to Catholicism.

The Image itself is an enigma, since both the “paint” and the method used to produce it defy any conventional explanation, and in addition, the rough tilma on which it was imprinted, made from maguey vegetable fibers, should have disintegrated within a matter of decades—and yet it is still here nearly five centuries later.

This book, however, comes to the conclusion that the Image was actually a “painting” by an unknown Indian, and thus it is, from a Catholic perspective, ultimately unsatisfactory. There is something incongruous about an ordinary painting having such an impact on a nation’s history, and in reality we should be going deeper if we are really to understand the Image. There must always be a suitable cause for any effect, and the effect of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Mexico has been prodigious.

The majority of the book is taken up with what is definitely known of the Image in historical terms, and how it has impacted on the formation of Mexico as a country. In this respect the author does a very good job of illuminating just why the image has been, and remains, very important for the Mexican people.

He deals at length with many of the sermons which were preached about the image, and these give us some intriguing insights into the prevailing mentality. For example, in 1748 one preacher declared his belief that after the antichrist had seized power in Europe, the Pope and the king of Spain would flee to Mexico and make it the seat of a new Catholic monarchy, under the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It seems that this was quite a popular theme for several hundred years after 1531. Some preachers were also very much taken up with typological identifications of the Image, including the idea that she represented the “Woman” of the apocalypse.

The author brings out the fact that the Image has enjoyed Papal support, which has only grown stronger over the centuries, and this includes Pope John Paul II’s declaration of Our Lady of Guadalupe as patron of both American continents. This is set to culminate in the canonization of Juan Diego in July 2002, an act which no doubt be a great boost to Guadalupe. He also demonstrates very well how crucial the image has been in forming Mexican history, and in keeping the great mass of the people Catholic: it was used by the Catholic Cristeros as their symbol during their long fight against government oppression in the early part of the twentieth century.

Brading also deals at length with the various written accounts of the apparitions which have come down to us, but the argumentation becomes very detailed and somewhat difficult to follow, and ultimately, perhaps, the reader will not be left very much the wiser. It seems to be largely a question of scholars looking at the various documents in terms of their “internal” evidence, that is style of writing, and so on, rather than in terms of the overall tradition, which puts more emphasis on external evidence, an approach which is inherently more trustworthy.

This is what Pope Leo XIII said in Providentissimus Deus, on this point. Although he was talking specifically about the Bible, his words are also appropriate with regard to the documents about Guadalupe.

“It is clear that in historical questions, such as the origin and handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this manner internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. … and this … ‘criticism’ will resolve itself into the reflection of the bias and the prejudice of the critics.”

It really comes down to whether you trust the tradition of the Church, which has supported the miraculous origin of the Image on the tilma, or the complicated theories of various scholars. Although the author does raise some points against authenticity, such as the apparent lack of very early testimony about the apparitions, these are not insurmountable when the chaotic situation of the conquest as a whole is taken into account, and moreover, he does not really do justice to the evidence in favour of the Image.

In the final chapters of the book, the author looks at more modern approaches to the tilma, but unfortunately dismisses some recent work as “pseudo-science”—but since he does not really discuss these new discoveries, choosing rather to dismiss them without any attempt to deal with them, then this criticism is really quite weak.

He also does not seem to adequately emphasize the new evidence pointing to the existence of Antonio Valeriano as the author of the Nican Mopohua, (pp. 344-45), the most primitive account of the apparitions. (cf. Warren H. Carroll, Out Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness, Christendom Press, 1983, pp. 98-99, and Jody Brant Smith, The Image of Guadalupe, Mercer University Press, 1994, pp. 18-19).

According to its style of handwriting, the Nican Mopohua was written sometime between 1540 and 1580, and this is a good example of the importance of external as opposed to internal evidence —handwriting style is something “external” by which we can judge a document historically, and thus accurately date it.

This emphasis on internal evidence is evident in the discussion by Sousa, Poole and Lockhart, in 1998, regarding some recent researches into the early apparition documents, (pp. 358-60). These authors seem to be relying almost entirely on internal evidence in assessing these documents, that is matters such as “style,” verbal constructions, etc., in order to demonstrate that there was no original Nahuatl document about the apparitions.

But, as indicated above, internal evidence alone can never have the decisive say as to the provenance or authorship of a document.

A puzzling omission is any mention of the copy of the Image which was given by Charles V of Spain to Prince Doria of Genoa. He was an admiral during the battle of Lepanto in 1571, and kept this copy in his cabin. When the struggle became desperate he is said to knelt in prayer before the it and the result was a crushing victory over the Turkish Fleet. (Cf. Demarest & Taylor, The Dark Virgin, Coley Taylor, New York , 1956, p. 13, and Brant Smith, The Image of Guadalupe, p. 7).

Thus we have both documentary and pictorial evidence indicating that the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was known and revered from at least the second half of the sixteenth century.

Overall, as an historical study of the “phenomenon” of Guadalupe, and providing it is used with discernment, this work is an very good resource. Regrettably, though, it does not seem to take recent research pointing to the authenticity of the tradition surrounding Juan Diego, the Image, and the apparitions, seriously enough.

In sum, the ideas and various theories presented here do not really threaten the belief of many Catholics in the reality of the wonderful events which took place near Mexico city in December 1531, nor the importance of Guadalupe for the Church.