The story of Our Lady's Image given to Juan Diego is one of those stories that always seem to inspire and demands retelling. When I was about 13 years old I was challenged by an "atheist" who used science to "prove" that God did not exist. His arguments and my ignorance shook my faith. It was the scientific evidence on the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that set my faith once again upon a firm foundation. The fact that this image is beyond the explanation of science and that science can only affirm that it is not man made is the central theme of this brief article.
Who, What, Where,
The events surrounding the miraculous image are a beautiful sign of God's tender love and care for His children. The history began with the conquest of Mexico in general and of the Aztec Empire in particular by Spain in 1519-1521. The seat of the Empire was Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). It is calculated that it was, at the time of its conquest, the largest city on earth. It was beautiful and advanced in architecture. There were 7000 buildings and 360,000 people living within its walls. It was built similar to the structures of ancient Egypt. The Aztecs were much more technologically advanced then were their neighbors but they were no match for the technology of the Spanish Conquistadores. Cortez approached the city with barely 30 men and they were able, because of their technological advantage and the superstition of the people , especially the king Montezuma, to over power and take over the Empire very swiftly. The story of that conquest is most excellently told in the small but wonderful book by Warren Carrol; "Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness." I cannot begin to do justice to that incredible story in such a small article as this. But the one thing you must know is that the Aztecs were despised by all the other tribes who occupied the whole of Mexico for one reason; Not only were they ruthless to their enemies and subjugated all those around them but they sacrificed thousands and thousands of human lives to their gods in a bloody ceremony that ended in the most hideous act of depraved humanity; cannibalism. The hearts of their victims were cut out of their bodies while they were still alive shown to them as they expired and then thrown on a fire to be consumed by the flames. The victim's arms and legs would be hacked-off and thrown to the crowd below who would take them and cook them in their individual homes.
When Cortez and his soldiers saw these horrible demonic ceremonies they were sickened and angered. They climbed up the forbidden steps of the temple hacking their way through the Aztec priests attempting to stop them. When they reached the top they broke the altar and destroyed the idols to whom they were sacrificing. They then commanded that there could be no more human sacrifice or cannibalism and they forced the Indians to wash the temple and steps clean of the blood that had been shed there. Then a new altar was erected on the sight of the old pagan altar and the Holy sacrifice of the Mass was said in a place that had been dedicated to the service of devils. The place was consecrated to Christ and to His Blessed Mother and hell was changed into heaven.
Sometimes the truth must be enforced by the sword and so it was in this situation. Nonetheless, the brutality and the disgust that the Spanish showed toward the barbaric savagery of the Indians did not endear them to the Spanish nor did they readily convert to the Faith. Many of them continued to worship their pagan gods in secret and in their own homes. 12 years after the conquest of Mexico with many Spanish Missionaries spreading the good news of Christ there were only a handful of Indian converts. The Franciscan priests were gentle and good toward the Indians unlike the Spanish soldiers yet they could not convince the majority of Indians to embrace the One, True, Faith.
In 1525 several Aztecs were baptized into the Faith. The first (which had been prophesied) was the princess Papantzin, sister of Emperor Montezuma II. At her baptism she took the name Dona Maria. Along with her were baptized Cuauhtlatohuac who took the Christian name Juan Diego and his wife who took the name Dona Lucia and his uncle who took the name Juan Bernardino.
Juan Diego, Juan Bernardino and Dona Lucia would cheerfully walk the 14 miles every Sunday to go to the Church of Santiago de Tlaltelolco which had been build upon the sight of the great pagan temple to the "Humming Bird" god Huizapochtli. It was to this god that hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed and this temple was leveled by the Spanish.
* It is interesting to note that liberal historians have mourned the loss of such structures because of their "cultural and historical significance." Our ancestors had a much more real understanding of these structures and dealt with them accordingly. This evil demanded a drastic response and got it. It could have been preserved as an example of how depraved humanity becomes without Christ but then we have enough examples of this without having to preserve such a source of evil.*
Can you imagine walking 14 miles to go to Mass? We have become so soft that driving 14 miles seems almost out of the question for some people.
In 1529 both Dona Maria and Dona Lucia died of illness. Juan Diego was left alone and he greatly mourned the loss of his wife. His only comfort was his devotion and love for the Blessed Virgin. By 1529 the Franciscan Missionaries had built a convent much closer to Juan Diego and his uncle's residence. They now only had to travel 9 miles to go to Mass. Juan went to Holy Mass every Saturday (in honor of the Blessed Mother) and every Sunday and Holy Day.
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception (it was celebrated on December 9th at that time) 1531 Juan was on his way to Mass. He was 57 years old. When he reached Tepeyac hill. A place that had been used frequently for human sacrifice and was barren because the blood soaked earth had turned alkaline. He heard the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard. He even pinched himself to see if he were dreaming. The singing was coming from the top of the hill. Suddenly the singing stopped and a beautiful voice began to call to him from the top of the hill. "Little Juan, Juan Dieguito."
He hurried to the top of the hill. When he reach the summit he saw a beautiful Lady standing there who asked him to come closer. He was overwhelmed by her beauty. She was surrounded by a nimbus of sun-like radiance with many colors streaming forth changing the very surroundings where she stood. It was as if one could see heaven all around where she stood. He immediately knew who she was.
As he knelt before her she said, "Juanito, the smallest of my children, where are you going?" "My Lady and my Child, I must go to your house in Mexico Tlatilolco to study the divine mysteries taught by our priests who are emissaries of Our Lord."
Now Our Lady spoke to reveal her mission. "Be it known and understood by you, the smallest of my children, that I am the ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the true God from whom all life has come, of the Creator, close to whom is everything, the Lord of heaven and earth. I ardently desire that a temple be built for me here, where I can show and offer all my love, compassion, help and protection, for I am your merciful mother. Here I wish to hear and help you, and all who dwell in this land and all those others who love me, and invoke and place their confidence in me; and to hear your complaints and remedy all your sorrows, hardships, and suffering. In order to carry out what my mercy seeks, you must go to the bishop's palace in Mexico and tell him that I sent you to make clear how very much I desire that he build a temple for me here on this place; you shall tell him exactly all you have seen and marvelled at, and what you have heard. Our Lady told him she would reward his efforts and to therefore go and do what she had commanded. Juan Diego graciously took his leave and headed off toward the palace of the bishop.
Juan's presentation to the bishop didn't seem to have much impact. Despite the bishop's gracious invitation for Juan to return and provide more information Juan was convinced he didn't believe him. He returned to Tepeyac hill and Our Lady was waiting for him. It was late afternoon. After describing to her what happened he pleaded with her not to send him on such an important mission because he was out of place and a nobody. Nonetheless, Our Lady insisted that it was him that she would use as her instrument and that he must return to the bishop the next day and do whatever was necessary for him to believe. Even as he knelt before her he bowed low and accepted her request obediently. The next day after religion class and Mass Juan went again to the bishops residence. After much trouble he got in but the response was the same despite Juan's insistence that it was true. The bishop asked for a sign in order that he might believe.
Juan went back to our Lady and told her that the bishop needed a sign in order to believe what Juan had said. Our Lady's responded with understanding. She asked him to return on Monday morning for the sign that would convince every one that he was telling the truth. Juan went home but found his uncle was sick even to the point of death. A doctor was called but all he could do was to make Juan Bernadino comfortable. Juan Diego remained by his uncle's side all of Monday. Before dawn on Tuesday he left his home to begin the nine mile journey to the Franciscan convent in order to bring a priest back to his uncle that he could receive the Last Rites. Knowing that Our Lady would probably be waiting for him he took a route that did not pass by the place on Tepeyac hill where Our Lady always appeared. Once the priest had given the Last Rites to Juan Bernadino it was Juan Diego's intention to return to Our Lady and get the sign for the bishop.
The Miraculous Image
As Juan was hurrying along the road he suddenly saw Our Lady coming down the hill toward him. She said to him, "What is the matter my little son? Where are you going?" Juan immediately began to explain what had happened and was very apologetic. Our Lady told him not to worry about his uncle, that she would heal him and his uncle would not die. "You may be sure that he at this moment is cured." And so it was discovered that Juan Bernadino had been cured at that very instant. She then instructed Juan to climb to the top of the hill where they had met before and to gather the many flowers he would find and bring them back to her. Juan wore a type of poncho (tilma) that tied behind his neck. It was woven of cactus fibers. He went to the top of the hill and found a bush with many different varieties of Castilian Roses, all in perfect bloom. This was unheard of in the cold and frost of December 12th on the high plateau of the Yucatan Peninsula and particularly upon this hill where nothing grew. The fragrance of the roses was overwhelming. He gathered as many as he could into the folds of his tilma and brought them down to where Our Lady waited. "My son these roses are the sign and proof that you shall take to the bishop. You shall tell him in my name that these (the roses) shall make him understand my wish and he must carry it out. You are my ambassador most worthy of confidence. I strictly order you not to unfold your tilma or reveal its contents until you are in the presence of the bishop...." She then arranged the flowers in his tilma and tied both ends of the bottom to either side of his shoulders and off he went to the bishop's residence.
After much delay and attempts by the guards to see what Juan carried with him he was finally allowed to see the bishop. The entire palace was filled with fragrance of Castilian roses; a plant that had not yet been imported from Spain and was not indigenous to Mexico and a plant that does not bloom in winter climate.
As he knelt before the bishop Juan related all that had happened and about the roses. He stood up and said "Behold them here: receive them." At this he opened his tilma and the roses fell to the floor. As the roses cascaded out onto the floor the bishop and the others who were there stood in amazement over the beauty and magnificence of the roses. Then, suddenly, they fell to their knees. What they saw was so overwhelming that they could only weep. With their own eyes they watched appear upon Juan's tilma the image of Our Lady exactly as Juan had described her. The bishop wept both with joy and also with sorrow because he had not believed Juan and had not yet begun to fulfill the request of Our Lady to have a chapel built in her honor where all who came to her there and who pleaded their cause would be heard.
The Image Today
Now upon the spot where Our Lady appeared and Juan picked the roses stands a beautiful chapel erected as Our Lady requested. However, the miraculous image of Our Lady is not in this chapel but rather a magnificent basilica has been erected in Mexico City where the beautiful Lady of Juan Diego can be seen.
As in all things the Church is very cautious when promoting any alleged miracle. Remember the official Church never takes a supposed miracle on face value but instead investigates it according to the old Roman Juridical principle that it is guilty until proven innocent. There was a bit of a difference in this case however, because it was the highest official of the local Church that witnessed the miracle himself. He could judge the veracity of it from his own experience. Nevertheless, the Church has allowed many scientific studies to be conducted on the tilma in order to not only verify but also give scientific evidence for the miracle itself. The following is a list of some of the most significant findings of science regarding the miraculous image:
1. The original image (which has been painted over in some areas???) is of no known pigment on earth. It is not paint or ink and seems to have the properties of a photograph rather than a painting.
2. The original image has no markers to indicate that it was fashioned by human hands. They are no brush stroke, rubbing or press marks on the cloth.
3. Every photograph of the image seems incapable of capturing the colors the original image presents to the naked human eye.
4. The cactus fibers which were woven to make the tilma have never been known in any other instance to survive past 25 years. They always, except with the tilma, deteriorate and turn to dust even if there is an attempt to preserve them. The tilma is over 470 years old. There is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon.
5. The image itself was exposed to the open air without even a pane of glass to shield it. The image itself has had no sign of deterioration.
6. The image is so perfect that one can actually see images reflected in the eye of Our Lady one of whom can be identified as Juan Diego. (This will be discuss at length further in this article.)
7. During the various revolutions in Mexico different anti-Catholic groups targeted the shrine of Our Lady for destruction. Despite all their attempts to destroy the image with explosive devices. There was no damage.
8. Finally, on the day that Our Lady gave the proof of her appearance to Juan Diego the news spread like wild fire. When the Indians saw the image for the first time they knew in their hearts it was not a work of man.5000 Indians were converted that day and were baptized. There have been 100 baptisms a day since. Within 7 years the entire Aztec Empire (8 million Indians) was converted to the Catholic Faith.
Unbelievable But True
Within the past 10 years several scientific studies of the Miraculous image have been conducted by reputable scientists interested in discovering more about this phenomenon. After X-rays were taken of the image and hundreds of photographic studies made a very interesting fact was discovered. If you look at the photo of the image on Page 7 you will notice that the golden rays that surround the figure of Our Lady look like they are flaking off. Now that would indicate an imperfect creation. I mean if this truly were miraculous shouldn't Our Lady be preserving the whole image just as she has the very fabric upon which it was placed? So what explanation is there for such a deterioration? Well as unbelievable as this may seem the evidence shows that with permission of the bishop a group of Spanish monks took the tilma and actually painted over portions of the miraculous image. When I first heard this I was astounded. It sure seems like the height of audacity for mere humans to try to improve upon the creation of a heavenly creature. But that is exactly what they did. Why? Because they wanted to impress upon the Indians symbolically that the Blessed Virgin, as great as she is, she is still only a creature and subject to her Son Jesus Christ who is True God and true man.
The scientists discovered this because through their x-rays, infrared , ultraviolet and special photographic imaging they can now tell what is from human origin and what has no evidence of human origin.
The color of the face and the hands were darkened to give her a more olive complexion than Our Lady gave to her image; (Thus, they thought the Indians could relate to her more as one of their own.) Her fingers which were originally long and slender were shortened; (This was to allow for Indian sensibilities.) A cross was painted on the broach at the top of her dress; (To show that she was Christian like the Spanish). Golden stars and piping were painted on her mantle; (This indicated royalty.) A paisley design of gold was painted on her dress; (Symbol unknown). The nimbus of light surrounding her was painted on; (indicating her celestial origins). The crescent moon under her feet was enlarged and an angel was painted on.
The actual image originally given to the bishop as proof of the Blessed Mother's appearance was quite simple, beautiful and elegant. The sad thing is that the bishop in his good intentions to make the image more relevant for the Indians gave the image a gaudy quality that almost seems like the worst of Mexican culture rather than the best and most sublime.
In spite of all these human additions the image still has an overpowering effect upon those who see it. The most common comment given by pilgrims is that when looking upon the image everything else seems to fade into the background and one's full focus and attention rests solely upon the Blessed Virgin's image. It is as if one is actually seeing her and not simply a two dimensional picture. Since I discovered that men had painted over certain portions of the image I have always hoped that someone would come along and through computer technology strip the image of all human embellishment and allow us to see her as she originally appeared.
As you will recall Our Lady asked that a chapel be built on Tepeyac in order that all who invoked her there would be heard. They have a room dedicated to all of the miracles which have taken place due to Our Lady's intercession. In this room one can see crutches, wheelchairs, back, leg and arm braces, as well as thousands of little medals hung on chains. When there is a cure the individual cured will have that part of their body that was healed made into a small medal which is hung on a chain and then placed in this room in honor of Our Lady's intercession. There are images of arms, legs, hearts, heads, lungs, stomachs, eyes, ears, etc.... It is wonderful to see.
Probably one of the most spectacular miracles that took place happened only 14 days after Our Lady gave the Mexican People the image of her tender love. A chapel had been erected in only 2 weeks and a procession had been arranged to transfer the image from the bishop's residence to the newly consecrated chapel. Everyone was there for the event including Hernando Cortez, Juan Diego and Juan Bernadino. When they arrived at the chapel they placed the image above the high altar and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated. At one point during the celebration of the placing of the image in the chapel an Indian was accidentally shot with an arrow. The arrow pierced his heart and he died. Weeping and full of sorrow the Indians told the bishop what happened. He commanded that the body be brought before the image of Our Lady and the whole people would implore her intercession. They removed the arrow and laid him in front of Our Lady's image. He was restored to life and his wound healed in front of thousands of witnesses. Their joy knew no bounds. This was the beginning of a new nation and a new people consecrated to Our Lord Jesus Christ through His Immaculate Mother.
The Perfection of the Sacred Image
In the list of unexplained phenomena that is associated with the image I mentioned the reflection of Juan Diego in the eyes of Our Lady's Picture. This was not discovered until 1929 when a photographer was studying the negative he had taken of the image. In 1956 a scientific study was done to confirm this phenomenon. It was found that the image found in the eyes as a reflection was that of Juan Diego, of which there was a portrait done soon after the miracle of the Indian being restored to life. It was also discovered that there are 3 other images reflected in the eyes. It has been noted that these are Bishop Zumarraga, the interpreter he had for Juan and another unidentified person. The eyes on Our Lady's image are about 6.5 mm in radius. The image was enlarged 25 times in order to see the reflected images clearly. A picture of Juan Diego with the reflected image can be seen below.