Legends of Marian Apparitions, or the earthly visitations of Mary, mother of Christ, stretch all the way back to the 1st century, CE, and have always been associated with the Spanish-speaking world. According to Catholic lore, in 40 CE, St. James was on a mission in Spain, and Mary appeared to him atop a stone pillar, carried by angels and holding a statue of herself and the Christ child. This was while Mary was still alive! She encouraged James in his ministry and requested that he build her a chapel on the spot, which he did, and today there stands on that spot a great basilica, Nuestra Senora del Pilar, or Our Lady of the Pillar. This tradition of Marian apparitions appearing and asking that a church be built would continue through the ages, and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which also begins in the Old World, in Spain, would have many similarities to this original legend. The original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have been a statue carved by St. Luke himself, one of many so-called Black Madonnas, or statues of Mary and the Christ child depicting them with dark skin. According to the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe, this statue of St. Luke’s was venerated by Pope Gregory around the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century, and believing the statue had miraculously helped Rome survive famine and rampant disease, Pope Gregory gave it to his special friend, Leander, Archbishop of Seville. When Seville fell to the moors in 712, some priests took the statue to Extremadura and buried it near the Guadalupe River, where it was stayed for over 600 years. The legend has it that in 1325 CE, Mary appeared to a shepherd and told him to dig in his field, where he found the statue. The Spanish Virgin of Guadalupe endures to this day at the Guadalupe Monastery in Extremadura, the simple statue now clothed in ornate gold vestments that are quite a sight to see.
About 160 years later, a boy would be born in the Extremadura region of Spain, and he would grow up hearing the story of this Marian apparition and venerating this Black Madonna. His name was Hernán Cortés, and as a man, he would become a Conquistador, a conqueror of foreign lands for the Spanish Empire, best known for his conquest of the Aztecs in what is today Mexico. After the long siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, in 1521 Cortés renamed it Mexico City and began to remake it as a European city, destroying the pagan temples of the Aztecs and raising other buildings in their place. Believing that the conversion of the natives to Catholicism was essential to the success of their colonial venture, he sent for Dominican and Franciscan friars who arrived in 1524 and began the difficult task of proselytizing the resistant indigenous population.
It was in this context that the most influential story of a Marian apparition in history emerged and aided in the conversion of great multitudes to the Catholic faith. This story comes to us from a document believed by many to have been composed in the Nahuatl language by a native man who born in the midst of the Spanish conquest of his people and thereafter educated by the Franciscan friars Cortés had brought to evangelize the natives: Don Antonio Valeriano. This document, the Nican Mopohua, was widely printed in tracts in the mid-17th century, but there is one version in the New York Public Library’s collection believed by many to date much earlier, and to perhaps even be in Valeriano’s own hand. The Nican Mopohua, which loosely translates to “here it is told,” relates the story of one Juan Diego, a simple farmer who in 1531, a decade after the fall of Tenochtitlán, passed a hill called Tepeyac that was shaped like a nose protruding from a face. Drawn by the beautiful strains of a song to its summit, he there encountered a luminous figure around whom the rocks and foliage of the hill appeared transfigured with preternaturally brilliant color like precious stones. She introduced herself to Juan Diego as “the perfect, ever-virgin, holy Mary, mother of the one great god of truth who gives us life, the inventor and creator of people, the owner and lord…of the earth” and requested that her sacred house be built upon the hill Tepeyac. On this errand, Juan Diego sought the audience of the Archbishop of Mexico City, Juan de Zumárraga, who after hearing the story dismissed the farmer incredulously. Juan Diego then returned to the hill Tepeyac, and finding Mary still there, begged her to send someone else, but again she dispatched him with her message. This time when Juan Diego spoke with Zumárraga, the Archbishop asked for a sign.
Thereafter relating this request to the apparition of Mary, who seems to have stuck around quite patiently, she bade Juan Diego to return the next day for a sign. But Juan Diego’s uncle was gravely ill the next day, and Juan Diego could not go to the hill as he had to fetch a priest. However, as Juan Diego passed by the hill on a road, the Marian apparition actually came walking down the hill to him asking why he hadn’t come. When Juan Diego explained, she assured him that his uncle was well, and later he discovered that Mary had actually appeared to his uncle and healed him at the same time that she came to him on the road! After assuring him of his uncle’s health, she instructed him to climb the hill, gather the flowers he found there, and take them to the Archbishop. Now this was December, and the hill quite rocky, so it was inexplicable that Juan Diego found there an abundance of flowers the like of which he’d never seen before, all of preternaturally vivid color. Juan Diego pulled his cloak around in front of him and gathered many flowers in it. This cloak was called a tilma, and was made of ayate, or roughly-woven agave fiber. A practical garment, it was commonly used as a blanket to keep one warm when sleeping outdoors and also to carry items to and from market, as Juan Diego used it when he carried the flowers to Archbishop Zumárraga. Upon releasing the tilma’s burden, the Archbishop was surprised to see a pile of gorgeous Castilian roses, but this was not the true sign that Mary had given, for miraculously, where the flowers had come into contact with the cloth, an image of the Virgin Mary had been formed. There she stood, cloaked, her hands pressed together as if in prayer, her head bowed, and her face, dark of skin, looking very much like a mestiza, the offspring of a Spaniard and an indigenous person. Thereafter, the Ayate of Juan Diego with its image of Mary, became the central miracle of Latin America and the driving force behind the conversion of the native peoples to Catholicism. A church was indeed built on hill Tepeyac, and today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a name that the Marian apparition apparently chose for herself, thus identifying her with the apparition of Extremadura) is the most visited pilgrimage site in the world, receiving as many as 20 million believers and tourists a year, many of whom approach on their knees. The famous tilma with its breathtaking image is there displayed for all to admire.
Among the many supernatural properties attributed to the Guadalupe tilma is that the material should not have survived so long. Agave fiber cloth is known to be more fragile than other cloth and usually does not age as well because parasites are known to more aggressively feed on such fabrics. For example, paintings known to have been made on ayate canvases are recorded to have not lasted 10 years, even under glass, and yet for its first 120 years, the Guadalupe tilma wasn’t even protected by glass. During this time, a great many candles were likely burned near it, exposing it to damaging smoke, and countless people touched it directly with their naked hands, yet not only has its fabric not deteriorated, but its color hasn’t even faded! And the tilma has survived more than just time. In 1791, while polishing its frame, a worker spilled nitric acid down the side of the image… and yet the colors do not even appear to have faded where the acid touched them, and some even believe the stain from this accident is inexplicably fading. Similarly, in 1921, a dissident laid a bouquet full of dynamite at the altar in front of the framed tilma, and when it detonated, the blast crumbled the marble steps at the altar, destroyed metal candle sticks, bent a big metal cross, and even reportedly shattered windows in nearby houses… and yet the image and the glass that protected it remained unscathed.
In the 1750s, an artist named Miguel Cabrera examined the tilma and painted copies of the image. It was his opinion that no artist in his right mind would have chosen this particular ayate as a canvas, as seams are traditionally hidden in painting canvases, but the tilma has a prominent seam right down the middle. Moreover, he believed that no human artist could reproduce that manifold techniques he saw at work in the image, which included the weaving of pigmented dust into the very fabric—a technique unfamiliar to him—and all on fabric that looked like it had received no imprimatur or preparation layer treating the fabric to better receive paint. Rather, the tilma’s weave is open and see through, and remarkably, the many knots and imperfections in the fabric have been perfectly used to create volume in the image, for example in Mary’s lips and nose. Many agree that this is a masterful artistic accomplishment bordering on uncanny, as the canvas and the image would have had to have been planned flawlessly to take advantage of these textures.
And the unusual claims don’t end there. The Guadalupe tilma, like the Turin shroud, has been the object of much study, resulting in much apparent mystery. In 1936, Nobel Prize winning chemist Richard Kuhn examined two colored fibers and said he couldn’t determine the origin of their pigments, claiming they weren’t animal, vegetable, or mineral. In 1946, a Dr. Tortolero of the Institute of Biology studied the image under a microscope and asserted that there was no indications of any brushstrokes. Then in the 1980s, Professors Jodie B. Smith and Philip Serna Callahan used infrared photography to analyze the image, claiming to confirm what many had already asserted: the fabric has received no preparation and there are no brushstrokes, as though it were created all at once, instantaneously. Considering the fact that details of the image can be seen even on the reverse side of the fabric, it would even appear that there is not more than one layer of pigment present. And so on, the attribution of sensationally complicated, essentially humanly impossible, design details continues. Some say constellations can be matched up with the star field on her cloak and other points in the painting, supposedly reproducing the constellations in their position at the time that Mary made her appearance. However, these constellations could not be matched until they were considered in reverse, as though seen not from earth but from beyond. Furthermore, mathematicians have claimed to find perfect geometrical shapes on the tilma, corresponding to the so-called golden ratio, and one claimed that he was able to decipher actual musical notes encoded into the image, resulting in so-called celestial music. And Peruvian engineer José Tonsmann, building on previous theories, claims to have discovered through digital image processing that images of figures, corresponding supposedly to Juan Diego and the Bishop Zumárraga, appear reflected in Mary’s eyes just as they would be in real human eyes.
This cavalcade of supernatural claims does much to wear down one’s skepticism, but of course, there is good reason to consider the tilma’s origin story dubious and to hold all of these fantastical assertions suspect. First, the simple fact that Cortés and his Franciscans were actively seeking ways to encourage the conversion of the indigenous peoples and that the story that eventually emerged was strikingly similar and indeed directly connected to a Marian legend from Cortés’s home in the Extremadura region of Spain is suspicious in the extreme. There is still some controversy over the authorship of the Nican Mopohua, as well as debate over the embellishments and additions it may have seen through the years. In this context, the fact that the image appears to be that of a mestiza Mary might be seen as a purposeful manipulation on the part of ecclesiastical authorities to appeal to the native population of the newly established Mexico City, and to the mixed race generations to come. Moreover, a common effect of colonialism was something that has been called syncretism, when conquerors grafted their culture onto the existing culture. Some, for example, skeptic Brian Dunning, have pointed out that previous to Spanish conquest, Tepeyac Hill had been home to an Aztec temple to a virgin goddess called Tonantzin. Thus, when Cortés called for the destruction of Aztec temples and the raising of Catholic temples in their place, dedicating this site to a comparable figure might have made the pill a bit easier to swallow. And of course, Cortés would have thought of his own beloved Lady of Guadalupe.
Some, including Dunning, have even suggested that the farmer Juan Diego may have been a complete fabrication, as Archbishop Zumárraga, who wrote prolifically, did not leave a clear record of him or his miraculous tilma. In fact, there appears to be actual documentary evidence that the image was painted by a young native artist around 1555, as the following year, in sworn reports to the church authored by Franciscans who were concerned about the widespread worship of the image, which to some smacked of a reversion to paganism, they declared the image had been “painted yesteryear” by “the Indian painter Marcos,” referring to a known Aztec painter named Marcos Cipac de Aquinas, who had studied under Franciscans. In its omission of any mention of Juan Diego, this evidence indicates that even 25 years after the supposed apparition, the legend had yet to take its final shape. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church canonized Juan Diego as a saint in 2002, based in large part on the appearance of the Codex Escalada, a pictorial depiction of the Juan Diego legend rendered on deerskin and conveniently dated to indicate its historicity. As Dunning has pointed out, just the perfectly timed appearance of this artifact makes it entirely dubious.
Okay, a believer might protest, but what about the strange properties of the image itself. Well, yes, there are many, but can you trust the sources that tout them? In point of fact, much like the study of the Shroud of Turin, many choose to ignore scientific analyses that don’t agree with their conclusions. For example, another noted skeptic, Joe Nickell, has written at length about studies that have indeed detected evidence of craftsmanship and artistry in the image. One, for example, actually did find that there are indications of layers of paint after all and of brushstrokes, as infrared photography has revealed previous versions of the hands in different positions, and it is apparent that pigment was applied more heavily to areas where the ayate canvas had imperfections in the texture of its weave. As for the scientists that claimed there had been no imprimatur and could find no earthly equivalent for the pigments used… well, other studies have found that there does appear to have been a primer applied to the canvas and that the pigments were composed of common materials, such as pine soot. Most point to the work of Professors Smith and Callahan in confirming these implausible claims, yet they ignore other findings these same researchers published, such as that several elements of the image appear to have been added at a later date, such as the rays of the sun, the moon beneath Mary’s feet, and the star field pattern on her cloak. So much for the constellation patterns as viewed from space, and the sacred geometry and celestial music as well as the images in her eyes can very easily be explained as what happens when otherwise smart people stare for too long at something, searching for hidden meaning. Inevitably, they will find it.
And today, the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe has moved from pious myth to fake news, as numerous hoax articles circulate online only to be debunked but rise again as some credulous blogger or another copies and pastes them. They frequently bring up some of the claims I’ve already addressed but then take it further, saying that NASA scientists have determined that the image is alive, that it holds a standard human body temperature of 98.6 degree Fahrenheit and that its pupils dilate in response to light. Clearly the bit about the eyes is a corruption of Tonsmann’s claims about the images he thinks he sees in them, but I have no idea where the body temperature stuff comes from. As for the appeal to the authority of NASA, this is a recurrent element I’ve seen in a lot of my research. I see some of Tonsmann’s digital image processing techniques compared to techniques used by NASA, and while that may be true, there is no indication that Tonsmann himself was ever associated with that agency, and in fact, while some sources call him simply an “engineer,” others admit he’s actually just an ophthalmologist! Then there are Professors Jody B. Smith and Philip Serna Callahan, who many sources say are both “experts on painting and members of NASA,” as though it’s a club. Well, first of all, I’m not sure why NASA would need experts on painting, but more to the point, none of my further research could confirm that either of them were associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Callahan’s obituary makes no mention of the organization, and by all indications his field of expertise was actually entemology, with research applications in agriculture. It looks like he may have had some experience in infrared radiation, but I see no indication of being an expert in painting. As for his partner in the study of the tilma, Jody B. Smith appears to have been “a professor of aesthetics and philosophy” at some unverified college in Pensacola called in most sources “College Pensacola,” which might be Pensacola State College, or maybe Pensacola Christian College…I don’t know. Now a Professor of Philosophy might know a bit more about paintings, but could hardly be called an expert and certainly could not have been an expert in infrared photography. So as far as I can tell, no one associated with NASA ever studied the tilma. Why would they? It has nothing to do with aeronautics and space, unless you’re trying to match up constellations to the stars painted on it.
In the end, compared to the Shroud of Turin, there is far more convincing evidence in this case that there is nothing supernatural about the Guadalupe tilma and the image on it. And unlike the shroud, which seems to become more genuinely mysterious the more one looks into it, the more closely that one scrutinizes the ayate of Juan Diego, the more one see things that aren’t really there.