Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Basilica of Guadalupe

Tomorrow, December 12th, is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.  Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Mexico, the rest of Latin America and the United States flock to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City at this time. In 2009 a record 6.1 million pilgrims came to honor the Virgin.  The Basilica is the most visited Catholic church outside of the Vatican.  Whether one believes the story surrounding the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or not, there is no doubt that it is an integral part of the culture of Mexico.

(image from the web)

According to the story, on December 9, 1531, just ten years after the Spanish Conquest, the Virgin Mary appeared on the hill of Tepeyac, to a poor Indian by the name of Juan Diego.  She spoke to him in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and told him to go to the Bishop and ask him to build a church in her honor on that site.  Juan Diego went to Bishop Zumarraga, but the bishop was skeptical and asked for proof of the apparition.  Three days later, on December 12, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, and told him to gather roses to take to the Bishop.  Rose bushes in full bloom miraculously appeared.  Juan Diego gathered the roses, and wrapped them in his "tilma" (cloak).  Again he went to the Bishop, and when he opened his cloak, the image of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted upon the fabric.  It is that cloak which supposedly hangs over the altar of the Basilica today.

The origin of the painting has stirred debate since colonial times. In 1556, during a Church investigation on the origin of the painting, one Franciscan monk gave sworn testimony that the painting was done by "the Indian Marcos".  This has led some scholars to believe that it was painted by a talented native artist named Marcos Cipac de Aquino, who painted many religious works in the 16th century.  

One scientist noted that the pigments used were not anything known to man, while another claims that infrared photography shows multiple layers of paint in several areas.  Defenders say that after nearly 500 years neither the fabric nor the image have deteriorated, while others point out that some parts of the image show signs of flaking.

There is even debate as to whether Juan Diego (who was canonized as a saint in 2002) ever existed.  An abbot of the Basilica was forced to resign when he commented that he believed that Juan Diego was "a symbol, not a reality."

What cannot be debated however is the powerful role that the Virgin of Guadalupe has had throughout Mexico's history.  The Virgin is portrayed with olive skin, and looks more Mexican than European.  That, plus the fact that the hill of Tepayac was the site where the Aztecs worshipped the mother goddess Tonantzín, made the Virgin a powerful tool in the conversion of the native population.  Later the insurgents fighting for Mexico's independence against Spain rallied under the banner of the Virgin.  "Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe" cried Miguel Hidalgo, the Father of Independence.  A century later, during the Mexican Revolution, the soldiers of Emiliano Zapata marched with the flag of the Virgin.

Today the image of Guadalupe is ubiquitous in Mexico.  Nearly every church in the country has a chapel dedicated to her.  She is seen in taxis and buses and little shrines along the streets.

In April of 2013, I paid a visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe... or I should say the Basilicas.  There are two Basilicas, the old and the new.

The old Basilica, which was completed in 1709, stands on the site of an earlier 16th century church.  It is at the base of the hill of Tepeyac, where the apparitions are said to have occurred. Because of the spongy soil of Mexico City, the church began to sink (I think you can see in the photo below how it is tilting).  The church was deemed unsafe.  The image of the Virgin was removed, and the church was closed in 1974.  The structure has been stabilized, and it is once again open to the public.

In 1974, work began on a new Basilica next to the old one.  The church, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vásquez, the architect who designed Mexico City's famed Anthropology Museum, was opened in 1976.  Frankly, when it comes to churches, I prefer the traditional styles of architecture.
The interior of the Basilica can accommodate 50,000 worshippers.
Pilgrims who come to the Basilica to give thanks for answered prayers will often approach the church on their knees.  During the celebration of the feast day, some will walk several miles on their knees.
Over the altar is the venerated image of the Virgin.
Behind the two Basilicas, is the hill of Tepeyac where the Virgin is said to have appeared.  A staircase leads to a small chapel, "la Capilla del Cerrito" (Chapel of the Little Peak).
A view from the top of the hill.  The skyscrapers of downtown Mexico City can be seen through the smog.
At the base of the hill is a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe with Juan Diego to the right and Bishop Zumarraga to the left.


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