A Secret History of Our Lady of Guadalupe Hidden in Plain Sight in the Vatican Library

The story of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Guadalupe, Mexico is one of high drama and therefore eminently memorable.[1] It is also in some ways achingly familiar, drawing on tropes common to the Christian tradition.

The story goes like this: In December 1531, ten years after the conquest of Mexico at the hands of Hernán Cortés, a native convert was making his way to his catechism class. As he passed over a rather desolate and barren hill about three miles from Mexico City, he heard strange music, which he could neither locate nor identify. Looking around, he suddenly saw a beautiful young woman, a queen, or at least a princess. She addressed him tenderly, asking him where he was going. She revealed that she was the “true mother of the true God” and that she desired a temple or shrine to be built on this spot in her honor, which in former times had been sacred to the goddess Theotenantzin (“the mother of the Gods”).

She wanted this indigenous neophyte to go to the bishop and make this request. He did so, but the bishop, while not a skeptic, was a prudent man and asked for proof. Upon returning to the Lady, Juan Diego asked her to send someone else, a person of higher standing who could be more persuasive and believable. She replied that she had chosen him to be her messenger (after all, the foolish of the world confound the wise and proud; 1 Cor 1:27).

She instructed him to go back to the bishop and make the request again. He did so the next day with the same result. The bishop still did not heed this revelation, but he was intrigued enough to order his servants to follow Juan Diego to see if it really was a heavenly lady with whom he was conversing. These men lost track of him and returned to the bishop, saying that Juan had invented the whole thing. Juan once again went back to the Lady, imploring her to send someone else.

She again refused and told him that the next day she would give him a sign which would convince the bishop of the truth of his story. Unfortunately, Juan spent that day caring for his uncle who was gravely ill. In fact, he was so ill that by the following morning, Juan felt compelled to fetch a priest to administer Last Rites. He knew that the quickest way to do so would bring him right back to the spot where he had met the Lady three days before.

He decided, therefore, to go the long way around, but she anticipated this and interrupted his journey. She brought him back to the barren hill and told him to pick all the flowers he saw and bring these to the bishop. He collected them in his cloak (tilma). Buoyed with this sign, he made his way to the bishop’s palace. Upon gaining an audience, he unfurled his cloak to reveal the flowers.

But it was not the flowers, unexpected as they were, that drew the Franciscan’s attention. Rather, it was the image of the Lady herself that now appeared on his garment, marking the spot where the flowers had been. According to the Latin account of this event, the whole painting had been done in an instant, in the blink of an eye.

A shrine was indeed built, and from these humble beginnings, the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe among the Nahuas slowly but steadily spread, gaining in popularity so that by the middle of the seventeenth century it had firm support even among the clerical elite of Mexico City and rivaled, eventually surpassing, the devotion to Our Lady of Los Remedios in the Valley of Mexico. This was all well and good, and nothing particularly out of the ordinary. After all, the Catholic world was full of local devotions to a particular miracle, saint, or special avocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To have some sort of cult with concrete links to a local community was exceedingly typical.

Thus, in an example of what must be the most successful “can you help me with my research” survey of all time, the Jesuit Wilhelm Gumppenberg, having asked Jesuit houses around the globe to inform him of any local devotions to the Virgin Mary in their surrounding communities, published a second edition of his Atlas Marianus in 1672 which tallied some 1200 distinct cults of the Virgin.[2] Not surprisingly, given this situation, not a single one of these cults enjoyed recognition in the general Roman calendar, and certainly not one that concerned an apparition or a specifically associated holy image.

Consequently, when the clerical elite of Mexico City with the support of the cathedral chapter and the Bishop of Puebla, the highest ranking cleric with the See of Mexico vacant at the time, decided to petition the Holy See in 1663 for recognition of their cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the establishment of 12 December as the official feast throughout the Spanish realm, it was an incredibly bold act and without precedent. The application apparently caused quite a stir among officials of the Roman Curia. Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi, the future Clement IX (reigned 1667-1669), is said to have remarked at the presumption of the Mexican church which sought such honors for their obscure cult of Guadalupe that the Holy House of Loreto did not even enjoy.[3]

If any shrine and avocation of the Virgin Mary was deserving of universal recognition in the seventeenth century, it was Our Lady of Loreto. As the house that was said to be the same in which the angel Gabriel visited Mary to announce that she would bear the Savior of the World, its pedigree was not only scriptural but central to the story of humanity’s redemption. Further, it was the locus of a rather incredible miracle, having flown by angels from the Holy Land to the shores of the Adriatic to avoid being captured or destroyed. Within the house was an image of the Virgin and Child, that tradition said had been carved and painted by Luke the Evangelist.

The shrine was in particular vogue as the Roman Church emerged from the Reformation. It had become an important site of pilgrimage, in response to which the popes had raised it to the same level in terms of grace and indulgence available as the more famous shrine of Santiago in Compostela, Spain and the holy places of ancient Christianity in the Eternal City herself. Two popes had even given it a Golden Rose. Its popularity was not limited solely to Europe. In light of its importance and the rapid growth of its devotion, the cult began to spread around the globe, carried by missionaries (especially Jesuits) as they came to new locations to spread the Gospel.[4]

Devotion to Our Lady of Loreto was, therefore, global and supported at the highest level of Church governance. By contrast, the cult of Guadalupe was, well, local. It was growing in the Valley of Mexico, but was still numbered as one among the city and region’s other favorite devotions. There was confusion with the avocation of the Virgin associated with Guadalupe, Spain, and this Mexican version did not count much support in the Iberian peninsula. What made them believe that they could get papal recognition for their rather ordinary devotion?

The standard answer to this question in the scholarly literature of the last century or so has centered on the issue of national pride.[5] It reads the advocacy for the Virgin of Guadalupe and the concomitant rise of literature concerning it as a forceful expression of the identity of its promoters. These were cultural elites of mixed ancestry who were proud of their heritage and wished to distinguish themselves not only from their Spanish rulers but also from the cultural elites of European ancestry both in Spain and in New Spain. The language of crillosimo, as it is called, does indeed appear in many of the texts central to the development of the cult of Guadalupe in the middle of the seventeenth century, but focusing on this aspect seems to read the story from back to front, knowing that by the nineteenth century the image of Guadalupe would become a symbol of national pride and independence. But it would seem very strange indeed for a group of Mexican priests to embark on a petition to the Holy See, one without precedent, solely out of an abundance of nascent nationalism.

One of the main problems with this period in the history of the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is a lack of documentary sources. This is particularly the case for the petition to Rome made in the 1660s. With the exception of witness statements that were taken in early 1666 in response to the Holy See’s request for more information, no documents have been thought to survive. No one who has looked into the archives in Rome has been able to find anything. What scholars did realize was that a piece from this application had been hiding more or less in plain sight, at least since the 1920s, the moment that the Chigi family’s private library came into the Vatican Apostolic Library.

Among the thousands of volumes provenant from the Chigi princes’ library, and especially those connected to the personal collection of Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi, reigned 1655-1667) is a small manuscript with a text written in Latin under the unassuming title of an “historical narration of the image of Guadalupe.”[6] This text is bracketed by two woodcut engravings that reproduce the image, the first at the dramatic moment of revelation and the second a faithful reproduction of the image as a whole.

Over the course of the last century, the manuscript has been listed in various bibliographic finding aids and even played a rather insignificant role in the strident debates surrounding the canonization of Juan Diego in the 1990s, not on account of the text it contained but because its very existence signaled the long connection between Mexico and the Vatican concerning the veneration of both the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego.[7]

Notarial attestations in the manuscript indicate that this Latin text was composed by Francisco de Siles, a theology professor at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico as well as a high-ranking official in the cathedral chapter, and copied in June 1663. On the basis of strong circumstantial evidence, not least that the chapter voted to petition Rome in May 1663 on behalf of their cult of Guadalupe, it is clear that this document was part of a large dossier sent to Rome, by way of Seville, some time that summer.

The history is a summary of the events of the apparitions followed by a minute description of the image itself. Obviously enough, the most important aspect of the event is that image, miraculously created by God in the moment immediately before Juan let the flowers drop to the floor. It is at this point in the text that Francisco de Siles indicates what in all probability was the reason for the audacious petition and what buoyed them with the hope of success before the papal court. The image depicts the Virgin Mary according to the mystery of her most pure conception. In other words, it is the proof for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, anticipating Mary's revelation at Lourdes by over 200 years.

As is well known, the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception has been the subject of much debate, even after Pope Pius IX’s declaration of it as dogma in 1854. In the Middle Ages it was disputed by scholastic theologians, its most prominent advocate being Blessed John Duns Scotus. Scotus’s defense of the doctrine has long encouraged scholars to see it as a devotion especially prominent in particular places, the British Isles being one. By the Early Modern period, devotion had grown in Spain, promoted by the Spanish kings, even decreeing that its feast day, 8 December, be observed with appropriate processions and celebrations in all parts of New Spain.

What was no doubt decisive for the plans of the clerics promoting the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe was Alexander VII’s Apostolic Constitution Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, promulgated on 8 December 1661, in which he sustained the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and encouraged its celebration. There can be little doubt that Francisco de Siles and his collaborators saw in this decree a sure sign of success for their petition for universal recognition of the Virgin of Guadalupe as divine proof for the truth of this doctrine.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The death of Alexander VII in 1667 doomed the petition, especially given his successor’s opposition to the idea. The establishment of 12 December as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would have to wait until Pope Benedict XIV in 1754. Nevertheless, the history of the apparitions of Guadalupe written by Francisco de Siles in 1663 is an important witness to a bold attempt by officials of a colonial church to win universal recognition for their avocation of the Blessed Mother. Given the tremendous devotion that the Virgin of Guadalupe enjoys to this day, it was a risk well worth taking.

[1] A more detailed examination of what follows can be found in my forthcoming article: “The Historica narratio (1663) of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Francisco de Siles: A Study and Transcription of the Latin Text in Chig. F.IV.96”, which will appear in the next issue of Miscellanea Bibliothechae Apostolicae Vaticanae.

[2] L’Atlas Marianus de Wilhelm Gumppenberg. Ėdition et traduction, sous la direction de N. Balzamo, O. Christin, et F. Flückinger, Neufchâtel 2015

[3] F. de Florencia, La Estrella del norte de Mexico. Historia de la milagrosa imagen de Maria stma. de Guadalupe [edited by A. de la Rosa], Guadalajara 1895, p. 71 (first published in 1688).

[4] K. Velez, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World, Princeton, NJ 2018

[5] S. Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797, rev. ed., Tucson, AZ 2017; D.A. Brading, Mexican Phoenix. Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries, Cambridge 2001.

[6] Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Chig.F.IV.96.

[7] F. González Fernández, “La Virgen de Guadalupe de México y el indio Juan Diego, ¿mito, símbolo o historia?” in L’Osservatore Romano. Edición semanal en lengua española XXXIII.51, 21 decembre 2001, pp. 11(707)-14(710), at p.14 nt. 1

Featured Image: Taken by jc_castaneda, Con los Jovenes en Accion Guadalupana en la Calzada de los Misterios, taken on 10 December 2005; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Stephen M. Metzger

Stephen Metzger is Assistant Scriptor at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute and the author of the two-volume Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation.

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