The First Lady of Guadalupe

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Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Left: the image carved by St Luke. Right: the image miraculously impressed on the tilma of San Juan Diego.

The tilma of St Juan Diego bearing the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appears in history in what is now Mexico, the morning of December 12, 1531 almost forty years after Columbus set foot in the American continent and about ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés.[1] The man whose destiny was to conquer Mexico was born in Spain, most precisely in Medellín, in a city located in the province of Badajoz in the region of Extremadura. About sixty miles northeast from his birthplace lies the town of Guadalupe in the province of Cáceres. There are various possible etymologies for the name of Guadalupe, one of the most likely is derived from the original Roman name Flumen Lux Speculum – meaning “a river reflecting light” – a name that the Mozarab settlers may have mispronounced and finally passed into Spanish as Guadalupe with the first two syllabes being the remnant of the Arabic word for river: wadi.

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The town of Guadalupe is home to one of the great treasures of Christianity, an image of the Virgin Mary holding the Child that according to ancient Christian traditions was carved by St Luke, the author of the Gospel that bears his name. St Luke’s original name may have been Lucanus; we know he was born in Antioch of Syria and it is likely that he studied medicine in Tarsus. In Colossians 4:14 St Paul calls him “the beloved physician.” Through Nicaphorus Callistus (14th century) and the Menology of Basil II (10th century) we know he was also a painter. The Catholic Encyclopedia declares:

“A picture of the Virgin in S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, is ascribed to him, and can be traced to a.D. 847 It is probably a copy of that mentioned by Theodore Lector, in the sixth century. This writer states that the Empress Eudoxia found a picture of the Mother of God at Jerusalem, which she sent to Constantinople (see “Acta SS.” of 18 October). As Plummer observes, it is certain that St. Luke was an artist, at least to the extent that his graphic descriptions of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Shepherds. Presentation, the Shepherd and lost sheep, etc., have become the inspiring and favorite themes of Christian painters.”[2]

From all we know about St Luke we can safely deduct that he was Greek, a convert to Judaism who later accepted Christianity. He was also a dedicated evangelist who traveled with St Paul and St Mark.[3] The brief prologue found in Luke 1:1-4 shows that he was dedicated to accurately preserve the truth of the Gospel researching the facts from very early witnesses.

Luke 1:1-4 – “Since many have undertaken to compile an  orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, Spain. Detail.

The Gospel According to St Luke is often called “the Gospel of Mary” and it is likely that Luke had the opportunity to know and interview Mary of Nazareth. We read in the early chronicles of many paintings and sculptures of Our Lady attributed to St Luke. In fact the amazing story of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins with an image that was buried with him when he died. In De Viris Illustribus St. Jerome reports that “his bones and relics are buried in Constantinople, transferred there along with those of the Apostle Andrew.”[4]

St Luke died in Thebes in the Bœotia region of ancient Greece at the age of seventy-four.[5] A statuette representing the Virgin and Child – and presumably carved by Luke himself – was buried with him. The coffin containing the remains of St Luke was transferred to Constantinople by order of the Roman Emperor Flavius Julius Constantius Augustus in a.D. 357. The Italian historian Flavio Ciucani, author of Il Segreto negli Occhi di Maria – Da Nazareth a Guadalupe, affirms: “With a great procession the coffin containing the remains of St Luke went into the Church escorted by all the imperial court. Leading them was Macedonius, the Bishop of Constantinople. He held the statuette above his head as the procession continued along the central nave.”

Many years later in a.D. 582 the image was given by Mauritius (a.D. 539-590) Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire to future Pope Gregory the Great at the time that Gregory was the Papal Ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. When Gregory returned to Rome the statuette returned with him. On a.D. 590 Gregory ascended to the Papacy.

A few years later Gregory sent several relics to the Archbishop of Seville, St Leander who had worked tirelessly to eradicate the Arian heresy. Among those relics was St Luke’s statuette of the Virgin and Child. The image was enthroned in the Cathedral of Seville where it was fervently venerated by the local Christians.

In a.D. 711, Seville was under attack by Muslim forces. Some of the local clerics escaped the city towards the north of Spain, following the Via Lusitania carrying the precious relic. As they approached the region now known as Extremadura they buried the image in a mountain near a stream we know today as the Guadalupe River. Along with the image there was a bronze plaque identifying the statue’s origin.

The image remained buried for some six-hundred years until the summer of 1329 when the Christian reconquest of Spain was almost completed. In times when King Alfonso XI reigned in Castile, a Christian settler named Gil Cordero had cattle in the area of the Guadalupe River. When Gil realized that one of his cows was missing he went in search of the animal. After three days he found the animal dead near the river. Disappointed by the loss he decided to skin the dead cow. As he unsheathed his knife the animal came back to life before his very eyes. At that point the figure of a woman appeared floating a few feet above and bathed in light. The woman then spoke saying:

“Do not be afraid. I am the Mother of God the Savior of the human race. Take your cow and return it to the pen with the others and return home. Tell the priests what you have seen. Tell them also that you are sent to them in my behalf. They must come to this place where you are now and dig where the dead cow was; under these stones you will find an image of mine. When they unearth it tell them not to take it away nor move it from this place. They must erect a chapel for it. In time a church will be built here, a noble house, and a great nation.”

Obediently Gil Cordero walked to Cáceres and related to the authorities what he had seen but no one believed him. When he arrived home perturbed by all the things he had experienced, he found his wife in the company of some neighbors and religious, crying because their son had just died. The poor man looking at the lifeless body of his son, remembered how the Virgin Mary had resurrected his cow. Without further reflection he kneeled, and trusting wholeheartedly in Our Lady with sincere devotion he begged:

“My Lady, you know the message that I am bringing in your behalf, I believe it to be true that you brought this about: that my son is dead because you will show how marvelous you are in bringing him back to life so that this message of yours that you sent me to deliver will be believed quickly. If that is so, my Lady, I beg you to resurrect him. Here and from now on I offer him to you to be your perpetual servant in the place where you gave me the grace of appearing before me.”

To the amazement of all those present, the young lad stood up like one that wakes up from sleep. Then his father said to all those present:

“My lords and friends, please know that this had to happen so you can put faith in the message that I bring. Our Lady has given us the grace to operate this great marvel since due to our sin often we doubt those things we cannot contemplate with our own senses.”

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Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe found in the Choir of the Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain. This is very similar to the image of San Juan Diego’s tilma.

After that he told them of the miracle by the Guadalupe River. The story of that prodigy traveled quickly and reached those who did not believe at first. The authorities were now convinced that something supernatural had occurred. They followed Gil to the place by the river and unearthed a small marble box containing the image of Our Lady along with other relics, and some documents relating the origin and history of the statuette from the time when it was carved by St Luke, until the time when it was buried by the men of Seville. The image was left there in a humble stone sanctuary. They made a rough stone altar and placed the image on it.

In time king Alfonso visited the humble chapel and ordered it to be enlarged so that it would become a temple worthy of the precious relics there contained. Gradually a town began to grow around the sanctuary.


[1] His complete name was: Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano

[2] The Gospel of St Luke, as quoted online in newadvent.com.

[3] See Acts 16:8; 2 Timothy 4:7-11; Colossians 4:14, and Philemon 24)

[4] “Sepultus est Constantinopoli, ad quam urbem vigesimo Constantii anno, ossa ejus cum reliquiis Andreæ Apostoli translata sunt.” De Viris Illustribus 3, 7

[5] “After St. Paul’s martyrdom practically all that is known about him is contained in the ancient Prefatio vel Argumentum Lucæ, dating back to Julius Africanus, who was born about A.D. 165. This states that he was unmarried, that he wrote the Gospel, in Achaia, and that he died at the age of seventy-four in Bithynia (probably a copyist’s error for Bœotia), filled with the Holy Ghost.” Catholic Encyclopedia; The Gospel of St Luke, as quoted online in newadvent.com.

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Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain
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