The image

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Excerpt from the soon to be published book, Guadalupe: A River of Light

The image presented to us in St Juan Diego’s tilma is fraught with meaning, loaded with enough signs to befuddle even the most perspicacious analyst. Many talented scholars have studied the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to gain some understanding about the many symbolic layers contained in it. We are contemplating a great mystery that will take generations to unfold. We have no other option but to “stand on the shoulders” of those scholars who came before us and continue their work.

When Juan Bernardino was ill and waiting for death to come, Juan Diego had to go seek for a priest to assist his beloved uncle. He was on his way to church when he ran into the Lady from Heaven. It was then when she uttered the now famous words of consolation: “Am I not here, I, who am your Mother?” The words of the Lady echoed Jesus’ words from the Cross recorded by John the Evangelist: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”[1] For Mary Mother of God, her very motherhood is the fulfillment of a divine commandment: “Be a Mother to my beloved disciples.” At Calvary, John represents all the faithful disciples that will ever be, and Mary is the Mother of all disciples from that very moment.

After the events of 1531, all Mexicans took the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into their homes. Throughout Christian history, there have been always iconoclasts who shun the use of images in religious practice basing their actions on a literal and limited interpretation of the Second Commandment. Many Christian apologists over the centuries have refuted that erroneous belief. Here we will only say that images have been rightly used by God to teach and even cure his people. One well-known example is the image made by Moses to save the Israelites from the bites of poisonous snakes:

“The people approached Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by murmuring against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Make [the likeness of] a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live’. So Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole, and when a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”[2]

That account found in the book of Numbers was later used by Jesus to exemplify his own being “lifted up” nailed to a Roman cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[3]

Rivers of theological ink have flown to comment those verses but we will concentrate on how they parallel the lifting of the miraculous image before the humble Mexican people of 1531.

For starts, the image lifted in the desert was a bronze reproduction of something real that was harming the people. Moses was instructed to make that image while God gave it a special power: anyone looking at the bronze snake could be healed from the bites of the real snakes. The Israelites admitted that the serpents were God’s punishment for their own sin. Many centuries later, Christ would use that account as a parable of his own mission: to be lifted up crucified for the sins of the people. As the bronze copy of the snake neutralized the snake’s venom, Christ, a perfect image of Adam neutralized the poison of original sin from the Cross. The principle is clear: God fights sinful fire with holy fire.[4] These examples point also to God and man working together for the salvation of the whole human race.

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Coatlicue Toniatzin

Here is where we have to recall the figure of Coatlicue Toniatzin, the Mother Earth of Aztec mythology. Not only she was “the one dressed in a skirt made of snakes” but she also was the one reminding mortals that everyone that lives must one day die.

In the same manner that Moses’ bronze snake neutralized the poison of the real snakes, Our Lady of Guadalupe came to neutralize the poison of the devilish gods, the bloodthirsty spawn of Coatlicue. Our Lady of Guadalupe came to evangelize the people of Mexico, she chose to appear before them as a Mother, speaking their own language, using some of the symbols of their religion, gently putting aside what was wrong and keeping what was good as St Paul once counseled the Thessalonians.[5]

Following the example of Moses and Jesus, God presents us with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tepeyac Hill where the temple of Coatlicue Toniatzin once stood. In doing so, Our Blessed Mother occupied the territory once ruled by demons and claimed it as her own by right of conquest. She had done that all across the Middle East, Asia, and Europe where Christians gradually turned the old pagan basilicas dedicated to Venus Aphrodite, Diana Artemis, or Ceres Bona Dea, into Christian temples. Mary of Nazareth was now coming to claim her Mexican children and cure them of the venomous doctrine of the gods of death. For that purpose, she made herself a model of a Mother in the same way that Christ came as a man to save us: “God made Him who knew not sin to be sin on our behalf so that in Him we might convert to the righteousness of God.”[6]

As we delve deeper and deeper into the many signs presented to the Mexicans in the tilma of Juan Diego, we will realize that the image is the amoxtli[7] presented to them by Heaven, a Divine Codex designed to convert them to Christ.

Here is when our capacity to marvel is challenged. Anyone can see that a 16th-century ayate cannot naturally survive five centuries. Of course, the skeptics will automatically assume a succession of images re-created from time to time by the “wicked” Church to ensnare the simple Mexicans; that is their first, and perhaps the most honest, of the many objections they present. The simple child-like honesty of the story of Juan Diego, the many authorities that have examined the tilma through the years, and the sincere conversion of so many skeptics – yours truly included – should suffice to counter those who have pooh-poohed the miraculous preservation of the ayate far beyond its natural limits. Of course, God  — who lives outside of time — has built into the image a series of proofs that no human being could possibly falsify; those will become apparent as we examine their messages.

To my mind, the most impressive element is something that I would call “the Aleph of Mary”[8] because it reminds me of The Aleph, a famous short story by J. L. Borges. There the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone looking into Borges’ Aleph can clearly see in reflection the whole universe at once in all its instances of space and time. Something similar seems to happen with the image miraculously impressed on Juan Diego’s tilma; it contains many messages for many different people.

Let us look at the examples of Moses’ serpent and the Cross of Christ. Today the serpent wrapped around a staff is often used to represent health services, not the danger of venomous snakes.[9] In the same manner, the Cross is forever associated by Christians as a sign of salvation, not of condemnation. Yet Moses’ bronze snake is a copy, an image of a real snake; and the Cross (Gr. stavros) is the counterpart of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gr. stavros). In both cases (snake bites, original sin) a bad thing is defeated by its own reflection: a sign that God has endowed with the power to destroy that bad thing.

The image in the tilma was “reflecting” the attributes of Coatlicue Toniatzin; the native people could recognize that immediately. They also recognized that the evil qualities of Coatlicue were removed, and this new Mother was not only gentle, tender, and pure; she was also a powerful healer that could return her people to life. Our Lady of Guadalupe was not killing her own sons, she was a life giver, not a life taker. She asked not for the hearts of her children to be cruelly extracted with a knife, instead, she asked of them to consecrate their hearts to her with love and good deeds.


[1] John 19: 26-27.

[2] Numbers 21: 8-9.

[3] John 3: 14.

[4] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance: Fiery serpent, seraph, from saraph; burning, i.e. figuratively a poisonous serpent; specifically, a saraph or symbolical creature from their copper color, seraph. Curiously enough, the Hebrew word שָׂרָף [Seraph] is the same for “snake” and “fire”.

[5] See Thessalonians 5: 20-21.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[7] “A Codex is a pre-Conquest or early Colonial document record composed of pictures, an amoxtli, painted by Indian tlacuilos, painter-scribes, on a long strip of fan-folded paper made from maguey fibers or the bark of a wild fig tree.” The Sacred Image is a … Divine Codex, article by Janet Barber, I.H.M. included in A Handbook on Guadalupe, published by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1997. ©Academy of the Immaculate.

[8] Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. It literally means ox. The original pictograph of the letter was the idealized head of an ox that later evolved to a staff (the letter lamed) combined with the original oxhead to signify God, strong authority, or the head of a tribe. The modern form of the letter in Hebrew א is sometimes compared to a man with a plow. Mystically is said to represent a man pointing with one arm up to Heaven and the other to Earth thus symbolizing that Earth is a reflection of Heaven.

[9] It seems to have been an ancient symbol known outside the Old Testament also as the “Rod of Asclepius” a pagan deity associated with the practice of medicine.