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"I've never seen anything like it," adds Linda Hall, a professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of the forthcoming book The Virgin's Hand: Mary in Latin America. "Nothing even comes close. It's a wonderful example of the way European religious belief is actually embodied and produced materially in the New World. It's amazing."
"It's very important, assuming it's what everyone thinks it is," says Marcus Burke, an author of six books on Mexican Colonial art and the curator of paintings at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. "These objects are very rare. They are almost never found outside their original contexts. Stylistically, this is dead center in the middle of [Indo-Christian] art and seems to be an extraordinary example of it."
At last Kline had an answer. At an estate sale near Santa Fe, for a price so low he is embarrassed to mention it, he'd found his most valuable and intriguing lost treasure.
Threads of Devotion
Since Our Lady of Guadalupe first appeared to Juan Diego almost 500 years ago, she has shown up everywhere, on everything from church altars to prison-yard tattoos. With every generation, her following grows stronger.
"She is the protector of the American people," says Jose Aguayo, museum director of Denver's Museo de las Americas, which is currently exhibiting Spanish Colonial religious art. "I guess we identify with her because she came to a Mexican during the colonial period. Those of us who are proud of our indigenous roots and our European heritage see her as a symbol of the Catholic faith. She definitely serves as a symbol of pride -- you won't find many Mexicans who doubt that [the apparition] happened. That's why you see her everywhere."
Jacqueline Dunnington is a scholar of comparative religions and the author of Viva Guadalupe and the new Guadalupe in New Mexico. A living testament to the contemporary cult of Guadalupe, she's the keeper of 1,300 Guadalupe photos, 34 Guadalupe T-shirts, 17 pairs of Guadalupe bottlecap earrings, a dozen Guadalupe statues, a dozen more Guadalupe paintings and assorted Guadalupe pillow cases, aprons and dish towels. She even renamed her pet terrier "Lupita."
"No one knows me as Jacqueline Dunnington. They all call me Mrs. V. of G.," Dunnington says. "I had a Guadalupe lollipop, too, but someone ate it."
Dunnington has spent 14 years consumed with researching the symbolism of Our Lady of Guadalupe. What she discovered was this: While devotion to the Virgin is undeniable, the icon and its origins are complicated, subject to interpretation and constantly debated.
Aside from a few vague and scattered references, there is no written account of the legend until 1648. Even the bishop to whom Juan Diego unfolded his cloak made no mention of the miracle in his writings. That omission, Dunnington says, "is like Franklin Roosevelt not mentioning World War II."
And although a Franciscan priest named Bustamante denounced a cult called Guadalupe in a 1555 sermon, scholars who have examined original records, such as the Reverend Stafford Poole, author of Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol 1531-1797, say the reference could easily have been to the Spanish Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, another Virgin Mary icon also associated with miracles and brought to the New World by the conquistadores.
"You can go through every document, catechism and sermon between 1521 and 1648 and not find one reference to Juan Diego and the story of the apparition," Poole says. "Not one."
Some scholars even suggest that Juan Diego's Tepeyac Hill vision was invented by the church as an instrument for evangelization and later manipulated for political and cultural purposes.
The Vatican, meanwhile, has remained vague on the subject, scholars say, accepting devotion to Guadalupe but stopping short of endorsing the miracle in dogma. At Denver's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, interest in the Virgin is undeniable. "She's very important," says the Reverend Felix Lopez, "Mexicans identify with her and have a special devotion to her. The Europeans paint Jesus with blue eyes, but Our Lady of Guadalupe has the features of Mexicans. She appeared to them, and they felt they had the same dignity as the conquistadores under the church of God. They were simple people of some ignorance, but it doesn't matter, the color of your skin or how poor you are -- we're all children of God's church."
Historical record or no, the followers of the Mexican Guadalupe have remained strong and unwavering in their faith, and the notion of the "dark-skinned Virgin" has become a symbol of hope for the poor and disenfranchised. When Mexico sought independence from Spain, Our Lady of Guadalupe was depicted next to the Mexican flag in patriotic paintings.
"Mary is an intercessor," Dunnington says. "She is supposed to pray to Jesus or transmit to Jesus the requests of her followers. But Guadalupe isn't used as intercessor for one particular thing. She is broad enough to encompass many requests and fulfill many dreams. Her importance doesn't come from one source. It's from miracles, nationalism, artistic expression, the need for a female presence in religion, family tradition, all of that. It's like a cable as opposed to a thread. There are so many threads that when it's twisted together, it becomes stronger. And I don't see that support diminishing."