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And today that is more true than ever, she says, not only in Mexico, but around the world. In New Mexico alone, Dunnington has counted 70 churches bearing the Guadalupe name. She also has found references in cemeteries, on street signs, in housing developments and shopping malls, and at pop-art shops that sell everything from coffee mugs to Guadalupe jewelry.
"Bottlecap earrings are a way of personalizing her and keeping her presence close. An outward expression of an invisible companion," Dunnington says. "I can't think of a place where she isn't. There's nothing like her. Not a single image that competes."
It just came to him. Fred Kline was staring at La Virgencita for probably the thousandth time, thinking about Indo-Christian art, thinking about the Virgin Mary, when suddenly he saw the light. What if La Virgencita is more than a rare, early Indo-Christian depiction of the Immaculate Conception Mary? What if she is Our Lady of Guadalupe?
Consider: Unlike other Immaculate Conception images, La Virgencita appears to be speaking, in accordance with the Guadalupe legend. La Virgencita also looks Indian, not European, which also fits with the long-told story. And the dates seem right, too. The apparition came to Juan Diego in 1531; La Virgencita was possibly carved nine years later. Furthermore, a Franciscan sermon in 1555 denounced a cult calling itself Guadalupe. If a cult inspired by the Guadalupe vision could exist by then, why couldn't this be a statue of that vision?
"I'm not saying 'is.' I'm saying 'could be,' " Kline says. "Why couldn't La Virgencita be the Virgin Mary as recycled by the Aztecs as the first cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico? I don't find it such a big stretch. I think the evidence is before our eyes."
He's not arguing that the Guadalupe miracle actually happened. Nor is he challenging the image on Juan Diego's tilma. What he's suggesting is this: What if a Mexican-Indian convert to Christianity crafted an interpretation of the apparition based on a Spanish engraving of the Virgin Mary and the oral legend of Guadalupe? What if this artist, who had never seen the image on Diego's cloak -- the accepted look for Guadalupe -- filled in the blanks using Aztec symbols and his own imagination?
"Who's to say she wasn't inspired by the apparition?" Kline says. "Really, who's to say I'm wrong?"
Four People Who Say He's Wrong
Many of those who have seen La Virgencita in person or in photos and have studied Mexican art, the Virgin Mary or some combination of the two agree that the statue could very well be a rare example of Indo-Christian art and a wonderful illustration of the cultural collision in 16th-century Mexico. But Our Lady of Guadalupe? No.
First, scholars say, for those who believe, there is only one look for Our Lady of Guadalupe: the miraculous image on Juan Diego's tilma. That is the image enshrined in the Basilica in Mexico City, that is the image worshiped by millions. Compare it with La Virgencita. They look nothing alike.
Second, if La Virgencita were made in 1540, as Reyes-Valerio suggests, it would have been carved more than a century before the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe enters historical record in 1648. The sermon cited by Kline says nothing about the apparition nor the miraculous tilma.
And last, there were numerous depictions of the Virgin Mary on a crescent moon with a bell-shaped cape and shimmering crown brought from Spain to the New World in the 16th century. La Virgencita could simply be one of them, albeit an unusually eclectic version.
Says the Reverend Poole: "That statue is not Our Lady of Guadalupe or intended for that purpose. It doesn't resemble the traditional picture and it's too early. There was no oral tradition of the apparition prior to 1648. There was devotion to the Virgin, and there was definitely a shrine with an image in it, but it's my belief that the devotion and the image were those of Guadalupe in Estremadura. I think [La Virgencita] is an early depiction of the Virgin Mary with a layer of pre-Conquest style."
Jeanette Peterson, an associate professor of art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara: "Seeing it at first blush, I think it's quite generic. There were many Virgin images that had Immaculate Conception iconography. The triangular robe she is wearing is very common in these dressed madonnas. I also have problems with the dating, because it's a very crude provincial style, which is quite common. I'm not saying it's not 16th-century, but I could just as easily see it coming from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries from an untutored hand. I think it's a generic Immaculate Conception Virgin."
Marcus Burke, of the Hispanic Society of America: "It was probably derived from a cult figure, but not the Virgin of Guadalupe. It just doesn't look like it. It doesn't work that way with holy images. It's like having an Italian Renaissance sculpture and comparing it to the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It's in the same stylistic orbit, but it has no artistic connection whatsoever. The only relationship is that they are both the Virgin Mary and both representative of Indo-Christian art -- that is to say, a 16th-century hybrid. The rest of it -- I just don't see any evidence whatsoever."