LACMA installs its new ‘Virgin of Guadalupe’

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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art installed its most recent acquisition, and it’s likely to become one of the museum’s most popular paintings. Manuel de Arellano’s 1691 ‘Virgin of Guadalupe,’ an embellished copy of the iconic image famously hanging above the altar in Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe, is an important addition to the museum’s growing collection of Latin American Colonial art.

The life-size image of Mary within a shining mandorla suggestive of virgin birth was widely copied beginning in the 17th century, thus launching its slow but steady transition from local heroine to internationally revered icon. But few artists were able to work directly from the original. Arellano apparently did.


A faint inscription above his signature reads “Tocada al original” -- literally, ‘touched the original one.’ The painter of the original image is unknown. (The faithful, of course, believe it was miraculously imprinted on the cloak of Juan Diego, a Nahuatal Indian who experienced three visions of the Virgin Mary in 1531.) The ability to ‘touch’ the original was important not just for accuracy’s sake, but because it was felt to impart at least some of the miraculous power to the copy.

That means the patron for Arellano’s work may have been in dire need of some miraculous assistance. LACMA has not identified the source of the acquisition, announced in June, but it may well be a collection (or dealer) in Spain. The export market for 17th and 18th century pictures painted in Mexico -- then, New Spain -- was strong, and part of what was desired was confirmation that Roman Catholic Christianity was taking root among indigenous populations across the Atlantic. The story of Juan Diego encountering the Virgin Mary did exactly that; Arellano’s copy includes lush floral border decorations with roundels in the four corners that depict narrative vignettes from the marvelous tale.

The painting is an exceptionally good example of the genre -- at least as fine as the slightly later, prettier version by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz that was in LACMA’s magnificent 2007 exhibition, ‘The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820.’ Arellano’s is more sober and austere, but no less radiant and richly expressive of its theme. It also seems to be in excellent condition.

Click through for some details of the painting, plus a video of Mexico City’s Guadalupe Basilica that shows the original icon in situ.

-- Christopher Knight

Manuel de Arellano (Mexico, active 1691-circa 1722)
‘Virgin of Guadalupe,’ 1691. Credit:
Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times