The story of the miraculous appearance in 1531 of the Virgin Mary to a startled Indian laborer on a steep hill in central Mexico has produced a veritable cottage industry of visual tributes.
Combining elements of biblical narrative, indigenous myth and symbolism and boundless national pride--not to speak of great charm and tenderness--these images make up the bulk of the collection of the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Through Dec. 31, a selection of these paintings, sculptures, liturgical vestments and other objects spanning 200-odd years are at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Curated by Jorge Guadarrama, director of the basilica museum, "Visions of Guadalupe: Selections From the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe" is one of the most engaging and meaningful shows the Bowers has mounted in recent memory.
As is generally true of religious art, to appreciate the devotional works fully you need to be acquainted with the central narrative they relate. The wall labels clue you into the basic story, while the slender but copiously illustrated catalogue (an issue of the magazine Artes de Mexico) deals with more subtle theological issues.
Juan Diego, the Catholic convert who encountered the Virgin on the top of Tepeyac Hill, was destined to have several more meetings with Our Lady. On another occasion she intercepted him, told him his ailing uncle was cured and directed him to bring her roses from the hilltop. After accepting them, she bundled them back into Diego's lap with instructions to deliver them to the bishop as proof of her appearance. (She also wanted the bishop to build a church in her honor.) Duly presented to the cleric, the roses fell out of Diego's cloak, leaving in their place an image of the Virgin.
In the Spanish colonial paintings--softened, often rather awkward echoes of the sophisticated Baroque style--a sweet-faced, pale-brown-skinned Virgin hovers in the air, enclosed in golden rays. She perches on a crescent moon above the perky or (depending on the artist) sorrowful head of the Archangel Michael, the redoubtable warrior against Satan.
Sometimes the Virgin is accompanied by the kneeling Juan Diego, shyly gazing upward with his supply of roses. In other works she is surrounded by other scenes from the Juan Diego story or appears by herself, in radiant majesty.
The interesting thing about the story is the way 17th- and 18th-Century theologians seized on it as a way of linking the holy mysteries of Catholicism to Mexican culture and the promise of the New World.
Conveniently, the hill where Juan Diego saw the vision was an ancient site of pagan worship and a strategic lookout for the Spanish colonists. The notion that roses--emblems of the Virgin's charity--could bloom in such barren soil was viewed as a testament to the sturdiness of Mexican culture.
Juan (the Spanish version of John) Diego was viewed as the latter-day reincarnation of the ascetic John the Baptist, living in the wilderness, or John the Evangelist, whose emblem--the eagle--was the Mexican national bird, and who saw a vision of the Virgin while banished to the island of Patmos.
Several works even boldly propose Mexico as the new Jerusalem by incorporating the Latin inscription (from Psalm 147): " Non fecit taliter omni nationi " ("He"--i.e., God--"hath not dealt so with any nation").
Numerous other parallels between the New Testament and the local scene were drawn in the theological literature of the day, a strategy that--despite its long tradition in provincial Renaissance art--may strike modern viewers as somewhat tedious and arcane.
But the net result was a body of art reflecting tremendous local pride--and the inclusion of many charming details, from the incised pear cacti designs on the Virgin of Guadalupe's gown to the blend of legend and reality in Jose de Ribera y Argomanis' painting commemorating official recognition in 1737 of the Virgin as Mexico City's protector.
This delicate and detailed work from 1778, aglow in red, blue and gold (the Virgin's colors), portrays a beneficent world in which Our Lady watches over the local lake, Juan Diego (well-supplied with roses) and even a savage, unbaptized Indian in feathered dress. Tiny scenes of the mystical Juan Diego story and a symbolic eagle and cactus add further emblematic dimension.
The Virgin got her basilica in 1709--in what is now Mexico City--and it soon attracted pilgrims spurred by news of the many wonders she accomplished in times of stress (typhoons and epidemics as well as everyday misfortunes).
The most engaging of the "miracle" paintings ( milagros ) tend to reinforce the transformative emotional power of intense religious belief with the naive earnestness of the artistry.
One anonymous work shows two men contemplating the equestrian pratfall of helpless-looking Antonio de Carvajal. This Spanish nobleman had conveniently dropped by the sanctuary of Guadalupe before his horse bolted, dragging him for nearly two miles with one foot caught in a stirrup. Panicked, he called out to the Virgin, and she stopped the runaway horse.
The same awkward intensity informs some of the three-dimensional pieces portraying the human players in the apparition narrative. In a squat 17th-Century alabaster sculpture of Juan Diego--his sombrero piously tucked under his arm, his head uptilted in reverent wonder--the humble level of artistry perfectly suits the humility of the man.
A late 19th-Century wood relief portraying the Virgin's miraculous appearance on Juan Diego's cloak shows the bishop practically swooning in amazement--as well he might, since the Virgin's likeness pops out in 3-D on the sculpted garment.
It was left to the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe--the devout bean-counters, as it were--to deal with some of the knotty questions posed by her manifestations. How, for example, did her image get on Juan Diego's cloak?
After much dithering, it was decided that the Eternal Father did the paint job. Borrowing from traditional representations of St. Luke's workshop, an anonymous 18th-Century painting shows God adding the finishing touches, in the company of Jesus, the Holy Spirit (a dove) and loyal Archangel Michael. In a sweetly appropriate conceit, the palette holds roses in place of daubs of paint.
The most nakedly ardent level of veneration appears in the painted ex-votos (personal tokens for services rendered by the Virgin), with their grieving stick figures, elaborately detailed bedrooms and sweetly vaporous landscapes.
Offered in gratitude for the healing of ill spouses and children, for escaping uninjured from a precipitous fall from a balcony or potential death by drowning--or even for the safe return of a stolen Chevy--these amateur paintings evoke the central importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the everyday life of parishioners.
The show's great strength is that, despite its important stress on nationalistic and ecclesiastical symbolism, it never loses sight of the human connection, from a poor man's first sighting of the Virgin to the ardent thankfulness of ordinary people miraculously spared a few of their sufferings.
* "Visions of Guadalupe: Selections From the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe," through Dec. 31 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (Thursday nights till 9). General, $4.50; children 5 to 12,; $1.50; seniors, $3.50. (714) 567-3600.