The exhibition "Visions of Guadalupe: Selections From the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe" has broken all attendance records at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana since the show opened in September.
Yet according to Paul Apodaca, a Bowers curator who gave a pair of lectures on the subject over the weekend, many of what he considers to be the most fascinating aspects of the Virgin of Guadalupe were never touched on in the show, which closes Dec. 31. And those aspects read like a Ripley's version of the Guadalupe story.
Did you know, for instance:
* That there were no written references to the Virgin of Guadalupe until more than a century after the apparition is said to have taken place?
* That many scholars believe Mary was merely a substitute for the Aztec goddess Tonanzin, right down to her brown skin and Nahuatl words?
* That two Virgins--Remedios and Guadalupe--once faced each other in combat on the battlefields of the Mexican Revolution?
"The very earliest mention of the Virgin of Guadalupe in writing, by Miguel Sanchez, was in 1648," Apodaca explained. "Yet according to tradition, she appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego in 1531. Sanchez says it's a well-known traditional story, but there's nothing in the record to confirm that."
According to tradition, Diego was directed by the lady in his vision to plead with Bishop Zumarraga to build a church for her. Zumarraga asked for proof. Diego returned with his cloak filled with flowers (traditionally roses, but in any case nonnative, out-of-season flowers) and the cloak itself imprinted with the image of Mary. Zumarraga ordered the building of the chapel on a hill called Tepeyac.
According to Apodaca, church records indicate no increase in Indian devotions or baptisms from 1531 to 1648, and Zumarraga, an actual historical figure, never mentioned these events in his diary, in his official writings or in any of his sermons.
"It's a very interesting silence," Apodaca said, "one of those amazing gaps that makes you wonder what is the reality of the story."
Apodaca explained that by all accounts, the woman who appeared to the Indian Juan Diego was dark-skinned and spoke in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of central Mexico.
After 1648, a Nahuatl version of the story appears, called the Nican Mopohua ("As It Is Told"). The document is written in a style of Nahuatl from the 1500s and is said to be a copy of an original document written in 1531, the year of the vision. The 1531 document has never been found--another gap--yet many people cite the Nican Mopohua as proof of the time and veracity of the apparition.
A Spanish priest once noted in his histories that the hill where the Guadalupe vision took place, Tepeyac, was regarded as a shrine of the Aztec goddess Tonanzin. No archeological remains of a shrine have ever been found.
But because the woman in the vision spoke in Nahuatl, because some scholars interpret the symbols on her dress as Nahuatl and because the vision occurred at Tepeyac, speculation persists that the apparition may have been Tonanzin. Or that the Nahuatl elements were played up in an effort to popularize Christianity among the Indians.
Apodaca noted that the Virgin of Guadalupe got her name from the Guadalupe River in Spain. "There was in Spain an apparition referred to as Our Lady of Guadalupe de Extremadura," he said. "There are actually two ladies of Guadalupe--the Extremaduran Guadalupe and the Mexican Guadalupe."
The Virgin went on to play a significant role in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain.
"That aspect [of the story] extends all the way to the present and is very inspiring," Apodaca said.
Actually, this aspect also involves two Virgins--the Mexican Guadalupe and yet a third Virgin: a statue called the Virgen de Remedios, said to have been brought by Cortez from Spain and surrounded by her own set of miracles.
Prior to Mexican independence, Spaniards in the new empire split into two factions: Spaniards born in Spain, who claimed patronage of the Virgen de Remedios, also known as La Conquistadora; and the criollos (Spaniards born in Mexico), who claimed patronage of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
When the rivalry escalated, the Indians joined the criollos under the symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the leadership of a Zapotec Indian named Benito Juarez.
"During the years of the Mexican Revolution, La Conquistadora was often dressed as a soldier by the priest and nuns in the church," Apodaca said. "In the midst of battle, the Virgen de Remedios and the Virgen de Guadalupe actually faced each other as banners hanging over the opposing forces! And I do mean that literally."
Apodaca says there are no definitive conclusions to draw from all this--which is, after all, typical in matters of faith.
Said Apodaca, "Whether it took place in 1531 or not, whether the apparition was that of the Indian Tonanzin or the Virgin Mary, whether this can be corroborated as historical fact or folk legend, the phenomenon is that this story and this image have persisted for hundreds of years and have become a unifying symbol for the people of Mexico and the Americas.
"The truth behind religion and culture can often defy historians and scientists," he said. "It may be that the academic disciplines are not adequate to explain certain aspects of human experience and expression."
* "Visions of Guadalupe: Selections from the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe," at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Through Dec. 31. (714) 567-3600.