The Growing Enigma of the Tilma

December 9

Today is the Feast day of Saint Juan Diego. Ora pro nobis.

Most Catholics, especially Mexicans, are familiar with the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in the mid 16th century. Most, however, have no idea that the enigma of this 500-year old artifact (the Tilma) is actually growing as time goes by.

Who was the original ‘Lady of Guadalupe’?

‘Guadalupe’ is a Spanish word, unknown in Mexico at the time of the apparitions, which occurred a scant ten years after Cortés conquered the Aztecs. Yet it was the term that the ‘beautiful lady’ of Tepeyac Hill used to describe herself. What was the connection?

The origins of the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe actually began centuries before, in Rome. When Pope Gregory the Great was elected in 590 AD, a deadly pestilence had been devastating the Eternal City. In imploring divine assistance for the plague-stricken populace, Gregory had a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary carried in a procession throughout Rome.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (left) was said to have been carved by St Luke the Evangelist. When St. Michael the Archangel famously appeared to the saintly Pontiff to announce that the plague had abated, miraculous cures took place.

Later, the Pope entrusted St. Isidore with the statue, to be brought as a gift to Leander, the Bishop of Seville. A violent storm arose at sea during the voyage to Spain, whereupon the image was brought on deck; the storm abated and a great calm came over the sea. The statue remained in a church in Seville until the Islamic invasion of Spain in the early 8th century. According to local legend, when Seville was taken by the Moors in 712, a group of Catholic priests fled northward and hid the statue in the hills near the Guadalupe River in remote Extremadura

Six hundred years later, in 1326, it is said that the Blessed Virgin appeared to a poor herdsman in this area, Gil Cordero. She restored his cow — who had died — to life and the advised him to instruct the local priest and people to remove the stones that blocked the entrance to a nearby cave, where they would find her image. The Virgin also restored Cordero’s son — who had also recently died — to life, and a chapel was erected on the spot she requested by King Alfonso of Castile; this later evolved into a great Hieronymite monastery.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus made a pilgrimage to pray at this shrine before his famous voyages; in fact, he carried a replica of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Spain on his first voyage to the Americas.

In 1521, Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztecs, also visited the Guadalupe Shrine both before and after his voyage to the New World; there, he placed himself and his men under her protection. It is said his last act before he died in 1547 was to kiss a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Clearly, this particular image of Our Lady held great significance for some of the pious Spanish explorers. But the term ‘our lady of Guadalupe’ would have meant nothing to Indians of their time.

The Mexico Connection

Ten years after Cortés’s victory and half a world away from Spain, the story of the Patroness of the Americas began.

On December 9, 1531 Our Lady made the first in a series of five appearances to the Indian convert, 59 year old Juan Diego. Before his baptism Juan Diego was known by the name of Cuauhtlatóhuac  and he reported that Mary addressed him as such, using an affectionate diminutive translated loosely into Spanish as “Juanito” or ‘Johnny’ in English.  Juan Diego and his wife had converted to Christianity just two years before, two of the very few Indians interested in the Faith. He was a recent widower.

The ‘beautiful lady’ told him in his native Aztec language of Náhuatl that she was the Mother of God. She asked him to go to the bishop and tell him that she wanted a temple built where they were standing, Tepeyacac Hill.

It was after her fourth apparition that Juan Diego appeared before the gate of Bishop de Zumárraga with the ‘proof’ that he’d been requested to provide. After tenaciously defending the treasure in his wrapped-up tilma from the prying eyes of Church officials,  the Indian was finally admitted to see de Zumárraga, with a translator.

When Juan Diego opened his tilma, fresh Castilian roses came cascading to the floor — and the good bishop and witnesses fell to their knees in astonishment. For not only were Castilian roses unknown in Mexico — and impossible to bring to bloom in the dead of winter in that high-altitude city — but Juan Diego’s tilma was glowing with a miraculous image.

But, there was no name given to the image at this time. The earliest account of the apparitions, the Nican Mopohua, reports that the Virgin Mary also appeared to Juan Bernardino, the uncle of Juan Diego; she told him that the image left on the tilma was to be known by the name “the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” During this fifth apparition, Juan Bernardino was miraculously cured of a fever

To the Spaniards the tilma showed the Blessed Virgin Mary standing on the moon with a crown of twelve stars around her head, in front of the rays of the sun — the ‘Woman clothed with the sun’ from the book of Apocalypse (Revelation) 12:1-3.

But what did the Indians see in her image?

It’s important to understand that the Indians of this time and place had not developed a written language. This is not to say that theirs was a technically unsophisticated culture, as their engineering prowess attests. Indigenous culture relied heavily on iconography — the language of commonly-understood visual symbols. Here’s some of these icons and their meanings:


The name she used to describe herself in the native Aztec language of Náhuatl was “Coatlaxopeuh” or “she who crushes the serpent”. (To the Spaniards, the reference to ‘she who crushes the serpent’s head’ in the Book of Genesis would only become clear as history unfolded all around them and the Indians underwent mass conversions from the Aztec death cult to Christianity in the wake of these events.)

Over the centuries, the Church in Mexico has consistently interpreted these two separate images of Our Lady of Guadalupe — one in Spain and one in Mexico –as symbolic of the merging of two peoples and cultures. This is a literal interpretation. Mary appeared on the tilma as a mestiza woman, a racial mixture of the European Spaniards and the central American Indians. While this is a commonplace today, it must be remembered that in 1531 — just ten years after the Spaniards invaded Mexico — such mixing of races and cultures was unheard of, as there were no adult mestizos at that time. We need to remember that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe would have been the first adult mestiza image that anyone had ever seen — and a prophecy for Mexico’s future

The enigma of the tilma has piqued the interest of believers and scientists — and the efforts of politically-motivated disparagers — through the ages.

What Science Shows Us

Remarkably, as time goes on, the tilma has become more — not less — mysterious.

First, there’s the physical makeup of the tilma itself. Woven from cactus fibers and hung for more than 100 years in a primitive chapel — an unshielded environment exposed to constant candle smoke, damp and other damaging factors — this delicate fabric should have wasted away in a matter of a few decades. Yet it still remains to this day, nearly 500 years later.

There is more to the tilma however, only discovered in recent years:

  • The overall image of Our Lady cannot be explained by science. Both its color rendering and brightness enduring over the centuries are inexplicable. All pigments known to exist in Mexico 500 years ago would have faded.
  • Careful testing using modern restoration techniques have demonstrated that the image was made using no underdrawing, no sizing, no protective over-varnish and no brush strokes.
  • Under high magnification the image shows no sign of fading or cracking, after almost 500 years.
  • Strangely, the pink color of the gown is transparent to infra-red light, unlike all other pigments of this hue, which are opaque.
  • Power magnification has revealed the fact that the coarse weave of the tilma was deliberately used in a precise manner to give depth to the face on the image.
  • Viewed close up, the face and hands are of a grey-white color which gradually becomes olive as one backs away — an impossible accomplishment for any human painter. Scientists have compared this to the same effect in nature with iridescent bird feathers, butterfly scales and brightly-colored beetles.
  • Beginning in 1929 and continuing until today, photographers, scientists and opthalmologists have demonstrated the existence of images of human figures in both of the Virgin’s eyes. These are found in the precise location wherein figures reflected by a live human eye would be found in a photograph.
  • The shape, placement and size of human figures of St. Juan Diego and the interpreter present when the tilma was opened imply that this was literally what the Virgin saw as she stared out from the image on the tilma at that moment. As to whether this could have been created by a human painter, the placement of these images in her eyes is impossible to replicate on an even, flat surface.
  • The stars on the mantle of Our Lady of Guadalupe match identically a portion of the night sky — constellations visible in Mexico on December 12, A.D. 1531.
  • In 1785 (some sources claim 1791) a workman accidentally spilled acid on the side of the image, and while a stain can still be seen, the acid did not damage either the tilma or the image.

Whereas today the Basilica area is guarded by federal police, during the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church in the 1920’s an attempt was made to destroy the unguarded image. On November 14, 1921 a large bomb concealed under an elaborate floral piece detonated in front of the image — just below the main altar exploded during a High Mass. The explosion ripped through the building, destroying all the stained glass windows in the Basilica, displacing huge chunks of marble and causing a huge, bronze crucifix to be twisted like molten taffy. In a miraculous escape, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the glass that protected it as well as the celebrant and altar servers were completely unharmed. The men who brought the bomb hidden in the floral piece were later traced to the highest levels of the Masonic Mexican government.

Parallels have been drawn between the tilma and the Shroud of Turin. As Our Lord left His image on the Shroud of Turin as proof of His victory over death, some say, so too did Our Lady of Guadalupe leave her image on the tilma as proof of her victory over the death cult of the Aztecs

Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Presence

The image of Guadalupe has exerted powerful influences over the last 500 years. It was carried into the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 by Don Juan of Austria. A Mexican convert named St. Philip of Jesus would bring his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe as a missionary to Japan, where he would be martyred in the year 1597. In the years 1687-1688 her image and devotion would make its way across the Pacific to the Philippines. In 1999, the Church officially proclaimed her the Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America, and the Protectress of Unborn Children.

On a recent visit to the Basilica, REGINA staffers were astonished to observe the reactions of Mexican men to their first view of the tilma. Swagger turned instantly into respect. Smirks evaporated. Cynical sidelong glances morphed into upturned faces filled with awe.

Their eyes filled with tears, the backs of their hands furtively wiping their faces, many men retired quietly afterwards to an inconspicuous corner to cry, alone.  Why?

“She is our mother,” two such visitors told us, simply. “You know for Mexicans, for many of us, life is hard. Out there, we are alone. It is not easy. But here, with her, we are home. She is our mother.”

It appears the relationship that the Mother of God established with St. Juan Diego almost 500 years ago still holds true. And as it’s been said that Our Lady of Guadalupe will play a pivotal role in the next phase of the war against the culture of death, perhaps this will be her chosen battlefield.   

by Ed Masters

Photos by Michael Durnan and Beverly Stevens

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