Marian devotions from Mexico: in December 2006, Catholic Insight published Mary Hansen's "Madre Maria in Mexico." The following article introduces three more of the plethora of shrines to the Blessed Virgin dotted around that country.
Mexico City, 1521: "It was an utterly unbelievable victory." The Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortes, and his small band of 500 soldiers had defeated the mighty military Aztec empire ruled by the emperor, Moctezuma, whose army was a thousand times larger than that of the Spaniards. The meeting of these two leaders in 1519 led to "one of the most dramatic conflicts in history." It was a clash of civilizations: the Christians from Europe encountered the Aztecs of the New World, a people who practised human sacrifice and cannibalism on a widespread scale; at least 25,000 victims were slain each year for the purpose of appeasing a multitude of insatiable, bloodthirsty gods.
The Spaniards departed from Spain, armed for battle: their cargo included horses, soldiers, carpenters, shipbuilders, cannons, guns and various other supplies. That is not all they brought; they were equipped with powerful spiritual armoury as well, several small wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One of these, the statue of "Los Remedios" was to play a significant role in Mexico's history. The diminutive 11" (28 cm.) statue was the personal possession of one of the soldiers in Cortes' army, Captain Juan Rodriguez de Villafuerte. He had fought alongside Cortes in the conquest of Mexico. The 14th century statue, carved by a sculptor from the Basque region of Spain, was present at the first Mass held on Mexican territory by Fray Bartolome de Olmedo. This same statue of Mary was also employed by Cortes in his personal efforts to convert the emperor Moctezuma to Christianity. This was ten years before the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill.
Victory did not come easily for the Spaniards. Their first battle with the Aztecs led to a humiliating defeat: July 1, 1520, is known as "La Noche Triste" ("The Sorrowful Night"), the occasion when the vastly outnumbered Spaniards were driven out of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City), fleeing for their lives. They suffered severe losses. The statue of Los Remedios accompanied the Spaniards in this battle but in the ensuing chaos she was lost, only to be found 20 years later, hidden under the broad leaves of a Maguey cactus plant. The discovery was a miracle in itself. In the year 1540, an Indian chief, Juan Aguila Tabor, a recent convert to the faith, was out hunting. He heard a gentle woman's voice calling his name. "Who can that be?" he wondered. Perplexed, he looked around, but saw no one. The voice seemed to be coming from the nearby cactus plants! When he crouched down and peered between the leaves he was astonished to discover the long-lost statue of Los Remedios.
Immediately, he built a shrine for her in his home. Twice, though, the statue went missing--only to be found at the original location, underneath the Maguey plant. It seemed that this spot was where Our Lady wanted her shrine! And so it happened. In 1575, at the orders of the Spanish governor of New Spain, a shrine of splendour was built to house the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Los Remedios, considered the oldest image of Our Lady in the Americas. She resides there to the present day" in the shrine named after her, Our Lady of the Remedies, in the northern section of Mexico City.
It was a popular place of pilgrimage even in the 1500's: Bernal Diaz, a 26-year-old soldier who fought with Cortes at Tenochtitlan, speaks about this church in his book, The Conquest of New Spain, written while he was in his 70's. "Later on, after the great city of Mexico was finally captured we built a church--which is called Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, and is now much visited. Many citizens and ladies of Mexico go there on pilgrimages and to make novenas."
The celebrated Virgin became known for her skill in helping the Mexican people in all manner of private and public calamities. Time and time again she would be brought, in procession, to the cathedral in Mexico City in times of epidemics, droughts, floods, wars and revolutions. She was brought to the cathedral a total of 75 times between 1576 and 1922.
The shrine is still "much visited." At least 6,000 people attend the shrine on Sundays and over 10,000 gather every September 8 for her feast day. The renowned Our Lady of Los Remedios is regarded as the second "most important Lady" in all of Mexico City, second only to the incomparable and beloved Our Lady of Guadalupe.
OUR LADY OF LIGHT
The industrial city of Leon is the fifth largest in Mexico and is known as the "shoe capital" of the country. This is no exaggeration: There seems to be a shoe store on every corner and several in between. They even have an entire mall devoted exclusively to shoe stores! But Leon, situated in the central region of Mexico, boasts of a far greater treasure than shoe stores--the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light.
So many miracles have been associated with this image that it was crowned pontifically by the authorization of Pope Leo Xlll in 1902. As the Patroness of the city and the diocese, she has protected Leon from storms, lightnings, plagues, revolutions and two terrible epidemics of cholera in 1833 and 1850. Then there was the famous miracle in 1876. The cathedral was packed for Sunday Mass on that fateful day of June 18 when, without warning, at 11:45 in the morning, an enormous block of concrete fell from the main supporting arch, into the aisle. To avert panic, Bishop Diez de Sollano, with great aplomb and courage, strolled over to the scene of the disaster and stood under the crumbling arch. Before the terrified congregation he begged Our Lady of Light to hold up the structure. His prayer was heard: not a single person was hurt in this near-catastrophe. The people of Leon are talking about it to this day.
The small painting's history is a remarkable one: it begins in Sicily, Italy, in the early 1700's. There, Jesuit priest, Fr. G. Genovesi, was growing increasingly concerned: his missionary efforts were bearing no fruit! He decided that Mary should come to his rescue in the form of a painting that would accompany him on his journeys, one that would touch people's hearts and convert them to her Son. But what image should it be? What would Mary want? He decided to find out and approached a nun who was reportedly having visitations from Mary. "What would Mary, herself, want?" he asked the nun. The answer was not long in coming: Our Lady appeared to the nun in a radiant blaze of light surrounded by a multitude of angels, holding the child Jesus on one arm. With her other arm she was pulling a sinner from the depths of hell. An angel was holding a basket of hearts: Jesus took them one by one and blessed them. Fr. Genovese had received his answer. "This is the image I want painted" he told the astonished religious.
Try as he might, the commissioned painter was not able to portray the image. "That's not at all how she looked!" said the disappointed nun. Several attempts later, Our Lady herself decided to intervene. "Go to the studio" she told the nun "and I, myself, will guide the artist's paintbrush!" The result was a work of incredible beauty. "A perfect likeness!" said the nun.
Fr. Genovese brought the image with him everywhere on his missionary travels; conversions multiplied. By 1735 the painting had made its way to Mexico where it continues to reside above the main altar in the cathedral of Leon. Although many have tried (including painters of great renown), no artist has been able to capture the essence of the original painting. This should surprise no one, for Mary, herself, said, "It is a work of more than human beauty." Replicas of the painting can be seen in many churches throughout the country.
OUR LADY OF IZAMAL
When Canadians think of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, two images generally come to mind. The first is Cancun with its fabulous beaches, turquoise sea and powdery-white sand, the second are the archaeological ruins. The Yucatan Peninsula has one of the world's richest stores of archaeological sites. The peninsula is comprised of three states: Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, the one familiar to most tourists because of its extensive Caribbean coastline. This area is home to the Mayan people, who were the focus of Mel Gibson's 2007 movie, Apocalypto.
But there is something else which attracts tourists to the area, the "worldfamous" and "magnificent" Franciscanconvent of St. Anthony of Padua which is located in the town of Izamal, 270 km. west of Cancun. With its origins dating back to 1533, St. Anthony's was one of the first monasteries in the New World. It is enormous; its atrium is considered the second largest in the world, second only to St. Peter's in Rome. The convent is built directly on top of an ancient sacrificial temple which was devoted to the Mayan rain god, Pap-Hal-Chac. This was standard practice for the Spanish missionaries: their purpose was to sanctify locations which had been scenes of previous "abominations" (in this case, human sacrifice). The complete Franciscan edifice is painted a brilliant shade of yellow. In fact, the entire centre of this picture-book town is painted this striking colour. It is for this reason that travel guidebooks refer to it as "The Yellow City."
But the star of the Franciscan complex is the renowned statue of Mary which resides in the convent's church, the Sanctuary of and Our Lady of Izamal. It is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and is the centre of Marian devotion in the Peninsula. Pope John Paul visited Izamal in 1993 and crowned the statue with a special silver crown from the Vatican.
The statue has an intriguing history. Over 400 years ago, the convent's prior, Fray Diego de Landa, (who later became Bishop of Yucatan in 1572) travelled to Guatemala to commission a statue for this new church. Guatemala was the centre for religious art in the New World at that time. Two miraculous phenomena occurred as the statue was being transported back to Izamal: whenever it was raining (which was frequent, according to the chroniclers) the area around the carriers and their precious "cargo" remained bone-dry, while simultaneously, the other members of the party were getting drenched! Then, when the group passed through the Spanish settlement of Vallalodid, the loveliness of the statue so captivated the Spaniards that they decided that they wanted it for themselves! But a strange thing occurred: the statue became as heavy as lead and "immovable" even though a small army of men had been recruited for the "takeover." At this point, realizing the obvious, the Spaniards agreed that Our Lady should have her way. She clearly wanted to be with her beloved Mayans in Izamal, where she resides to the present day.
Many a miracle did Our Lady of Izamal perform for her children of the Yucatan during the last four centuries; illnesses, crises, calamities of all kinds--none of these proved obstacles for her, not even locusts and pirates (which were serious problems in the eighteenth century for the people of Izamal.).
According to a 2006 article written in the periodical, Luxurious Mexico, one reads, "To this day, Izamal's people are very devoted to the Immaculate Virgin." That is true. The first thing you see as you step off the bus in town is a large statue of Our Lady of Izamal. Right at the entrance to the bus station, of all places. In fact, it is not only the people of Izamal who are very devoted to the Virgin. It seems that the whole of the country is devoted to her.
Mary Hansen lives in North Bay, Ontario.