In the centre of one of the most populous cities on earth there stands a shrine.
It has stood there for centuries holding within it a mysterious fabric.
It is a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and each year it draws millions on pilgrimage. Many reading this, I expect, will be familiar with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is well-known, increasingly visible in churches throughout the Catholic world, and used by the Pro-life movement; it has for some, however, become commonplace, a pious image among many. Having just read Guadalupe Mysteries: Deciphering the Code by Gazegorz Gorny and Janusz Rosikon, I suggest we all need to think again.
Many will have an idea of the relic’s story. In 1531, in what is present day Mexico City, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoa had a series of visions of Our Lady. They resulted in a puzzling image appearing upon a tilma – an Aztec garment. The image seemed to be that of the Virgin Mary, pregnant with the Child. The book gives a wonderfully illustrated account of this. It also evaluates the relic’s place in the history of New Spain – what would later become different political entities in Central and North America, including parts of the present day United States. Gorny and Rosikon recount how the apparitions occurred at a time when the Spanish missionary activity to the indigenous peoples was just beginning. It is worth remembering that at this time, when so much of Catholic Europe was turning to the teachings of Luther and Calvin, another continent was turning from the barbarism of native superstition towards the light of faith. It is estimated that 5 million Catholics were lost to the Protestant Revolt of the 16th Century; it is reported that, at the same time, 9 million new believers entered the Church in the New World. While these mass conversions were taking place, is it coincidence that at its geographic centre there was a seemingly miraculous picture of the Immaculate One?
The centuries that followed were to disclose stranger things still, events that would point to the image having a greater significance even than this. These would be years that saw Mexico move between public faith and public persecution of the faithful. Kingdoms would rise and fall; republics emerge; large swathes of land would be lost in war with the United States; corruption would reign; later, with Masonic propaganda rampant, martyrs would gain their crown whilst crying out before their executioners that Christ is the only true King. And yet, all the while, at the heart of the nation’s capital, in the darkened stillness of the basilica, candles continued to burn before the ever-present, ever-watchful gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As Guadalupe Mysteries amply demonstrates, this relic of what took place on a December day in 1531 is no mere historical artefact. It is more precious and thought provoking than that. The tilma with the image of the Woman seems to be present in mysterious ways throughout the troubled history of the land and nation where and for whom it appeared. And yet, simultaneously, during these centuries, it appears to be revealing hidden secrets.
Always open to dispute, the historical authenticity of the relic was contentious from the start. One of the earliest written historical sources for the events of December 1531 was the Nican Mopohua. Its author, Antonio Valeriano, knew Juan Diego personally. The publication date of the account, however, was more than 100 years after the events. This caused some to doubt not just the apparition but also the very existence of its witness. In our own times, this all changed when, at the end of the 1980s, a discovery was made in the New York Public Library, namely, a copy of the Nican Mopohua dating from 16th Century. Shortly after, in 1995, another important document was unearthed. It was the Codex Escalada, the oldest account of the apparitions dating from 1548, and which includes a drawing of the relic’s image. It is curious that such historical ‘witnesses’ are appearing in modern times and in unexpected places.
When it comes simply to the history of the relic, there will be some who dismiss such supporting documents as all too subjective accounts of what took place. The thing is, however, that the more the relic has undergone scrutiny by other academic disciplines, and, in particular, by hard science, the more the mystery of the image has expanded and deepened in unpredictable ways.
It is curious to read that the first scientific studies of the image took place just 100 years after its appearance. These studies, undertaken, over a thirty-year period between 1633 and 1666, found something about the image that had only just been discovered by science: diffraction. This is an optical effect found in nature and some human products. The scientist in charge of those 17th century investigations, Professor Tanco Becerra, noted diffraction emanated from the image, but could explain matters no further. Three centuries later, scientists attempted to explain the image by suggesting that its was akin to the then current effect of Polaroid photography. Scientists in the 17th Century were baffled by what they found; those in the 20th century were equally astonished: they appeared to be seeing contemporary photographic techniques existing on a cloth dating from four centuries earlier.
In the relic’s history, the second historical study that was undertaken had a more obvious focus of investigation. In 1751, a group of artists, led by Miguel Caberra, decided to reproduce the image using paint. Five years later, however, they admitted defeat. Try as they might, they could not determine the technique that had been used to produce the image. In 1936, a German Nobel Prize winning chemist, Professor Richard Kuhn, was unable to identify the dye present on the fibres of the image. In 1979, with the aid of infrared radiation, it was confirmed that there was no evidence of any paintbrush having been used on the image.
In the 18th Century, tests were made on the relic’s material. The published results confirmed that the material seemed to have had an unparalleled durability. This was especially perplexing as copies of the tilma that had been made using similar material and paint deteriorated swiftly, quickly rotting. This durability was all the more remarkable for, at that time, on a daily basis, the relic was subject to the touch of millions of pilgrims who flocked to venerate it.
Guadalupe Mysteries is a visual treat. So many books on the image are simply text. This one, wisely, has many beautiful pictures, charts and diagrams. The mysterious image on the tilma preserved in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe needs such illustrations. In the beginning, the cloth’s message was to a people who were largely illiterate – the visual, therefore, was, from the start, all-important. It was the power of that image that inspired faith. It is clear that the image still provokes faith, as well as an unexpected awe the more one is exposed to it.
In 1898 the Turin Shroud was photographed for the first time. It deepened the age-old controversy around that cloth. The photographing of the tilma of Guadalupe provoked a similar controversy. The photograph seemed to suggest a mystery even more fascinating than that already encountered – so much so that the 1929 work of the photographer, Alfonso Marcue Gonzales, was suppressed. What Gonzales found, however, was later confirmed in 1951 when another photographer, Jose Chavez, carried out further tests upon the eyes of the image. What Chavez claimed seemed hardly possible, namely that there was an image of a man in the irises of Virgin. By the end of that decade, an ophthalmologist, using the latest technical skill to examine the image in the eyes, discovered this image in the eyes to be stereoscopic. Over the next two decades, more discoveries were made. In 1975, it was confirmed that the reflection in the image’s irises was analogical to one that a live human eye registers. Were we really able to see the likeness of Juan Diego captured in the eyes of the Virgin?
Remarkably, the more that scientists examined the eyes of Virgin, the more they were confounded. In 1979, the eyes were examined for the first time with the aid of computers that enlarged the image 2,500 times. What the scientists found as a result was stranger still. At this point, it is worth noting that all the researches carried out on the image were by men of science not by enthusiastic promoters of the relic. Nevertheless, when enlarged, the image in the eyes did not show one man but a group of 13 people. Further tests performed in 2006 confirmed that this group did indeed still appear to be present in the eyes of the image. Were we really looking back over the centuries to those present at the court where Juan Diego recounted his experience of a supernatural encounter?
Rather than explaining away the cloth, then, modern science seemed to confirm its mysterious reality. Take for example, the unanticipated 1981 discovery that the arrangement of the stars on the image resembled that which astronomers were able to say was the configuration of the night sky over Mexico on 12 December 1531 – the day of the apparition; or, the equally surprising 1988 finding that when a map of Mexico was placed over the image it revealed an uncanny conformity to the iconographic and geographic elements shown on the map. Stranger still, the relic seemed not only to speak of earth and stars but also to ‘sing’. In 1979, a mathematician discovered within the image a golden ratio and was able, with the arrangement of the symbols within the image, to produce a musical notation. The image of Guadalupe appears not only to reflect the heavens but to sing to them as well.
It seems that no matter which branch of science explored the tilma – be it ophthalmology, astronomy, geology, biophysics, photography, chemistry, or mathematics – the image and its message proffered unforeseen conclusions, opening up new vistas while provoking as many questions as it answered.
The book’s title rightly refers to a ‘code’. Unlike more recent fake codes that have allegedly been deciphered from man-made artworks and used to discredit the faith, here we have an image that has not only survived 500 years but has become more intriguing the more it is examined. It seems that, like Juan Diego, whoever encounters the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe also meets something unearthly, and as compelling as it is beautiful.
‘…And when he reached the top of the hill, [he saw] a Maiden who was standing there, who spoke to him, who called to him to come closer to her. And when he reached where she was, he was filled with admiration for the way her perfect grandeur exceeded all imagination.’
From Nican Mopohua