Why paint Our Lady of Guadalupe?
The image which appears on the Sacred Tilma of Juan Diego is not from this world. There is no scientific explanation for its appearance, existence, or preservation. Why would an artist paint a new version of such a miraculous image? Doesn't it seem odd, implying the sacred image needs improving? What could another rendition achieve that the real thing, itself, cannot? Finally, with so many artist interpretations of Our Lady of Guadalupe, isn't it just silly to paint one more?
These were the questions going through my mind three years ago today, as I sat at Mass. That day, upon entering the church, my eyes had immediately fixed on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had seen the image thousands of times, but at that moment I instantly saw how I could repaint Our Lady to have more dimension and presence. As I found a seat I mentally listed all the reasons I should dismiss the idea. Then, as I was reminded it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I thought about how appropriate a day it was to conceive an inspiration to paint Our Lady.
Over the next week answers to my questions kept coming to mind. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is astounding if you think about it, but my guess is that most of us unfortunately don't. I'm a Catholic visual artist, and I confess that I take it for granted. Did you catch that? - a Catholic, visual artist who takes for granted the only full color miraculous image of it's kind in the history of the world. It's just that I've seen it so often on candles, t-shirts, leather jackets, Chevy's, and too many places to name. I no longer really see it. And why did Our Lady give this image? This is the bigger question. If it is miraculously preserved from decay, why? What is her message to us today? It takes a fair amount of research to dig up the details behind the image. Much of it's visible meaning was obvious in the context of Aztec culture, but not now. What if a contemporary painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe could be striking and different enough, yet recognizable, so as to cause the viewer to pause and think about Our Lady and her increasingly relevant message? And what if this new image could reveal aspects of the original that were understood by the Aztecs but are lost on modern eyes? The new piece would be like a visual commentary, explaining and pointing back to the source, which is ultimately Our Lady, herself, and not just the miraculous image of her.
This was a purpose and challenge which I couldn't simply dismiss. It felt deep, and I began to wonder if Our Lady was asking me to interpret her image for the modern culture, to draw attention to an important message. I had to respond. My devotion to Our Lady goes back to 2000 when I made the Total Consecration (St. Louis de Montfort). Since that time I became interested in expressing my faith in my art, and nearly every commission I have received has been Marian. She is the undeniable patroness of my work.
As I write this I just received a text from a friend who says, "Hey man it’s the feast day of Juan Diego." Today is Dec 9, 2019. It's also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception this year, normally celebrated on Dec 8. I didn't know it was Juan Diego's feast. So I just looked it up and was surprised to find this:
On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was in a hurry to make it to Mass and celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, he was stopped by the beautiful sight of a radiant woman who introduced herself, in his native tongue, as the "ever-perfect holy Mary, who has the honor to be the mother of the true God." (https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=73)
Strange coincidence that it was Dec 9 and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I feel connected with St. Juan Diego. Well, he's the real messenger after all, isn't he?
Getting back to the story, I couldn't stop thinking about the image and wondering if I was being called to paint it. It promised to be quite intense - visually translating so much symbolism and meaning and delivering it in a modern cultural aesthetic. Considering the Aztecs were pagan, it also seemed a modern interpretation could only be congruent in purpose if it speaks to the secular culture. I pondered how I might embark on such an ambitious project. No way could I afford to do it without some support. Perhaps my parish would be interested in backing it, crowd-funding style, I wondered. So I wrote a priest friend, Fr. Michael Burbeck, who was interested in my work. His response was positive, and within a couple of weeks he had begun the creation of a non-profit - the John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts (jp2arts.org) This was much more than I had anticipated and seemed like a firm confirmation of the project. I submitted a proposal to the foundation's board and the project was underway within a matter of months.
The Purpose and Message
There are numerous miraculous details about the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Early on it became clear to me that my work was not to focus on the miracle of the image. Instead, I felt called to focus on the purpose and message of Our Lady, and the reasons she might give the world her image.
There are several main points communicated by the original sacred image and Our Lady's words to Juan Diego. While the explanations seem to vary somewhat, these main points are consistently acknowledged. They include that the woman is pregnant and that she is royalty, the mother of a king and the one true God. While she is not a Goddess, she is the queen of the Heavens, more powerful than all the Aztec gods. She is also mother to all, with concern for her children and a desire to comfort and intercede for them.
Listen and let it penetrate your heart. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?
-Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1531
The primary message of Our Lady is to communicate her motherly love for all and her ability to intercede and help her children who trust their concerns to her. The key example of this is when Juan Diego, concerned for his dying uncle, is met by Our Lady in an apparition. As she spoke the above words to Juan Diego, his uncle was healed.
A second meaning of the image is that Our Lady of Guadalupe is clearly the Woman described in the book of Revelation:
This connection is fascinating. After the description of the Woman, Rev. goes on to describe a seven-headed red dragon, representing evil, and a battle which culminates with the cup of God's judgement being poured out and the vanquishing of evil. Indeed, if the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a sign from God that we are now living in the period of these cosmic events of Revelation, it is certainly a powerful and important sign. Since the appearance of the image in 1531 the world has experienced an abundance of Marian apparitions. In them the messages of the Blessed Virgin consistently include a call for repentance and prayer for the conversion of sinners.
A partial list pulled from a site of approved Marian apparitions:
Guadalupe, Mexico (1531) Siluva, Lithuania (1608) Laus, France (1664) Rue du Bac, France (1830) Rome, Italy (1842) La Salette, France (1846) Lourdes, France (1858) Filippsdorf, Czech Republic (1866) Pontmain, France (1871) Gietrzwald, Poland (1877) Knock, Ireland (1879) Fatima, Portugal (1917) Beauraing, Belgium (1932) Banneux, Belgium (1933) Kibeho, Rwanda (1981)
In conclusion, the message of Our lady of Guadalupe which I wish to translate through my work is the message of Our Lady. The painting is not a copy or a rendition of the sacred image. It is a depiction of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, the Woman of Revelation, under her title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While my painting pays much homage to the sacred image, it hopes to point to the source of it, Our Lady, herself. It hopes to appeal to a contemporary audience, to capture their interest, and to speak in the visual vernacular of today. Finally, it hopes to reiterate Our Lady's message of motherly concern and protection and to emphasize the relevance and need of her role and assistance in the spiritual drama of our time.
A final word on the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe: While the process of creating this work was certainly a spiritual one, my painting cannot possibly be compared with the actual Sacred Tilma. It shouldn't be. I don't believe photos and reproductions of the sacred image represent it well. While I have not seen it in person, descriptions speak as though it is a visual window to the living mystical presence of Our Lady. An account by photographer Howard Earp describes such an impression (http://www.cmri.org/05-guadalupe_photo.html)
Explanation of the Image Elements
There are many questions people have asked about the painting, and I hope to cover most of them here. The process of creating art is visual. Being a visual artist means that I often receive ideas and inspirations in visual form, only understanding their meaning and significance later. Because of this, I do not pretend to fully understand the meaning which may be represented by the visual elements of the painting. This should not be taken as a negative. It does not indicate a lack of care or thoughtfulness. To the contrary, if I was successful in surrendering the creative process to the Holy Spirit, and allowing myself to be merely an instrument in the creation of this work, then it should be assumed that the work would contain more than I would think to put into it. It was many years ago that I realized I did not need to explain to myself all the visual elements in my work. If it simply "looked cool", there was likely a valid reason for it. This has proven true beyond any doubt, and it is often exciting to discover and keep discovering layers of meaning in an image, sometimes even years after its completion.
The Face of Mary
The sources for my image of Our Lady's face are multiple. It is an amalgamation, derived from pulling aspects from each and working them together in the physical process. Key references include: the face on the Sacred Tilma, my daughters (brunettes, ages 14 and 15 who each had some similar features to Our Lady and matched her estimated age when pregnant. ), favorite icons, Jewish women, and my interior concept of Our Lady.
I hoped to accomplish several things with the face of Our Lady. First is her beauty. All the stories I've read of reported visions of Our Lady say the same thing - she is the most beautiful woman ever seen. This only makes sense - the Immaculate Queen of Heaven and Mother of God. Second, she needed to look like Mary. Many people have an interior concept of what Jesus and Mary look like. I do. I don't know where it comes from, whether it's a composite of images and knowledge, or simply a sort of spiritual recognition. I just know it's there and, as an artist, I feel a certain responsibility to physically capture it. The greatest compliment I can get is when somebody tells me "she looks just like Mary." Third, I wanted the face to resemble the likeness of the face on the Sacred Tilma. This was difficult, not just because I was changing the angle of her head, but due to the grainy and flat quality of most photos of the Sacred Tilma. Finally, I wanted to respect the association of the Mexican people with Our Lady of Guadalupe. While I always want to acknowledge the chosen, Jewish race, and present Our Lady as mother of all people, I certainly wanted to respect the special connection which Mexicans have to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Lucky for me, Our Lady's dark eyes and fair but olive-hued skin tones seem to cover the bases.
The process of painting an interior concept is one of trial and error. With the human face slight changes make big differences, so zeroing in on the right likeness, with the right expression of subtle emotions is a process requiring dozens of layers, patience, and time. It seemed finished at several points, and weeks would go by, as I worked on other areas. Gradually I would become aware of a slight detail in the eye or cheek, nose, or forehead, or hair... which needed a tiny adjustment. Why it takes so long to see some of the needed changes I have no idea. The process continues until it stops. There's no way of guessing how long it will take.
Patience - artists don't pray for it. They pray for everybody else to have it.
The pearl choker was initially conceived for visual reasons. I desired the similarity with the Sacred Tilma and needed compositional lines across the neck. "Pearls" immediately came to mind, but I didn't realize their full (very full!) symbolism until much later. My first thoughts were of the "pearl of great price," which symbolizes the faith and which has also been associated with Mary. Secondly, Our Lady of Guadalupe is an image of the Queen of Heaven. It is not an Earthy vision of the poor, humble state of Mary's former life. It is a glorified vision of her clothed with the sun and stars. She is Mother and Queen. So, as a crown seemed a bit contrived, I thought jewels, pearls, would be a better fit for suggesting her royalty.
As I painted them, the tear shape (visible on the Sacred Tilma), evolved to be a central teardrop pearl which contains a subtle Miraculous Medal image. The history of the Miraculous Medal is relatively recent and meshes perfectly with Our Lady of Guadalupe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miraculous_Medal
I believe that tying these things together emphasizes the person behind them, Our Lady, as well as their universality and current relevance. Our Lady of Guadalupe speaks not just to 14th century Aztecs, but to all humanity. Indeed, the more time passes, the more relevant her message becomes.
As it turns out, pearls have abundant meaning. Most significant are "tears", or sorrows, and "virginity." Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows and Our Lady of Tears are two relatively recent and relevant devotions.
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows: https://fatima.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/bt020_the_devotion_of_the_seven_sorrows_of_the_blessed_virgin_mary.pdf
Our Lady of Tears: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/o/our-lady-of-tears.php
As "tears", pearls represent the sorrows of Mary as well as the prayerful petitions and sacrificial acts of love of her children. Again, a primary message of Our Lady is the request to bring concerns and worries to her. Pearls are also associated with virginity, with youthful beauty, even eternal beauty - as a resurrected body might appear. These all apply to Our Lady, of course, being the epitome of their model, and the circular strings of pearls further alluding to their perpetual condition. The most interesting source I found for these associations is the book Medieval Maidens, by Kim M. Phillips. The book discusses a Middle English poem, Pearl. It conjures wonderful parallels which cannot all be listed here but which, applied to the image of Our Lady, add richness. One is the tension between her youthful beauty, at the age of marital availability; her consecrated and perpetual virginity, symbolized in the choker of pure, white, pearls encircling her neck; and her "fiat" of surrender and gift-of-self to the Father's will. It's all there - the model of how someone with much to give can give everything, unreservedly, to the Lord; and by extension, through Him, to all humanity.
The Flames of the Two Hearts and Mantle
The Sacred Heart of Jesus and The Immaculate Heart of Mary are now universally recognized "logos", for Jesus and Mary. The miraculous medal, the Messages of Fatima, St. Margaret mary Alacoque, the Alliance of the Two Hearts - these are just the start of a list of devotions and saints that come to mind which have promoted devotion to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
A note on the floral pattern of Our Lady of Guadalupe's dress: It identified to the Aztecs who this woman and her child were. The four-petaled geometry of the flower over the woman's womb indicated her child was the "one true God". It also indicated the end of an era. An interesting and thorough discussion of it's meaning can be found here: http://www.secretsoftheimage.org/en/secret/4petalflower.html
It seemed fitting to incorporate the Two Hearts into this dress pattern in my painting as a modern, universal identification of Jesus and Mary which then includes the full history of devotions to the Hearts. In this image their meaning seems potently expressed, connecting several great mysteries which share the same meaning.
In Mary's mantle, or cape, I saw an opportunity to give the image a visual dynamic, while also maintaining the identity of Our Lady of Guadalupe. After all, it remains a cape whether it is flowing or hanging. As I painted the images of the flaming hearts in the dress pattern, the idea came to use similar flame shapes in the cape. Flames allow great flexibility and are so visually appealing. I was immediately drawn to them but even more so when the meaning became clear.
The meaning is Unity. The flames which unite the Two Hearts and cover Mary's mantle are the Holy Spirit, the unifying love of God, the fire of love with which He desires to "set the world ablaze." (Amen, I love that imagery!) This third person of the Trinity is the self-giving, unconditional Love of God, poured out by the Father and the Son to each other. It is the same unifying love of Christ on the cross, of the sacrament of Marriage, and of Mary as Mother of God. This Spirit of Love "overshadows" Mary. - "The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." - NIV The flaming mantle, or Holy Spirit, is the power of the Most High who makes possible the virgin conception of God in the womb of Our Lady. She is, as her children will also be, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, the Christ bearer, like a torch, carrying the flame of His love to set hearts on fire.
The Color of Mary's Mantle
In deciding the color for the mantle, I initially was drawn to greener hues, but blue wouldn't leave me alone. These were purely visual inclinations, as I tried to dismiss a more generic association of Mary with blue.
In the final discernment, considering all the images of the Tilma I had found, it was the combination of green and blue that seemed most beautiful and true. When I asked myself to name the color, it was "turquoise." Duh, right? I already knew the Aztecs used this stone extensively, as well as green jade. So the next question was, "What meanings did they attribute to these stones?"
Turquoise - It was the most important Aztec color and meant healing, powerful protection, strength in battle, life-giving water, tranquility, calendars, or time, comets, and precious things. It was associated with Gods and rulers.
Green jade - Also highly valued, it symbolized fertility, nature, the heart, and the spiritual world.
Could these colors possibly fit the meaning and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe any better? No wonder the Aztecs understood her message so well and the number of conversions was so great.
The 8 Pointed Stars on the Mantle
These stars on the original Sacred Tilma represent the Heavens, the calendar date, and the angels (as in the Book of Revelation). Eight pointed stars have long been associated with the Blessed Virgin, and her relationship to the Holy Trinity, in iconography.
I love Mary's feet in this painting. I love them visually, as they work so well in balancing and complementing the other elements of flesh tone. But I love how they further emphasize the aforementioned youthful beauty and innocence of Our Lady. They seem to reference the Garden of Eden, and call to mind Mary's scriptural identity as "Woman" - which includes being the "New Eve", mother to all the living; the one who "crushes the head of the serpent" (the meaning of "Guadalupe"); and, again, the Woman of Revelation. One associates bare feet with a carefree spirit and absence of worry; and it is with this total, trusting freedom that Mary faces the seven headed red dragon of Revelation, concerned only that her children find her protective cover.
Mary's feet and bended knee reveal that she is dancing. Aztecs recognized, in the original image of the Sacred Tilma, that Our Lady is dancing. To them dance was prayer, and her posture clearly communicated this. While we do not, in our time, associate dance with prayer, it does communicate joy and freedom from self-consciousness, particularly when we think of a young mother dancing barefoot with her children. I cannot, in fact, imagine any image which communicates freedom and joy better.
Finally, the "nakedness" of her feet alludes to the sinlessness of Adam and Eve before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. They were naked but did not know. Consider that in Heaven there will be no human marriage, only spiritual union with God. Contrary to our conceptions of propriety concerning modesty and dress, the most appropriate clothing for the Immaculate Conception and her Divine Son, the New Eve and New Adam, would actually seem to be none at all. Recall that Jesus came into the world as a normal baby and went out on the Cross naked; and that, as His body resurrected from the dead, it "beamed" right through the burial shroud, leaving it in place. It seems logical to speculate that the clothing of Jesus and Mary seen in visions or apparitions is primarily, if not totally, for the temporary consideration of humanity's fallen, sinful nature, and fragile sensibilities. We'll all stand naked before God.
Crown of Twelve Stars
Revelation mentions, in describing the Woman, a "crown of twelve stars". Because this crown is not evident in the image on the Sacred Tilma, it seemed forced to paint an obvious crown. I did, however, put a very subtle ring of silver stars encircling Our Lady's head.
Roses are not pictured in the miraculous image of OLG, but they are an important part of the story of St. Juan Diego and the miracle of how the image was revealed. I originally did not intend to include them, but after thinking the painting was done for several weeks, I then imagined the bright magenta, orange, and red colors providing a counterpoint to the limited color range of the painting. Roses came to mind, and when I searched the specific type of rose which Our Lady provided for Juan Diego and arranged in his Tilma, these were the colors I saw. The placement of the roses is compositional, balancing the subtle pinks in Our Ladies cheeks and lips. They served to create a greater overall sense of depth ,pushing the rest of the image back, and they also added to the sense of motion, appearing to be blowing or falling.
The Red Dragon
The seven-headed red dragon of Revelation is represented in my painting in a visual style alluding to contemporary street art and Aztec designs. It is a flat graphic, in contrast to the realism and visual depth of the figure and other elements. This lack of dimension and realism symbolizes the illusory power of evil in contrast to the true power of God's love. It represents temporary deceptions and fearful appearances. There are seven animal-like faces in the pattern. Just look for circles, or "eyes." Note that the same eye might be shared by two faces from different perspectives.
The background of the painting was created with silver leaf, which was scored, and glazed with layers of color and pattern. The geometry of yellow triangles is a unifying visual field and represents the universal presence of the Holy Trinity. The rays, similar to those in the Sacred Tilma, represent the sun and the Divine Light of God.
This covers the meaning and description of the painting's major visual elements. I hope to follow with a description of the spiritual side of sacred art and the spiritual process which coincided with creating the piece.