The backstory of Mexico’s big holiday this month

By Bob Schulman

Framed cloak bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Photo by Bob Schulman.This is the story of how an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, found in Spain over  700 years ago, is linked to one of the most important religious events in Mexico.

The tale goes back to Spain in the 1st century A.D., when St. Luke the Evangelist is said to have carved the statue. Legends say it wound up in the Andalusian capital of Seville, where it was kept in a cathedral until the city fell to the Moors in 712. To keep the precious statue out of the hands of the invaders, priests are said to have buried it near the Guadalupe River some 200 miles north of Seville.

Fast-forward to the early 1300s, and the statue is found by a local shepherd (a popular version of the story says the Virgin Mary told him where it was). Priests tagged the statue “Our Virgin of Guadalupe” and built a shrine around it, later to become the little monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It's still there, only today it's a sprawling monastery complex of a great church, cloisters, towers and museum surrounded by a town (not surprisingly named Guadalupe)  of 2,000 people.

The statue is still there, too, spotlighted in a sacred area of the monastery.

Jump ahead to 1521. Spain conquers Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary) becomes the country's patron saint – the name believed to trace back to the statue found at the Guadalupe River.

Entrance to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Photo by Mexico City Tourism Institute.Skip ahead once more, to Dec. 9, 1531, and to another legend – this time at  Tepeyac Hill north of Mexico City. Here, the Virgin of Guadalupe appears to a farmer named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. She asks him to build a shrine on the spot, a request he takes to the local bishop – who turns him down because he doesn't believe the story. So on Dec. 12, Juan Diego goes back up the hill to fetch some proof. Sure enough, the Virgin appears again. She gives him some flowers to wrap in his cloak to take back to the bishop.

This time the story works. When Juan Diego shows the flowers to the bishop, they fall out of the cloak, miraculously leaving an imprint of the Virgin Mary's image. The bishop OK's the building of the shrine as word of the holy cloak spreads around Mexico and the Catholic world.

The cloak is still there, today displayed in a many-times rebuilt and greatly enlarged shrine known as the “Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” It's hard to miss the latest version (built in 1976), thanks to its round shape (330 feet in diameter) and its seven entrances (a nod to the seven entrances to ancient Jerusalem).

Pilgrims flood the Basilica. Photo by Mexico City Tourism Institute.

The basilica is flooded by Catholic pilgrims throughout the year, perhaps as many as 20 million. It's particularly packed on Dec. 12, Mexico's national holiday honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day. Five million visitors typically show up for the annual celebration.

Historical notes: In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the papers approving Christopher Columbus' voyage in the Santa Maria de Guadalupe Monastery in Spain. Columbus named one of his three ships the Santa Maria, after the Guadalupe Virgin.

In 1990, Mexico's Juan Diego was beatified (officially blessed by the church) and in 2002 he was canonized (declared a saint) by Pope John Paul II.

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