Author: ks. Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The origins and existence of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe are shrouded in a great mystery. Given the years of scientific study devoted to the Image, it should now be clear to any person with an open mind that it is the handiwork of God Himself.
Not made by the hand of man
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is imprinted on a native mantle (tilma) woven from agave cactus (ayate) fibers. The tilma served several purposes: it was used as a cloak and at night as a bedspread or hammock for children. Fabrics made from agave fibers were also used in the manufacture of sacks and bags.
Fabric such as this undergoes total disintegration within twenty years. The material is like burlap; nothing can be painted on it. And yet in the case of the Image, the fabric weave imparts depth to the portrait. Its colors shimmer as on a bird’s feather or insect’s wing. After five centuries of existence the Image shows no sign of fading or cracking; and yet the textile should have fallen to pieces and decayed long ago. These facts testify to an astonishing miracle.
To clear up any doubts, scientific studies were conducted in 1976 to identify the fiber from which the material of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was made. The studies determined that it came from the agave cactus popotule zacc. A textile woven from such fibers falls apart and decays in twenty years. This is an inconceivable wonder: Mary left for posterity her image on the most impermanent of existing materials — a material used among other things for making potato sacks. Yet this material has endured for five centuries and despite the laws of nature resists the process of decay.
It should be borne in mind that since its appearance in 1531 the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been exposed to the destructive action of a killing climate: moist, salt-saturated air and the pollution emitted by hundreds of thousands of chimneys and automobiles of the twenty-million-strong metropolis which is Mexico City. Throughout the 480 years of its uninterrupted veneration, the Image has been exposed to the action of countless votive candles, which give off particles of black soot and infrared rays causing blues and other colors to fade and lose their luster. Yet despite the action of so many harmful agents, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe preserves its vivid colors as if they had only just been applied; moreover, for some inexplicable reason, the material bearing the image repels dust, insects, bacteria and mold.
In 1936, Dr. Richard Kuhn, Nobel Prize laureate in the field of chemistry, discovered that the dyes used to produce the portrait were unknown to science, being neither of animal nor plant nor mineral origin. How then did the Image of Our Lady come to exist? Microscopic studies indicate that the Guadalupe image bears no trace of brush strokes. Again we are faced with a fact that science is unable to explain. A detailed study conducted in 1963 by Kodak company experts confirms our belief that we are dealing with neither a human painting nor a form of photograph. Experts confirmed that the image bore no trace of paint, primer, under-sketch, or varnish.
In 1979, two leading American scientists of the University of Florida, S. Callahan and J.B. Smith, studied the Image using infrared photography, the standard method for examining valuable paintings. This technique is used before undertaking any restoration work on a painting, since infrared photographs are able to reveal any under-sketching of the image executed prior to the application of the paint. It enables the conservator to determine the kind of primer applied under the painting, the composition methods used, any modifications made to the image, as well any possible subsequent retouchings.
The scientists determined that the pink pigment on the image did not block infrared rays — an inexplicable fact, since the color pink is normally impervious to infrared rays. Moreover, they discovered that the coloration of Our Lady’s image could not have been achieved by any known painting technique. It has qualities found only in nature, in birds and insects. Infrared irradiation also indicated the absence of any under-sketching or priming of the fabric — indispensable procedures for painting on any kind of canvas. Neither was there any varnish covering the image. We know of no painting technique capable of producing such effects. There is no rational explanation for the Image’s enduring freshness and intensity of color despite the lapse of almost five centuries since its appearance in 1531.
Here we should recall two astounding facts. In 1791, a Basilica worker accidentally spilled nitric acid over the Image. This highly corrosive acid very quickly breaks down cellulose. The fact is that the fabric suffered no damage at all and the Image bears not the slightest trace of this accident. That God had placed this picture under His special protection is the only possible explanation for this remarkable fact.
In 1921, during the bloody persecutions of the Catholic Church by the atheist Masonic regime, agents planted a powerful bomb in front of Our Lady’s image. The explosion destroyed the altar and stained glass windows and bent a metal crucifix on the altar, yet it did not so much as scratch the miraculous Image. There have been numerous other attempts to destroy this miraculous Portrait, yet none have been successful. The Image stands miraculously protected against the irrational aggressions of people enslaved by the powers of darkness.
Unable to be copied
Miguel Cabrera, Mexico’s greatest painter and founder in 1753 of the country’s first painting academy, was commissioned to paint a copy of the Madonna of Guadalupe for Pope Benedict XIV. So as better to acquaint himself with the canvas, coloration, and execution technique, he was allowed direct, unlimited access to the Image.
Along with seven other painters working with him, he declared that it was impossible to produce a copy of this miraculous picture. All he could do was paint a portrait of it. After completing the task, Cabrera recorded his observations. He stated that while studying Our Lady’s image he discovered a great number of marvels. The first of these was the Image’s durability. The fabric on which the Image was painted was made up of two equally-sized parts sewn together by a thin cotton thread, which, bearing their weight in such a damp and salty climate, ought to have disintegrated in short order; and yet this had not happened. Again, an astounding fact.
Cabrera stated that the Image had no primer (the first stage of painter’s work) and that in the eyes of any connoisseur of art the Portrait represented a stunning masterpiece. The Image constituted “a hitherto unknown manner of painting that could only have come from a heavenly brush, for the image combines not only all that is best in painting, but also four kinds of artistic technique: oil, aquarelle, and two kinds of tempera painting. Each of these requires a different primer, yet this image has none….The work transcends anything that has ever been created by the greatest of artists.”
The mystery of the eyes
Photography has played an important role in the study of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1928, Manuel Ramos took the first high-quality photographs of the Image. When, in 1929, an eye doctor examined them under a lens and looked closely at the magnified eyes, he suddenly cried out in surprise, dropping the lens, for he saw reflected in Mary’s eyes several human figures. It became clear to him that these were “living eyes,” which no human hand could have painted.
The photographer and graphic artist, Jose Carlos Salinas Chavez, confirmed this finding in 1951. Only then did the Archbishop of Mexico City call a special commission of scientists to examine the phenomenon. After four years of study, in 1955, the commission published its findings, stating that Mary’s eyes seemed alive and to be of supernatural origin. Visible in the pupils of Our Lady’s eyes was the figure of a man who was probably the Aztec native Juan Diego, for the latter’s face on a portrait made during the time of the apparitions strongly resembled that reflected in Mary’s right eye.
Another examination of Mary’s eyes made in 1956 by ophthalmologists Dr. J. Toroella-Buena and Dr. R. Torija Lavoignet led to the discovery that there were human figures visible on the cornea of both of the Madonna’s eyes. The investigation was carried out with the aid of an ophthalmoscope. In publishing their results, Dr. Lavoignet stated: “The figure of a human being is visible on the cornea of both eyes. The distortion and collocation of the optical image are identical with what obtains in the human eye. When the ophthalmoscopic light is directed to the pupil of the human eye, one sees a luminous reflection giving the impression of a concave sculpture. When lighting the pupil of the eye of the Image of the Virgin, the same luminous reflection appears. It is impossible to obtain this on a simple surface, still more so on an opaque one like that of the painting in question. I proceeded to examine the eyes of other paintings, and of photographs as well, but found no reflections in any of them. The eyes of the Image of the Virgin seem strangely alive.”
The results of these studies were subsequently corroborated in the 1960s and 70s by other medical scientists. Dr. Bruno Bonnet-Eymard stated: “Everything points to the fact that at the moment the Image came into existence, the man who was facing the Blessed Virgin and reflected on the surface of the cornea of her eye was indirectly photographed.” Further scientific studies revealed that the images in Mary’s eyes appeared not once but in three different places. This threefold reflection is caused by the curvature of the eye’s cornea. Two of the reflections were right side up and one was upside down. This is the so-called Purkinje-Sanson effect, which occurs only in living eyes.
On examining a photograph of the Image magnified twenty-five times, American optometrist Dr. Charles Wahlig and a team of specialists from a variety of fields discovered two new faces reflected in the Madonna’s eyes. They were able to identify one of them, for it bore a strong resemblance to that of Juan Gonzales (Bishop Zumarraga’s interpreter), whose portrait dating from 1533 had been found two years earlier.
In 1979, the newest digital techniques were applied for the first time in investigating the Guadalupe image. Scientists were able to avail themselves of equipment used by NASA in taking satellite pictures, which could be enlarged 2500 times. No trace of any paints was found; and yet the colors appeared extraordinarily alive, fresh, and luminous — an insoluble riddle for science. An exhaustive analysis of the 2500-times enlarged microscopic fragments of the pupils and irises enabled the researchers to recognize Juan Diego’s meeting with the Bishop, when the miraculous impress of Mary’s image appeared on the Aztec native’s tilma. Visible was a group of people that included Bishop Zumarraga, his interpreter Gonzales, Juan Diego with his open cloak, a seated native, a number of natives with a child, a woman, a bearded Spaniard, and a dark-skinned girl. Interestingly enough, Bishop Zumarraga’s testament has recently been found in the archives of Seville. The document mentions a dark-skinned slave-girl named Maria, whom the Bishop had restored to freedom. In all, thirteen persons were reflected in the Madonna’s eyes. This is the moment about which we read in Nican Mopohua — the first historical account of the event: “And he unfurled his white cloak in which flowers were wrapped….When the Bishop and the rest of the assembled party saw this miracle, they fell on their knees in wonder. Then they rose to their feet to examine the cloak.”
Consider here Jose Aste Tönsmann's reply to the doubts expressed by the German journalist Paul Badde: “If there existed only one such ‘photograph,’ I would say you had a case. But here we have two such snapshots in both eyes. What’s more, the ‘photographs’ are not identical, but their refraction and proportions match perfectly just as happens now in your own eyes, in which there are two distinct but perfectly matching ‘takes’ of the same scene. In the same way, registered in the eyes of Mary of Guadalupe are two ‘photographs’ taken from two different angles — perfectly matching the vector along which the image seen by the same pair of eyes moves. It is in this that the evidential power of these images consists. One might be a mere accident or the result of a biased interpretation. But right reason rejects such a possibility in the case of two images. In this case the conformities and distortions resulting from the curvature of the cornea of the eye are too complex….No one could possibly sketch such a thing. Who would undertake it? And why?”
One of the greatest miracles
In the ten-year period between the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521 and the apparitions on Tepeyac Mountain, Christian missionaries managed to convert but a small number of Aztec natives. By contrast, after Our Lady’s apparitions in 1531, there took place, in a matter of a few short years, the greatest mass conversion in human history. Thanks to the Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparitions and her miraculous image, the native population, which had hitherto been largely hostile to the religion, culture, and presence of the Spanish conquistadors, received baptism and became earnestly practicing Catholics — some nine million of them over a period of seven years. Historical documents record that from dawn to dusk missionaries baptized and administered the sacrament of matrimony to endless lines of waiting natives. The Franciscan missionary, Fr. Torbio de Benavento, records that at the convent of Quecholac he and a fellow priest baptized 14,200 Indians in the course of five days. The same took place at all the mission centers. Every day thousands of natives waited to receive the sacraments. Our Blessed Mother’s apparitions and the message contained in her miraculous image so captivated the native population that it converted spontaneously, accepting the message of the Gospel and the sacrament of baptism, and thus became members of a single community — that of the Catholic Church. A great miracle followed. Hatred and mutual hostility between the Aztecs and Spaniards died out. Two nations, so diverse culturally, racially, and religiously, joined to form one Mexican nation. Racism and nationalism were utterly eradicated. All became children of Mary, the Mother of the one true God, Jesus Christ, who became a real man for our salvation. The Christianization of the Aztecs and the transformation and strengthening of faith of the Spanish conquistadors were accomplished profoundly and with lightning speed. This was without doubt one of the greatest miracles and greatest events in human history.
A decisive role
Mary’s apparitions and the miraculous image she imprinted on the tilma of the Aztec native Juan Diego played a decisive role in the conversion of the Aztec people. With all its rich symbolism, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a translation into the Aztec tongue of the message of the Holy Scriptures. It is a matter of historical record that the Aztecs used to practice unspeakable religious rites. They paid homage to over 200 gods and 1600 lesser ones, the most important being the Sun God, whose light in the miraculous image of Guadalupe is eclipsed by Mary herself. The Aztecs were known to sacrifice over 20,000 human beings in the course of one week. For this reason they waged constant wars on their neighbors, so as to sacrifice their captives by ripping out their beating hearts. These bloody sacrifices were offered up to the Sun God to ensure his diurnal rising. In her Image, Mary eclipses the sun — a sign that he is not a god to be worshipped and offered human sacrifices. The flowers adorning her dress signify that the created world is her garment; her star-studded veil signifies that her covering is the entire cosmos. Mary is not a goddess, for her hands are joined in prayer. She is the Mother of the Son of God, whom she bears in her womb.
The Image of Mary is like a living monstrance. By her attitude and gaze she directs us to the Divine Son, whom she carries in her womb. In the very center of the Image is a quatrefoil representing the jasmine flower, which to the Aztecs symbolized the sun. This was a clear sign to the people that the Holy Virgin bore in her womb the true God, Who became true man, so as to free us from slavery to Satan, Sin, and death. Seen under a magnifying glass, the center of the jasmine flower reveals the face of the Infant Child. The stars spangling Mary’s veil correspond to the constellation over Mexico on December 12. 1531, but seen from the cosmic — not terrestrial — perspective. Thus the Image records the date of the Virgin’s appearance.
In the Aztec tongue, Mary is called nahuatl Coatlaxopeu, which means Serpent-Crusher; that is, Destroyer of Satan, who is man’s greatest adversary. The Demon — Satan — is a fallen angel, who through the sin of absolute pride became “like a cosmic ‘liar’” — the “father of lies” (Jn 8: 44). He lives in radical negation of God and strives to impose on mankind his own tragic “falsification of the Good,” which is God Himself (John Paul II, Homily, August 13, 1986). Thus, with all their being, Satan and the other evil spirits despise God and wish to infect man with this hatred so as to set him on the path to hell — the state of absolute selfishness. Satan makes use of all his great intelligence to lead man to the height of hatred, absolute pride, despair and ultimate doubt. Our one recourse in the face of this appalling reality of the powers of darkness is total entrustment through Mary to Christ, who by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection decisively freed all people from enslavement to Satan, sin, and death.
Fr. Mieczysław Piotrowski, SChr
The above article was published with permission from "Love One Another!" in August 2016.