The Saint That Never Was
“The saint that never was” may sound like the title of a cheap thriller of the forties, something from the pen of Leslie Charteris or G.K Chesterton. But it’s more like a modern-day melodrama. It’s the story of how the Catholic Church, just to test its strength, tried to show the world that it had the power to change reality by canonizing a man whom everyone in its inner circle knew never existed. I refer to Juan Diego, the Aztec Indian who supposedly witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Back in the sixteenth century, the very name “Juan Diego” meant something like “John Doe” in modern-day America: a man whose name and identity are not only unknown, but really don’t matter.
Over the centuries the church has launched several inquests into the reality of Juan Diego. It’s an important problem, given that the Virgin of Guadalupe—in whose form the Virgin Mary assumed the physiognomy of an American Indian woman—is so central to Catholic devotion throughout Latin America. In the nineteenth century, Bishop Labastida of Mexico City held an inquest headed by the historian Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta, a devout Catholic. Icazbalceta wrote a confidential report to the bishop that clearly disputed the existence of Juan Diego.
Real or not, Juan Diego was made a saint last July. In the wake of that event, clergyman Miguel Olimon—a historian of the Pontifical University of Mexico, a very prestigious official Catholic institution—launched another inquest. This inquiry, too, found clearly against the existence of Juan Diego. Olimon was censored and threatened by the apparitionist hierarchy. One bishop actually lamented in public that there was no more Inquisition to silence troublemakers like Olimon. But this historian decided to publish his work anyway. A Spanish publisher, Plaza & Janes, accepted the manuscript and published it this year under the title La Búsqueda de Juan Diego (The Search for Juan Diego).
Certainly Diego’s first appearances in the historical record do little to inspire confidence. As David Brading of Cambridge University points out, the image of the virgin was supposedly miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s cape in 1531, yet the first recorded reference to the image of the virgin dates from 1555 or 1556. Another priest-historian, Stafford Poole of Los Angeles, points out that Juan Diego himself doesn’t appear in any record until 1648, when Miguel Sanchez, a theological writer based in New Spain (later Mexico), mentioned him in his book The Apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
The following year, the Juan Diego story resurfaces in another book titled Nican Mopohua, written in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs by a criollo1 priest, Luis Lasso de la Vega. Nican Mopohua’s plot is simple, based on several more ancient legends including that of Moses on Mount Sinai. The book claims that, in 1531, just ten years after the Spaniards led by Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztec empire, a Christian Indian named Juan Diego walked up the hill of Tepeyac just north of Mexico City. On the hilltop the Virgin appeared to him and asked him to build a temple at that place. Juan Diego told Bishop Juan de Zumarraga what he had heard. The bishop demanded some kind of proof. After several encounters with the Virgin, Juan Diego was instructed by her to pick some wild roses and carry them in his cape so the bishop could see them. When Juan Diego returned to the bishop’s quarters in downtown Mexico City, he opened his cape and the roses fell to the ground. On the cloth had appeared the image of the Virgin, supposedly the same image now on exhibit at the Basilica of Guadalupe.
This story has several holes. First of all, Bishop Zumarraga wasn’t yet a bishop. He wasn’t consecrated until 1534. Second, up to his death in 1548 Zumarraga never mentioned anything concerning this matter. Finally, in a catechism he wrote the year before his death he clearly stated: “The Redeemer of the world doesn’t want any more miracles, because they are no longer necessary.” This bishop’s silence—more, his hostility toward latter-day miracles—is eloquent. No one would write about the supposed apparitions for more than a hundred years.
The cult of the virgin on the hill of Tepeyac starts around 1550. The first temple was built a couple of years later, under Zumarraga’s successor Alonso de Montufar. Bishop Montufar is known to have commissioned the now-sacred image from Marcos Cipac de Aquino, an Indian painter famous throughout the regions north of the city. The painter based his initial sketch on a previously existing image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, already revered as the patroness of Extremadura, a province of Spain.
As early as September 1556, Francisco de Bustamante, provincial head of Mexico’s Franciscans, read a memorable sermon in which he clearly dismissed the whole myth: “The devotion that has been growing in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, called of Guadalupe, in this city is greatly harmful for the natives, because it makes them believe that the image painted by Marcos the Indian is in any way miraculous.”
In 1569, Martin Enriquez de Almanza, fourth viceroy of Mexico, denounced the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a harmful imposture, indeed as disguised worship of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.
Olimon’s book also surveys the studies made upon the so-called miraculous cloth itself. In 1982, Guillermo Schulenburg, Abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, had the image examined by an expert art restorer. Jose Sol Rosales determined that the picture was executed using different variations of the technique now known as template painting. The pigments are a mixture of caccus cacti extract, calcium sulphate, and soot commonly used in the sixteenth century. (In 1996, Schulenburg would be forced to resign of after publicly stating that Juan Diego was a mythical figure.)
Those religious scholars, clergymen themselves, who have challenged the historicity of Juan Diego have been made the object of a veritable lynching in the media. There are few modern examples of so much hatred being vented from within the Church against those who differ from the prevailing “official truth.” The canonization of Juan Diego clearly paints the modern Roman Catholic Church in all its historic intolerance and irrationality. This comes as no surprise to many Mexicans who never really
Mario Mendez Acosta is head of the Mexican Association for Skeptical Research.
1. Criollo: one born in Mexico or another Spanish colony, both of whose parents were born in Spain.
ReferencesJoaquin Garcia Icazbalceta, “Juan Diego y las Apariciones del Tepeyac” (Mexico City: Publicaciones para el Estudio Cientifico de las Religiones, 2002), pp. 3–8.
Luis Alfonso Gamez, “Juan Diego. ¿El santo que nunca exist-ió?” Diario El Correo, July 27, 2002 (Bilbao, Spain).
Miguel Leon Portilla, Tonantzin-Guadalupe. Pensamiento Nahuatl y mensaje Cristiano (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000).
Manuel Olimon, La Búsqueda de Juan Diego (Mexico City: Plaza & Janes, 2002).