Saturday, November 14, 2015

Communicating and Receiving Marian Devotion in the New World

            In class, we discussed whether we should look at the Guadalupe stories and Nahuatl Marian tradition as New World Mary or Mary in the New World. Instead of distinguishing between two different “Marys,” I suggest that we should look at this tradition as Marian devotion through the physical and preexisting religious circumstances of the New World. A close reading of Juan Diego’s encounter with the Virgin at Tepeyac in 1531 and comparison with stories of Late Medieval Spain first show that the Marian tradition did indeed blend with the context of the New World. By then consulting the Nahualt homilies surrounding the Virgin, we see that the monks and priests of the New World communicated Marian devotion in a New World context and that indigenous people understood Mary through their preexisting beliefs—helping explain the blending of European Mary with her New World setting.

            I focus on who Mary appears to, Mary’s physical description, and the task Mary gives to her servant to understand the commonalities of the New World Marian vision of Juan Diego to those of Spain. In the Mexican myth, Mary appears before the Indian Juan Diego who is “a poor man of the people” (The Nican Mophua 172). Similarly, Mary also chooses to appear to poor, everyday people in Spain (as opposed to her previous habit of visiting nuns and monks). Mary appears to Pedro and Juan (two shepherd boys in Gadea), to Juan and Pedro (residents of Jaen), to Maria Sanchez and Juana Fernandez (wives of shepherds in Jaen), and to Ines (the simple and poor girl from Cubas) (Christian 28, 41-41, 46, 48, 59). In both Mexico and Spain, Mary appears to lowly and common people.
            Juan Diego’s description of Mary is incredibly similar to the Mary portrayed in the Spanish stories. Juan Diego describes Mary’s clothing as “shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light” (NM 173). Earlier, Juan Diego further connects Mary to sun imagery, placing her on the hill in the direction “from which the sun rises” (NM 172). The Spanish stories also show this strong emphasis on Mary and light, particularly the sun: “[Mary] shone brighter than the sun” (Pedro of Santa Gadea), “she [Mary] shone as the sun shines at its zenith on a clear day” (Juan of Jaen), “brilliance went out from her [Mary’s] face that it shone brighter than the sun” (Pedro of Jaen), “her [Mary’s] face was shining” (Ines of Cubas) (Christian 28, 42, 44, 67). These common descriptions of Mary suggest that the Spanish Marian tradition probably influenced the Mexican Marian tradition as seen in Juan Diego’s story.
            The tasks that Mary gives to her servants also draw parallels between the Mexican and Spanish Marian traditions. In Tepeyac, Mary tells Juan Diego to go to the Bishop of Mexico and tell him to build her a house, a “temple” (NM 175). Mary similarly commands her servants to seek out church officials to build her a “church and [] monastery” in Santa Gadea and a “church [] called Saint Mary” in Cubas (31, 63). In Tepeyac, Santa Gadea, and Cubas, Mary calls upon her lowly servants to communicate her desire for a space of worship to church officials.
            While emphasizing these similarities, we should not forget the local particularities of Juan Diego’s story. Descriptions of local place and local things connect Juan Diego’s story to its place in Mexico. Juan Diego uses the coyoltototl and tzinitzcan birds to describe the singing that drew him to Mary’s spot on the hill (NM 172). Similarly, the description of the hill where Mary comes down to Juan Diego includes local plants like “mesquites” and “prickly pear” (173). Most importantly, when describing the hill that may be the “land of heaven,” Juan Diego describes the “place of [his] ancestors, [his] grandparents” that is the “land of the flowers, in the land of corn, of our flesh, of our sustenance” (172). Here Juan Diego seemingly mixes what might be considered aspects of Aztec religion (with reference to the place of his ancestors) with a Christian notion of heaven (the place Mary is located in the story). By using indigenous imagery to describe the setting for Mary’s appearing to Juan Diego, Juan Diego connects Mary to a New World physical and religious setting.
            By first tracing the similarities of Juan Diego’s story with those of Castile and then looking at the particular context of Juan Diego’s Marian vision, we have seen that the New World Mary was not completely distinct from the Mary seen in Castile. At the same time, Juan Diego’s Mexican Mary was not completely Spanish. How do we explain this adaptation of Mary to her new environment in Mexico? I suggest that we can understand the New World Marian tradition as the Old World Marian tradition through the physical and preexisting religious experiences of the New World.
This thought makes intuitive sense. Catholic priests would be preaching to an indigenous audience who was familiar with a very different, polytheistic Aztec religious tradition. By relating Mary in a way that indigenous people could understand, priests may have helped create a Mary who had roots in a European tradition and local particularities. Moreover, the priests’ audience may have interpreted the Catholic message through their preexisting views. By looking at parts of Nahuatl homilies that clarified what Mary and Mary’s mother did not represent, we can see the potential for mixing of Spanish Mary with pre-existing views in the New World.
The Protoevangelium of James seems to have spread to Mexico as Fray Juan de la Annunciation speaks about the importance of Mary’s mother, Anne, in his sermon about the Festival of Saint Anne (Burkhart 12-13). He tells the story of how Anne could not get pregnant until God’s messenger comes. In addition to this theological usage, this story was also used to steer indigenous people away from the “healers” who “place children for people” (14). The editor contextualizes this statement by explaining that the use of fertility healers was common in Mexico at the time. Thereby, Fray Juan mixes Old World Marian devotion with New World circumstances.
            The perception of Mary as a divine “mother goddess” also shows the mixing of Old World Mary with her New World context. Burkhart explains that some indigenous people conceived of Mary as a “mother goddess” to accompany the creator God in a tradition male-female ruling pair (11). This thinking of Mary as a goddess seemed to worry Mexican priests. The Doctrina, evangelios y epistolas en nahuatl text makes clear that Mary is not a God. The text retells the story of St. Paul telling Saint Dionysius that “she [Saint Mary] was not a divinity” (103). This point is underscored later when Mary’s death is used as proof of her being a woman (and therefore not God) (104). This connection and confusion about Mary with divinity illustrates how Marian tradition may have been explained and interpreted through preexisting religious beliefs. (I emphasize the mother aspect of the New World Marian tradition less because of its connections to Old World Mary. Conrad of Saxony and Walter of Wimborne both use extensive mother language in their writings about Mary.)
            By working through aspects of Juan Diego’s encounter with Mary, characteristics, of Castilian Mary, and the descriptions of Mary in Nahuatl sermons, this post argued that New World Mary should by seen as Old World Mary through the physical and preexisting religious context of the the New World. Instead of a complete remaking of Mary, New World Mary resembles Old World Mary in her choice of servant, connection to sun imagery, and desired service. However, New World Marian tradition also changes to include the New World physical context and indigenous religious beliefs. In this way, the debate over Mary in the New World or New World Mary becomes clarified if we view Old World Mary through a New World perspective.    



  1. Although you propose to look at "Marian devotion through the physical and preexisting religious circumstances of the New World" rather than assess Mary as New World Mary vs. Mary in the New World, it sounds like your argument that Old World Mary is mixed into a New World Context could support the claim that the Guadalupan and Nahuatl Mary is that of the Old in the New World. Another piece of the physical and religious context through which we read about this New Mary is the one of using the same Marian imagery from the Old World, yet having a unique contextual incentive for retaining such imagery. For example, the emphasis of the garden and natural imagery was used by the Guadelupan church to “accommodate agriculturalists” (13, Burkhart) and a scholar of the time noted that “people who worshipped the earth really intended to worship Mary who, like the earth bearing its fruit, bore Jesus (15). Similarly, they used the notion of Mary as the pinnacle of piety and faith in God as a way to renounce the cultural dependency on witch doctors. Burkhart notes that the use of Mary’s conception was “to warn infertile people away from the native healers… In noting that Anne chose not to have recourse to such practitioners, Anunciacion sets her up as a moral example for Nahua women (15). Although Mary and her representation as flowers and gardens are uniform throughout different cultures and Marian traditions, and her conception story is retained (as opposed to the Reformation’s renouncing of the Protovangelium and other Marian-focused texts), unique incentives exist that emphasize common images of Mary, but serve purposes specific to the context of each distinct culture.


  2. I like the idea of what you set out to do here, but ultimately worry that without more information on what the pre-extant context of Juan Diego, etc. it's impossible to truly draw out what is and is not a result of that context. This is especially true when we recognize that many of the "folk" beliefs that we might single out as part of the unique landscape of the New World may well have been present in some form in the Old as well, Europe too had "healers" who would aid pregnant women. Still, however, this sort of close read of the homilies is an extremely interesting and valuable project, just one we should be especially sensitive to the difficulties of going in.

  3. I would reiterate much of what dyingst says: you are on exactly the right track in paying careful attention to the details in the stories and sermons, and I think there is strong support for your argument that the priests are adapting their depictions of Mary to the local setting (particularly in the use of local birds and plants). But (and this is what I was trying to demonstrate in our discussion in class) once we get beyond the mention of such specifics, we are in very perilous waters indeed when it comes to making arguments about *what* local traditions the preachers were adapting. This is a problem even when we are looking at the European, Old World context, for many of the things that we now think about as "folk" religion actually have utterly orthodox (aka scriptural) roots which have simply been forgotten, e.g. the propensity to see Mary in trees. Couple this with the tendency since the Reformation to label Catholic devotion as "superstition," and we may never get out of the woods! RLFB

  4. New World Mary definitely resembles her Old World counterpart, but it seems difficult to establish exactly how much this is a function of Christianity being an Old World religion. You rightly point out that the New World accounts concerning both the Gospel/Apocryphal details of her life as well as descriptions of her New World apparitions take the material we've been familiarizing ourselves with all quarter and re-adapt the outward appearance (though not the essential content) to a new environment. The first time I read it, Juan Diego's apparition narrative struck me as so completely Byzantine - Mary's appearance on a jeweled hill, her faithful but unbelieved servant, a miraculous icon not made by human hands - except for the obvious feature of it taking place in Mexico and not Constantinople. I think we can see a number of similar trends in Marian adaptations throughout the historical expansion of Christianity: Mary taking the place of Athena and Achilles defending the walls of Constantinople, for example, as well as in less familiar situations like the statues of Maria Kannon in Japanese crypto-Christianity. In class we've mentioned several times the idea that Mary is so popular because she's more or less a convenient set of appealing archetypes, but the fact that these widely disparate cultures preserve the key aspects of Mary's essence in their depictions of her seems to suggest a unique appeal.

    F. S.

  5. One of the similarities you identify between New World Mary and the contemporary Spanish tradition that strikes me as particularly interesting is that of her selection of the poor and humble to be the bearers of her messages. We discussed a bit in class that the Spanish tradition marks a notable shift from the Marian visions and miracles of previous centuries, which occurred to devotees of all social classes but most often in our sources to monks and nuns. Yet in 15th century Spain, she appears primarily to poor lay people, including shepherds and children. And, as you point out, this change is carried over to the New World as well, to include Juan Diego at Guadeloupe. What stands out about this shift is that it occurs around the same time as a similar change we saw last class to the Protestant view of Mary, where Luther describes the Mother of God not as a temple virgin of a royal household but as a poor, humble servant in a relative’s household. The Spanish miracles were occurring throughout the 15th and late 14th centuries, Luther and Juan Diego were both engaging with Mary in the early-to-mid 16th. It’s interesting that these two very distinct traditions (Juan Diego and Martin Luther were living on opposite sides of the globe at the time) both made the very pointed switch to associating Mary with poverty at (roughly) similar time periods, and both without any obvious reason for the change in perspective. - GT