This day of December 12 heralds in the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a distinct time marker and life affirmer for years now in my life, and so on this particular day when snow has stilled much activity in the small Vermont town where I now live — with happy children afoot and home on a snow day — I embrace the opportunity to pause and quietly celebrate this gift of image and life.
For myself as an artist, a mother, and an iconographer, I feel it is especially important to pay special homage to Mary on this day.
Here in the fullness of Advent, we have a perfect opportunity to reflect on Mary as the ultimate image-bearer in this miraculous self-portrait image given through Our Lady of Guadalupe, herself pregnant and poised with the growing infant child Jesus in her womb. The iconographic significance is most profound with the reality of the incarnation as she is, eventually, revealed as the Immaculate Conception.
Speaking into our lives as a powerful sign post to meditate on, the story of how Our Lady spoke to native Tepeyac Indian Juan Diego (now the first indigenous saint from the Americas) in December of 1521 is one to make sure to read: how she appeared on a hillside outside of Mexico City to this humble peasant man, and how she ultimately proved herself to the world when Juan Diego, as proof of the apparition to the doubting local Bishop, presented his cactus-cloth tilma filled with roses, which fell to the floor and revealed the beautiful image of Our Lady — both pure poetry and creative grandeur, and what ultimately pointed a whole country towards conversion.
The story continues to exist as a miraculous testament to the power of holy images, speaking into our souls and gracing us with understanding that supersedes both spoken or written language. We could say that this gesture of image goes beyond teaching and allows us to enter into the way of virtue and transformation, witnessed in total simplicity (and yet utter complexity as scientific explanations fall short) by Mary being clothed in iridescent color and light and harmonious lines that dance around her miraculous image.
Icons made “without human hands” (called Arceiropoieta in medieval Greek), as this type demonstrates, are said to have manifested miraculously and were not of human creation. They are unusual, rare, beautiful, and important parts of our Christian history and heritage. We have the Shroud of Turin, the Veil of Veronica, the Manoppello image, and this of Our Lady of Guadalupe which we know happened to directly contribute to over nine million conversions within just twenty years of the apparition. The Eastern Orthodox Church has others such as the Mandylion (the image of Edessa) and the Hodegetria (although they can be attributed to human painters, created during the time that Christ and Mary were alive). I find that this tangible image of Guadalupe stands apart as a unique creative sign of love and purpose, a true icon.
She is the compass to my creative practice.
With the lineage of iconographers and iconographic teaching primarily coming from the Eastern Church, we need more Catholic artist iconographers to depict the potent images of our Western Church orientation. There are myriads of saints, many of which have not yet been illumined through the practice of iconography.
I hope we can pause and pray today that others will pick up the brush and deepen faith through both miracle and icon. It is also a time to remember the unborn, the lost, and the forgotten, and to contemplate the perfect beauty that Mary radiates to us, her children.
Here is a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe that his Holiness John Paul II made during his first foreign trip as Pope to Mexico to the Basilica there (January 1979):
O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church!, who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection, hear the prayer that we address to you with filial trust, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer.
Mother of Mercy, Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice, to you, who come to meet us sinners, we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love. We also dedicate to you our life, our work, our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows. Grant peace, justice and prosperity to our peoples; for we entrust to your care all that we have and all that we are, our Lady and Mother. We wish to be entirely yours and to walk with you along the way of complete faithfulness to Jesus Christ in His Church; hold us always with your loving hand.
Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the Bishops, that they may lead the faithful along paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate this immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole people of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious, strong in the faith and zealous dispensers of God’s mysteries.
Grant to our homes the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginnings, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God. Blessed Virgin Mary, protect our families, so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children.
Our hope, look upon us with compassion, teach us to go continually to Jesus and, if we fall, help us to rise again, to return to Him, by means of the confession of our faults and sins in the Sacrament of Penance, which gives peace to the soul.
We beg you to grant us a great love for all the holy Sacraments, which are, as it were, the signs that your Son left us on earth.
Thus, Most Holy Mother, with the peace of God in our conscience, with our hearts free from evil and hatred, we will be able to bring to all true joy and true peace, which come to us from your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.
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After several years of taking a pause from pursuing a true-to-size icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I am dedicating this next year towards completing the project in my studio. There is significance in the timing, and I look forward to sharing the process along its journey, in part within the Pontifex course in Beginning Iconography that will be available in early 2017.
May our hearts be lifted and supported on the wings of blessing and remembrance this day.
(Words of Our Lady to Juan Diego)