By Meg Waters     10/6/2016

Beginning Oct. 8, 2016 through Jan. 29, 2017, Orange County will be graced with the first and only exhibition presented in the United States focusing on images of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican Colonial art. Organized by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and curated exclusively for the Bowers by Lenice Rivera and Ivan Martinez, the exhibit takes a holistic view of the religious and social aspects related to the Virgin.

According to Emily Mahon, senior director of education for the Bowers Museum, “This is an extraordinarily significant exhibit for the museum and the Orange County community. Our Lady of Guadalupe has long been the patron of Mexico. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, built at the site where she appeared to Juan Diego in 1531, is the most significant religious site in the Americas. This exhibit brings many of the treasures relating to the Virgin from Mexico to one location giving visitors a sense of how the event has been portrayed in the heart of Mexican artists.”

The exhibit presents 60 works of art including paintings, sculpture, engravings, silver, textiles and other devotional objects from both private and public Mexican collections. The actual tilma carried by St. Juan Diego, which heralded the Virgin’s appearance, will not be on display, as it cannot be removed from the Basilica in Mexico City. In addition, the Diocese of Orange has loaned the exhibit an important 17th century painting that contains an actual relic of the tilma. The artworks have never been presented together, and most are traveling to the United States for the first time.

In December 1531, Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, saw an apparition of a “lady from heaven.” The lady identified herself as the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus the true God, through whom everything lives. She asked him to go to the Bishop and request that a temple be built in her honor on Tepeyac hill. She said that on that site she will demonstrate, all her love, compassion and protection as a merciful mother of all who live united in this land, and all of mankind. Quite naturally, the Bishop Zumarraga was skeptical; however, after a few attempts to persuade the Bishop, Diego had another apparition. This time the Virgin asked him to go to a usually barren hilltop, gather flowers and take them to the Bishop. As remarkable as it was to find roses blooming in December, when the humble man returned to the Bishop and opened his tilma, not only roses tumbled out, but also the image of the Virgin miraculously appeared on his rustic garment.

Word of the apparition and miraculous painting spread rapidly among the thousands of Aztecs leading to rapid conversion of the Aztecs and abandonment of their practice of human sacrifice. Since then, countless miracles have been attributed to the Virgin’s intercession. Over the centuries, 24 Popes have visited the site. In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV approved her patronage and granted her a proper feast and mass for December 12. Pope Pius X proclaimed her patroness of Latin America in 1910, and in 1935, Pius XI approved her patronage over the Philippines. She is also the patroness of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

The sacred image on the tilma has been woven into the cultural identity of not only Latin America, but of Catholics around the world. Revelations 12:1 describes the Virgin of Guadalupe as no other Marian representation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”. This biblical reference to Mary and her role in redemption of mankind is intriguing when her appearance in this form occurred, not in the Christian European continent but at the dawn of the European exploration of the New World.

Among the many treasures on display are a portrait of Juan Diego by Miguel Cabrera; a 17th century silver petitionary plate, a rare example of a votive offering (exvoto) and a two-sided “reliquary” which carries within it a relic of the tilma. An oil painting on copper board by Jose de Paez depicts the Virgin surrounded by depictions of her four apparitions.

Additionally, an important 17th century painting that will adorn the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the future Christ Cathedral on loan from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange will be displayed within the exhibit. This beautiful image, which is 6 feet by 4 feet, is believed be the work of Nicolás Rodríguez Juárez, painted late in the 17th century. Juárez was from a family of distinguished artists from New Spain, both his grandfather and father were established painters. Juárez studied the tilma of Juan Diego to create this piece, which includes an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe framed by vibrant flowers and butterflies. Each corner of the painting includes various scenes of the apparitions to St. Juan Diego. One of the top windows features a view of the Villa of Guadalupe, in Tepeyac, Mexico, and the center window below The Virgin shows a Pieta image. The Virgin Mary holds the wounded and lifeless body of Jesus in her arms. The painter introduces the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Cáceres, in Extremadura, Spain, in the window on the center left. She is presented framed with red curtains. Directly across on the right window is the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of Spain.

At the blessing of the painting on December 1, 2015, Bishop Vann told those gathered about his connection to the Blessed Mother. “After visiting the tilma of Juan Diego, I arrived home to find someone had delivered a statue of St. Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Events like this have happened throughout my journey as Bishop; I come across images of the Blessed Mother and know she is watching over me, she watches over all of us.” The acquisition of this piece marks another step toward the completion of the Christ Cathedral Campus. The painting was generously donated to Christ Cathedral by Mr. and Mrs. William Close.

There will be a special Bowers Museum members-only preview on October 7, and a grand opening celebration October 8. Adult tickets are $23 weekdays, and $25 Weekends with discounts for seniors, children and members. Santa Ana residents are offered free admission on Sundays with proof of residency. The Bowers Museum is located at 2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana.