Our Lady of Remedios: Devotion, Aesthetics, Society

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A review of Fervent Faith. Devotion, Aesthetics, and Society in the Cult of Our Lady of Remedios (Mexico, 1520-1811), by Rosario Inés Granados Salinas.

Rosario Granados’ assertion that “devotion, aesthetics and politics were intertwined during colonial Mexico” is borne out by her study of Our Lady of Remedios (p. iv). The sixteenth-century diminutive sculpture was brought from Spain to Mexico during the time of the Conquest. Initially playing a crucial role as sorrowful “mother” during the Noche Triste (a rare moment of defeat for the Spanish army), she soon proved herself a bellicose supporter of Cortés’s onslaught against the Aztecs. Rediscovered in a native maguey plant by the Indian Juan Ce Cuautli Tovar in 1540, Our Lady of Remedios reconciled victor with defeated, and conflated conquest with conversion. By the end of the sixteenth century she was the devotional and political focal point of Mexico City’s governing elite, and eventually gathered pious support from other strata of society beyond the viceregal capital. The icon was the subject of the first Marian chronicle to be written in the Americas.

And yet in modern scholarship, Remedios is always the prodigal bridesmaid and never the bride. The divinely-produced Guadalupe is Queen of the Americas, a true international Marian celebrity with satellite shrines and chapels throughout Mexico; her image and memory continue to be sustained in Catholic churches in the United States, South America, Spain, Italy, and France. “Guadalupecentrism,” as Granados notes in her introduction, is significantly entrenched in scholarship addressing Mexican art and devotion (p. 15). Yet recently, students have interrogated colonial archives and museums, churches and sanctuaries, in an effort to better delineate a colonial piety that went beyond and around the vortex of Tepeyac. In this sense, this dissertation echoes the recent work of William Taylor (Shrines and Miraculous Images: Religious Life in Mexico Before the Reforma. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2010).

Granados explores the colonial sculpture—its physical construction, devotional history, socio-political status, architectural enclosure, and patronage—in an effort to better understand the process of “icon-making” in New Spain and Remedios’ importance specifically. She writes: “the aim of this study is to show the intricacies, and even contradictions, of the image’s unique context to more fully grasp the relevance of this Marian cult in the social life of New Spain’s capital” (p. 6). One senses that the author initially aimed to neatly dissect, metaphorically if not physically, the colonial object; instead, Granados offers us an epistemological operation eluding precision: the configuration, consolidation and promotion of this icon were procedures marked by coincidence, complication, and paradox.

The dissertation is divided into four main thematic chapters plus an introduction and epilogue. The first chapter, “Sacred Materiality,” is a formal examination of a sculpture that has never been scientifically studied. What is it made of? How old is it? Where is it from? How was it originally constructed and how is it formed at present? Even the most basic questions evade certitude since the small, dressed object presides from the safe and distant location of a crystal tabernacle. Luckily Granados is not blinded by neo-colonial refraction. Employing stylistic and historical evidence, the dissertation convinces this reader that: the figures of Mary and Christ were sculpted separately (Christ is detachable, an unusual feature c. 1500); Mary was initially fashioned in Spain as an Assumption image (with folded arms); and the Marian object was modified in Mexico to better accommodate an added Christ-Child (likely manufactured in New Spain). Without a doubt, “only a sophisticated technical analysis of the statue and its materials” might “determine the origin of the two pieces and illuminate the sculpture’s assembly process” (p. 64). The sculpture’s alteration likely took place around 1550, the exact period that saw the activation of her cult. The chapter skillfully addresses the many paintings and prints that aided in the dissemination of her orthodox image—“the triangular statue she is actually not” (p. 74).

The second chapter, “The Legend in the Making,” addresses the development and formation of her cult. The chapter’s tour de force is the author’s reconstruction of the shrine’s elaborate murals (frescoes) and large canvases by Alonso de Villasana, a pictorial program that is now largely destroyed. Based on Luis de Cisneros’ 1621 published description, the sixteenth-century visual program celebrated conquest and conversion by triumphantly showcasing Remedios-related historical vignettes buttressed by learned poetry, biblical citations, Immaculist iconography, and “images of sibyls, biblical prophets, and Greco-Roman deities” (p. 30). Granados uncovers the source for the Sibyl-related poetry (a 1505 Venetian edition of Felippo di Barbieri’s Sibyllarum) and provides an expert discussion of the erudition displayed by both Villasana and Cisneros. Perhaps it is not so shocking that a large part of the mural reflected and extended Spanish Humanism in sixteenth-century Mexico City; what is surprising is that a portion of the project was demolished within two decades of its completion. Although Cisneros repeats the party line—a new, ample door was needed to accommodate the flow of pilgrims—Granados is right to be suspicious. Since the colonial demolition primarily damaged the historical sections involving Hernán Cortés, “it seems feasible…[they] were destroyed intentionally, as an attempt to lessen the political significance of the Marquis” (p. 123).

The shrine’s architectural space and geographical place, particularly in connection to an indigenous audience, are the focus of the third chapter. The author’s meticulous reading of narrative descriptions, inventory lists, and payment ledgers allows the sanctuary space to come alive in all its candlelit glory. Yet despite the silver, jeweled crowns, paintings, and costly curtains, the building had non-stop structural hurdles—leaky roofs, lack of clean running water, and an adequate drainage system. Granados systematically describes the proposed solutions, locates the donors, and evaluates the success of the projects funded.

Locating native support for any colonial icon is a tricky venture: sources tend to be late, limited, and widely uneven. Still, native presence looms in the story of Remedios and the construction of her sanctuary: the sculpture was rediscovered in a maguey (agave) plant and venerated by an Otomi Indian, the maguey goddess Mayahuel was revered by pre-Hispanic cultures, native images of Mayahuel regularly show her embedded in a maguey plant (like the later Marian sculpture), and, according to some sources, the Remedios sanctuary was constructed with the aid of native angels. But spectrality is not free of contradiction: Granados concedes that maguey is not key iconography in early colonial representations of the Marian icon (p. 137) and that the hill on which the shrine sits may not have held any connection whatsoever to Mayahuel. Moreover, the Otomi did not have “a great adherence to the figure of Mayahuel, or to maguey” (p. 241).

Processions were ubiquitous in colonial Mexico—they were the glue that held a heterogeneous colonial society together, allowing distinct communities to perform their piety and cultural identities. In Chapter 4, Granados cites their pedagogical purpose as well—the icon and her supporters literally retraced Spanish victory and cemented the link between the sculpture and the viceregal capital. Nevertheless, Remedios left her shrine with unusual frequency—at least 57 times from 1588-1881, more than any other colonial icon—contradicting the spectacle’s assumed distinction and importance. Granados documents the circumstances surrounding her travel and the anxieties it produced, particularly for communities attached to her shrine.

The epilogue, “Mexico City’s Appropriation of the Cult,” is a highly original examination of the cult’s patronage and the varying groups that competed for jurisdiction over image and shrine. Although the crown owned the cult, it was Mexico City’s coat of arms that adorned the sanctuary’s façade, sacristy, and main altar. As the author contends, city officials asserted their authority over local rivals: the sanctuary was physically located beyond the limits of Mexico City and the Franciscans, Dominicans, Mercedarians, and Augustinians each tried to assume control of the site. The religious ambitions of the secular city council seems the impetus for the early establishment of the devotion’s elite confraternity, the lay organization that would ultimately administer the shrine. Since the brotherhood consisted exclusively of council members, Granados argues that city and confraternity “were not separate entities, but rather two sides of the same institution” (p. 299). City control of the rural shrine not only urbanized the devotion on a symbolic level, it also justified the sculpture’s frequent visits to the city and her unusually long stay (eleven years) during the nineteenth century.

This dissertation represents the first comprehensive examination of Our Lady of Remedios and her cult in New Spain. Challenging the prevailing Guadalupecentrism, Granados significantly expands our discussion of colonial devotions—their construction, politics, and patronage. The research is exhaustive and the author’s points are well argued. Particularly impressive is her ability to contextualize the object throughout vastly different periods that assume distinct cultural vantage points. Whether addressing the finer points of Hispano-Flemish sculpture or pre-Hispanic codices, Granados is capable and comfortable. She appreciates the complexity of various and variegated colonial situations and her cautious explorations make her not only a joy to read but, more importantly, a trusted source.

Cristina Cruz González
Department of Art, Graphic Design, and Art History
Oklahoma State University
cristina.gonzalez@okstate.edu

Primary Sources

Basilica of Our Lady of Remedios, Naucalpan, Mexico
Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal (AHDF), Mexico
Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Mexico
John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Benson Latin American Library, University of Texas at Austin

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 389 pp. Primary Advisor: Thomas B.F. Cummins.

 
Image: Nuestra Señora de los Remedios during September 2011 procession. Photo by Author.

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