Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 12

Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer



THE 12th of December is the Festival of the "Virgin of Guadalupe," (the Patron Saint of Mexico;) and as the history of this personage, and the ceremonies in her honor are rather singular; and the shrine where she is worshipped is one of the most magnificent in the Republic, I will give you some account of them.

The church lies about three miles from the city, at the foot of the Sierra that rises from the plain on the north. The great Collegiate edifice is built on the level ground; but the ancient, and I believe the original chapel, is on the top of an adjacent hill. The collection of buildings, devoted to this saint, form a little village of themselves, independently of the small town, which has grown up in the process of time from the pickings and pilgrimages to the sacred shrine.

On the day in question, thousands went out to the church from the city of Mexico. From early in the morning, the magnificent paved road, built to this spot, in the palmy days of the Spanish Empire, was covered with foot-passengers, horsemen, léperos, Indians, grandees in their sumptuous coaches, and in fact by all the population of the town, who could either walk, or afford to ride at their own or others' cost. Not a vehicle was to be had in the Capital for love or money, unless begged or hired on the preceding day.

I went rather late, and found the churches crammed to suffocation, while the Archbishop recited mass, and the President and the high officers of state, seated under a canopy of crimson velvet, in the main body of the building, assisted in the service.

A large portion of the crowd was composed of léperos, in their greasy blankets; and from far and wide in the Department of Mexico, and even from some others, thousands of Indians had come to the festival, with their wives and children. In such a crowd, on a rather warm day, and ir a church of ordinary size, you will readily agree with me that the odor was not exactly that of attar of roses—-consequently I left them to their devotions; and, with a friend, betook myself to the open air and a survey of the premises.

Yet this could scarcely be called an escape: the crowd without seemed quite as great as that within. In the Plaza, over part of which an awning was spread for a procession at the close of the ceremonies, the Indians had erected booths where they displayed their wares, and were driving a profitable trade in trinkets, pictures of saints, &c.; a mode of speculation which they imitated from the priesthood, who, at the doors of the churches, likewise carried on a brisk business in selling to the faithful slips of crimson ribbon, about two feet long, with a pious inscription, and medals of the Holy Virgin, for sixpence a-piece. I bought one, and passed on.

In the shops around the square were all the unoccupied Mexicans. The church was too small to contain them, and they were necessarily forced to retire to these establishments; where, with their donzellas of the reboso, they luxuriated on lemonade, oranges, and sweet biscuits, varying their food and flirtations with a choice cigarrito.

At the distance of about two hundred yards from the main edifice, another chapel is erected over a spring of mineral water. This is regarded as a "holy well;" and part of the ceremonial, upon this occasion, is to dip the fingers in the sacred stream, and to make with it a sign of the cross on brow and breast. In all such seasons, none are of course more devout and more conscientious in the performance of this duty than the Indians. They believe that the Virgin herself has specially consecrated the water; and the consequence is, that a simple dip is by no means sufficient. I suppose there could not have been less than three thousand of these Indians in the village, half of whom were constantly pressing, squeezing, shouting, with their women by their sides, and their children, in full squall, strapped to their backs; all struggling, either to approach or leave the well. Not satisfied, however, with a dip in the water, they felt it to be a religious duty to wash; and as so many thousands were paddling in maudlin devotion, the well became necessarily fouled, notwithstanding its sacredness. In addition to this, as all could not reach the fountain itself, multitudes were obliged to content themselves with the refuse that drained along the gutters, after having served for the ablutions of the more fortunate. The consequence was that a more besmeared set of wretches was never displayed, than when the Indians completed their pious lustrations toward evening. But even this did not exhaust their craving appetites for the sacred water; and every one who could buy, borrow, steal, or own a vessel, capable of containing liquids, bore it with him to his distant home full of the turbid flood. It was a panacea for many an ill, and perhaps superior in efficacy to a "blessed candle!"

From the door of the edifice over the well, a steep stairway strikes up the hill side of Teptyac, to a church on the summit; and to this, it is the duty of all to perform a pilgrimage in the course of the day. I followed the steps of the multitude; but as the church was crowded even more densely with natives than the edifice below, I refrained from entering, and sat down on a pile of stones to enjoy a charming view of the Valley and lakes, slumbering in the misty sunshine, as beautiful as the days of our Indian summer.

The steps and walls that led to this shrine were once in perfect order; but the mountain chapel has been neglected, and suffered to decay since the holy picture was placed in the edifice on the plain, where the padres are more comfortably nestled than on the spot of the miraculous gift.

As I gazed down from this elevation, I was struck with the appearance of a curious towering mass of brick and mortar, half way up the hill, that looked in the distance like a sail. Upon inquiry, I learned the following story of its erection.

Many years ago, while a wealthy Mexican was at sea, returning from Old Spain, a violent storm arose, which threatened his vessel with imminent danger. The gale grew gradually stronger; the vessel leaked; every sail was lost, and hope herself seemed to have deserted the ill-starred bark, when the Mexican bethought him of the patron Virgin of his native land. In a moment he was on his knees, with a prayer and a vow to Guadalupe—a vow, that if she listened and saved, he would build in Mexico another temple to her glory! The wind lulled—the sea became calm—a friendly vessel hove in sight—and the drowning crew was rescued.

But with the calm, the worshipper's fervor also relaxed; and on his return, instead of bestowing thousands in the adornment of at least a costly altar to the Virgin, he compromised the matter, by the erection of the semblance of a sail in brick and mortar on the ascending wall side! Whether he ever trusted himself at sea again after such faithlessness, the legend does not tell!

While recounting the stories of this spot, it would be improper to omit the legend of the Virgin herself; and in order that it may come with due authority, and not rest alone upon hearsay, I translate the anecdote from a sermon of the Illustrious Cardinal de Lorenzano, Archbishop of Mexico, preached by him in the Collegiate church in 1760.

"In the year 1531, ten years and four months after the conquest of Mexico, the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the mountain of Tepeyac. The matter occurred thus: On the 9th of December of that year the adventurous Indian, Juan Diego, a native of Quatititlan, went to Tlalteloloo to study the Christian doctrine, inasmuch as it was there taught by certain holy Franciscan monks. Passing by the mountain, the Most Holy Virgin appeared, and told him to go, in her name, to the Illustrious Bishop Don Francisco Juan de Zummarraga, and say that she desired him to come and worship on that spot. On the 10th of the same month Juan Diego returned to the mountain, and the Holy Virgin again appeared, asking him the result of his commission. Diego replied, that notwithstanding his efforts, he could not obtain admission to the Bishop. Then, the Virgin answered, 'Return, and tell him that I, Mary the Mother of God, have sent you!' Juan Diego carefully executed the order, but the Señor Zummarraga refused him credence: his only reply being, that he must have some token to satisfy him of the verity of the annunciation. Again Juan Diego returned to the mountain with this message of the Bishop, and delivered it to the Holy Virgin, who appeared to him on the 12th of December for the third time. She ordered him then to ascend the mountain of Tepeyac, cut roses and bring them to her. The humble and happy messenger went, notwithstanding he knew full well that on the mountain there were not only no roses, but no vegetation of any kind. Nevertheless, he found the flowers and brought them to Mary! She threw them in the tilma (a part of Indian dress) and said to him, 'Return once more to the Bishop and tell him that these flowers are the credentials of your mission.' Accordingly, Juan Diego immediately departed for the episcopal residence, which, it is said, was then in the house called the Hospital del Amor de Dios; and when he found himself in the presence of the prelate, he unfolded his tilma to present the roses, when, lo! there appeared on the rude garment that blessed picture of the Virgin, which now after centuries still exists, without having suffered the slightest injury! Then the illustrious Bishop took the image, and placed it in his oratory. It is now in this Collegiate church. The Virgin appeared again, a fourth time, to the Indian. She then restored to health his uncle, named Juan Bernardino, and told Diego—"The image on thy tilma I wish called the Virgin of Guadalupe!"

Such is the story given of the sacred portrait, the original of which presides over the destinies of Mexico; whose name—"Maria de Guadalupe"—is given to one half the females of the Republic, and whose shrine is one of the wealthiest in the world. A copy of this picture is hung in every dwelling in Mexico, a household god, as dearly cherished as the little clay images were by the ancient Indians. The motto beneath, "Non fecit taliter omni Nationi," is full of pride and consolation.

Toward the close of the services in the church the crowd became less dense, and I ventured within. For the last half hour I obtained a good stand directly in front of the position occupied by General Santa Anna, and an opportunity was thus afforded me of seeing him at his devotions. The same refinement of manner, easy grace, and perfect decorum which characterize the well-bred Mexicans in their dwellings, adhere to them in church; and the President and his little military court fully sustained upon that occasion the reputation of their countrymen.

That night I saw him again at a ball given by General Valencia, in honor of his wife; who, being named "Maria de Guadalupe," enjoys this as her festal day as well as the saint. The ball, the music, the style, and the supper were all excellent; and although I went with a headache at ten, I did not leave the cheerful walls of the General until the "small hours" of next morning. This ball and supper, I was told by those who prepared it, cost our host the sum of near four thousand dollars, and from this, you may form an opinion of the extravagance of living and luxuries in Mexico. A similar entertainment could have been given in the United States for less than five hundred.

Some time after the visit to Guadalupe, of which the above is a sketch, I drove out again on a quiet day when there was no ceremonial, to see the establishment undisturbed and at leisure. The capellan politely offered to show us over the edifice, and point out the various objects of interest.

He took us first to the sacristy, where are found some badly painted pictures and tinsel figures; and thence to the main body of the church, which, in architectural proportion and chasteness of adornment, is the neatest I have seen in Mexico. The ornaments are all green and gold, on a white polished surface, and have just been renewed.

Candles were lighted in front of the miraculous portrait of the Virgin; the capellan knelt for a moment before it, and then drawing aside a curtain, displayed the picture itself.

click on image to enlarge.

the virgin of guadalupe.

The altar at the north end, and the canopy and pillars around it, are of the finest marbles. Above it, in a frame of solid gold, covered with a crystal plate, is the figure of the Virgin painted on the Indian's tilma, as represented in the preceding cut. On each side of the image, within the frame and extending its whole length, are strips of gold literally crusted with emeralds, diamonds and pearls. At the feet of the figure there are again large clusters of the same costly gems. From each side of the frame issues a circle of golden rays, while above it, as if floating in the air, hangs the figure of a dove, of solid silver, as large as an eagle!

Descending from the altar, you lean on a rail of gilded silver. The massive candlesticks, and all the stands and reading-desks are of silver, as is also a score of figures, some three feet high, for lamps and torches.

From the front of the altar to the body of the church, in which are placed the choir and organ, there is another silver hand-rail and balustrade on both sides of the central aisle. The choir is of a dark rich wood, covered with the most exquisite carvings, in high relief, of passages in the life of our Saviour, and its gates are beautifully inlaid with silver. The seats of the clergymen rise above each other in a double row, and in the centre stands a massive reading-desk, most gorgeously wrought of the precious metal.

To the left of the altar, a chapel, containing a collection of sacred relics, branches off from the main edifice. The whole eastern end of this is a blaze of crystal and gilded carvings, piled up to the lofty arched roof; while on the steps are two tall India jars, that would make in Europe the fortune of a china hunter.

As I left the door of this apartment, I noticed a recently painted picture, or rather frame of pictures. It represented a series of miracles wrought by the Virgin within the last ten years. First, a husband had stabbed his wife, and yet, by a prayer to the Saint, she was healed: Second, a child, who had fallen from a window, was miraculously preserved by her intervention: Third, a woman, passing through a wood, encountered a robber, who attempted to force her; yet, an opportune ejaculation to Guadalupe winged her feet, and she escaped: Fourth, a man was thrown from his horse, and saved: Fifth, a carriage passed over another harmlessly: And Sixth, the Virgin saved a woman from being gored by a bull.

As I passed around the church, I saw a variety of similar mementoes hung upon the walls—little pictures of sick women-of others praying—silver arms and legs, and even little waxen ones. In one place I noticed two braids of hair; the vow, doubtless of some poor Indian, and perhaps her most precious gift. I was told in Mexico, by a person who has seen it, that the native Indians at times come to this shrine, and play before the Virgin's image on their drums and flageolets.

As I passed through the door, I encountered a lépero-looking fellow, who, on one side, offered me a ticket in the "Lottery of the Virgin," while on the other, a servitor of the church held out a stock of red ribbons "with the measure of the Virgin's hands," and metal medals of Guadalupe. The latter I thought a better investment than the lottery; and buying one, which I dipped in the blessed well, I keep it as a memento of the visit and the spot.

For the curious in such matters, I give the original of a Sonnet and Verses—and the promise of Indulgences, in honor of the Virgin: