68. La Virgén

This is another in a series about places in L.A. This place is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in front of the museum's recent acquisition: Manuel de Arellano's 1691 Virgin of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe: a place in Extremadura that was translated to a low hill in Tenochtitlán. The name means wolf river "? Wadi Lupo "? in promiscuously mixed Arabic and Vulgar Latin, the language of Moorish Spain. There is an "original" Virgin of Guadalupe, the goal of pilgrims from the Middle Ages on. Her story is of flight from conquering Moors, hidden burial, miraculous recovery, and enlistment the Spanish reconquista. The Virgin of Guadalupe of Extremadura is black.

The Virgin of México is dusky. Virgén morena. A woman dark as a Moor. Her provenance "? though centuries old "? is less protected by myth than her Spanish counterpart. Ecclesiastical doubters initially questioned the authenticity of her appearance, doubted even the reality of Juan Diego (called Cuauhtlatoatzin in pre-baptismal Nahuatl). And if he was not the downtrodden laborer of popular imagination (he was said to be landowner or even an Aztec prince), at least he represented the survival of indigenous Mexico, although a Mexico already changed. Something not fully the object of conquest, something even victorious.

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Manuel de Arellano's painting is one of many copies of the original enshrined in a basilica on Tepeyac hill. Beginning in the 17th century, copies of an image of a dark woman with a blue-green tilma blessed an emerging Mexican identity that contested with an imposed European one. This virgin multiplied and has colonized every form of representation, from religious icon to tattoo.

Arellano's version makes a unique claim. Tocada al original is faintly lettered over the artist's signature. "Touched the original" "? either the artist handled the cloth of Juan Diego's cloak on which the miraculous image of the virgin was preserved (a claim of accuracy) or the painting itself was touched to original, making Arellano's painting a relic of the third class and worthy of veneration in its own right. (And beyond considerations of artistic merit.)

Arellano's copy embellishes the original's plainness (which itself may have been added to in its early history). Vignettes of Juan Diego's story float in the corners of the canvas. A mass of flowers crowds them and the mandorla around the figure of the woman. (In one of the miracles connected to the Juan Diego story, the cloak on which the original appeared was filled with rosas de Castilla as proof that the apparition of the virgin was authentic.) The woman's gown seems notably different from the original, which has an all-over brocade pattern. There are other differences in Arellano's copy, perhaps artifacts of retouching or of Arellano's flexible idea of accuracy.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a monumental work of Spanish Colonial art. It's a record of cultural change. It's a sacred object, if only for a certain class of Catholic believers. It's a changed duplicate of the original, mother of tens of thousands on walls and taco trucks and tombstones over the whole of Southern California and greater New Spain. Which now includes Minnesota and Ohio, Missouri and Delaware. And soon, other conquests.

The image on this page, taken at the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, was made by Flickr user Andrew in Raleigh. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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