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Artists reinterpret the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe, toying with tradition while constructing eccentric images

By J.M. Baról
Tribune reporter

     In a charming courtyard, hidden from the bustle of the Santa Fe Plaza, holiday shoppers and tourists may stumble upon the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
     At MĒntez Gallery rustic wooden statues and soft-toned paintings are delicately displayed in a sunny room off to the side, while kitschy folk art fills the remainder of the pocket-size gallery. An excess of objects adorned in sequins and glitter, covered in festive, radiant colors occupies virtually every inch of wall and counter space, with Guadalupe the dominant image.
     "This is Guadalupeland," Rey MĒntez says of his gallery. "At any given time we have at least 100 Guadalupes."
     MĒntez is one of the six gallery owners taking part in "Arte Guadalupe," a citywide art festival featuring images of the patroness of the Americas, traditional and contemporary, north and south of the Mexican border.
     The idea for the Santa Fe festival manifested in 1994, when gallery owner Lena Bartula mentioned to Santa Fe Council for the Arts executive director Larry Ogan that she envisioned a celebration of Guadalupe.
     The two turned Bartula's vision into reality, creating what has become one of the city's most renowned celebrations.
     You're probably familiar with her radiant figure, but you might not know the legend behind it.
     The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins in the early-morning hours of Dec. 9, 1531. On that day, a 58-year-old Aztec Indian named Juan Diego was on his way home to Tlatelolco, outside of what is now Mexico City, to attend Mass and to continue his studies of catechism.
     In an explosion of music and singing birds, the Blessed Mother appeared to the humble peasant, instructing him to go to his bishop and ask that a church be built on the site of her appearance. As a sign to prove her appearance, the Virgin had Diego pick roses from a plot of frozen ground. She touched the flowers -- which were in full bloom despite the cold weather -- and instructed Diego to deliver them in his cactus-fiber tilma, or cloak, to the bishop. Upon opening his cloak before the bishop, the flowers spilled forth and revealed an image of the Virgin on his tilma.
     MĒntez says the Virgin of Guadalupe is unique among the Madonnas worshipped the world over.
     "You can pray to 5,500 versions of Mary -- one for sadness, one for money, one for health," he says. "But you can pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe for anything."
     So what makes an image of Guadalupe different from that of the Virgin Mary? There are several symbols, -- in a sense, hieroglyphics -- that reveal part of the message Guadalupe brought through Juan Diego.

     While Guadalupe's image has become highly recognized as a traditional folk art form, many contemporary artists find the Virgin an inspiration for their work.

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