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Scholar Traces Origins of
Virgin of Guadalupe Tale
By Gary E. Salazar
Journal Staff Writer
For generations, the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe has fueled a debate: Is
it truth or fiction? A leading scholar plans to share with Santa Fe her ideas
about the spiritual figure.
Jeanette Favrot Peterson has dedicated most of her life to researching Latin
American art prior to European settlement.
However, for the past decade the University of California, Santa Barbara, art
history professor has been actively researching the Virgin of Guadalupe and the
history of her image.
"I'm amazed that a sacred image can have such a social and political
force," Peterson said. "She is not only a religious symbol. She has
become so much more."
During her upcoming lecture at the College of Santa Fe, Peterson will share her
thoughts in a talk titled: "Making and Remaking Guadalupe."
Peterson's idea is that the dark-skinned Indian virgin did not miraculously
appear before Juan Diego more than 500 years ago. Rather, she said the image
dates back earlier to Spain where a cult started around it in the 1300s.
Furthermore, Peterson will talk about the painter who she said is responsible
for the image. Believers maintain the image appeared miraculously on Diego's
cloak when the Virgin appeared before the man on a hilltop near Mexico City in
Today, the image on the cloak hangs over the altar in the Guadalupe Basilica in
Mexico City and is widely visited. In 2001, about 20 million people visited the
"I would have to say as a scholar that I don't think the image was
miraculously imposed," she said. "It's quite clear the image has
suffered damage and you can see the brush strokes that were placed on the
"I believe it's a human creation."
Peterson also has doubts about Diego, who was canonized as Mexico's first
indigenous saint last year. Peterson said the church should have held off on its
decision to make Diego a saint.
"From everything I have read, I am not sure he existed," she said.
Although Peterson has reservations about the story and Diego, she said that
should not take away from the Virgin of Guadalupe's meaning and influence.
Khristaan Villela, College of Santa Fe art history director, said that through
the lecture the college and Santa Fe have an opportunity to hear from a leading
scholar on the subject.
"She is recognized as the world expert on this topic," Villela said.
"She is a recognized figure in this field."
Villela said Peterson was invited to speak at the college through his
department's annual lecture series, which started about five years ago.
"She is not here to debunk anybody's belief," he said. "She is
here to speak about the history of the image."
At an early age Peterson learned about the image; she was born in Mexico and
visited the country often after her family moved to Houston.
Peterson earned a bachelor's degree in art history from Wellesley College in
Massachusetts in 1961. She then earned a master's degree in 1964 from Columbia
University and a doctorate degree from the University of California, Los
Angeles, in 1985.
Since 1992, Peterson has focused on the Virgin of Guadalupe and has written a
number of books on the topic. In her research, Peterson has been able to study
at the Guadalupe Basilica's archive.
"The archive is open to the public," she said. "But there is a
small window of opportunity to use the facility."
Peterson said the Virgin of Guadalupe's history started in the 1300s with a
cult. Diego's story follows the tale of the "Shepherd Cycle," which
was told widely in Europe during medieval times about a humble, uneducated
farmer who comes across an image, she explained.
"The apparition legend was modeled from Europe and adapted," she
said. "The format was simply tweaked."
Peterson said versions of the image have been found in South America.
"It does not resemble Mexico's Guadalupe," she said.
During the talk, Peterson will also discuss various paintings that were used to
create the image that is found in the Guadalupe Basilica.
Villela said he has been trying to get Peterson to come to Santa Fe for the
past three years. Initially, Villela invited Peterson to give the lecture during
a 2001 controversy involving the image in Santa Fe.
Numerous Santa Fe residents and Catholic church officials were offended by an
exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico's International Museum of Folk Art.
In the museum's Cyber Arte exhibit, Alma Lopez's image of the Virgin of
Guadalupe created an uproar. In Lopez's digital image, the Virgin was sparsely
dressed in flower garlands and held aloft by a bare-breasted angel.
Peterson said she was aware of the controversy and was not surprised the image
created an uproar.
"Believers do not want the image to be tampered with in any way," she
said. "But I was surprised that more people weren't offended by the
Through the years, Peterson said the image has remained popular with artists
and has been given a number of different looks.
"These artists are not defaming the image," she said. "They are
giving it more relevance."
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