The Most Commonly Missed Mystery — the Mandorla of Our Lady of Guadalupe and What It Tells Us About Culture

The Most Commonly Missed Mystery — the Mandorla of Our Lady of Guadalupe and What It Tells Us About Culture

Here is a terrific blog post by my friend David Clayton. It is a fascinating examination of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe – an image that I love – which explains its power to convert literally millions of people –  Aztecs, Spaniards, and many others from all over the world in the centuries since it first appeared. It is called, The Most Commonly Missed Mystery – the Mandorla of Our Lady of Guadalupe and What It Tells Us About Culture. David explains why its appeal is timeless and universal and the lesson it offers as to how Christian culture really can convert people. It is a deeper look as the subject that David and I touched upon in our recent conversation in the Way of Beauty podcast, here

David Clayton is Provost of www.Pontifex.University an online Catholic university, and his blog and podcast can be found at thewayofbeauty.org . I recommend all their programs to you. I became aware of David because Pontifex University recognizes courses taught by myself and our faculty at the Theology of the Body Institute for a concentration in their Master of Sacred Arts program. Also, watch or listen to the podcast here: Christopher West and David Clayton on Popular Culture and the New Evangelization – Bruce Springsteen and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

— Christopher West


The story of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe is remarkable in many ways. An important part of that story, that of the image that was given to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is itself enigmatic. What follows is personal speculation – I am describing what strikes me as so mysterious when I look at this image.

As a revealed image it is a rare Western example of a small category of sacred art called in Greek acheiropoieta – not made by human hands. In this example, we have some details clearly derived from Aztec culture and some from traditional Christian culture including some features not normally associated with the Spanish Christian culture of the day. Something else that is striking about this image is how these aspects are combined so as to create something that has great power to convince of the truth of what it conveys. This apparition caused millions to convert and a large part of that was due to the persuasive influence of the visual vocabulary employed by the ‘artist’ of this image. It spoke simultaneously to both the Aztecs and the occupying Spaniards. It continues to draw devotion today from Christians from all over the world.

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The subject of this sacred image came up recently in a lively podcast in which I was in conversation with Christopher West (of the Cor Project and the Theology of the Body Institute). We were discussing the broader subject of the place of contemporary popular culture in a Christian culture and whether or not it has a place for Christians as a tool for evangelization. In the course of this we touched on subjects ranging from 1970s rock music (British, Irish and American) to Gregorian chant. You can listen to the podcast here, or watch it on YouTube, here).

In the course of this exploration, we spoke of how the liturgy is the wellspring of Christian culture and it is the culture of faith, connected to the liturgy, that is the strongest contributor to the universally human aspects of culture. In addition, this can be integrated discerningly with the contemporary culture so that it reflects a particular time and the place also. If this integration is done well the effect of the combination is to connect powerfully the universal truths to contemporary society; if on the other hand it is handled clumsily, it will have the opposite effect and will send people away from salvation.

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As an example of such an integration that is successful, Christopher referred to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and spoke beautifully of some of those elements of the content that are particular to the culture (and of which I had not been fully aware before). So referring to this detail:

Our Lady’s hairstyle, with the central parting, was in 16th-century Aztec culture the sign of a maiden, a virgin. The ribbon and bow around her waist signified that she was pregnant. So this is a young woman who is portrayed simultaneously a virgin and pregnant. And then the quatrefoil roses articulated in sepia lines on the pale brown-ochre shawl signify royalty. This is the visual vocabulary of Aztec culture.

But this image spoke to the Aztecs of more than their own culture because it has elements that come from traditional Christian culture too. These are universal in that they speak to all Christians (one might make an argument in some cases for non-Christians too). It is these that speak to 16th-century Spaniards and to many Christians from all over the world since.

We can see, for example, the blue shawl, a common color for Mary’s outer robe. It is said to denote royalty and Marian chapels often have their walls painted in this color too. The exact shade of blue is unusual in that it is not lapis lazuli blue (French ultramarine), which a contemporary painter of the High Renaissance period might have used, but rather a turquoise blue often described as cerulean. I have no explanation for this difference. Also, I am curious to know more about the pigment that provides this color than Wikipedia can tell me -cerulean blue pigment is only known since the late 18th century when it was chemically created and it is not a naturally occurring mineral. It might be that there is no great mystery here and that it is an effect created by a simple combination of other, naturally occurring green and blue pigments available at the time.

The eight-pointed stars represent her connection with the ‘eighth-day’ of Creation, her Son, Jesus Christ who rose on the eighth day of the week. Traditionally in Eastern icons, there will be just three stars, symbolizing the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos – God-bearer – before, during and after her pregnancy. There are many more than three stars here. Perhaps it was deemed unnecessary by the Divine Artist to stay with three stars because the indication of virginity is indicated in a different way, as already mentioned. We not only stars but the moon, and this reveals a consistency with scripture in that it shows Our Lady as the woman of the Apocalypse, with the upturned crescent moon.

Another feature which interests me greatly is the nimbus of light around her. The account of the woman in the Book of the Apocalypse describes her as being ‘clothed in the sun’. The golden nimbus around her whole person might correspond to this. However, this is more complicated, there is something else going on here I believe that relates to the symbolism of the mandorla.

A mandorla is an iconographic symbol in the shape of a circle or an almond-shaped oval signifying heaven, Divine Glory, or Light. Mandorla is Italian for “almond”. It is an indication of the divine light of sanctity but the mandorla of this type is generally reserved for Christ, at least in traditional iconography. I suggest that its presence here is to indicate the presence of Christ within her womb. It is not there so much for the God-bearer, but for God! This is the Christian way of indicating the Our Lady is with child, the divine child which complements the visual symbolism of Aztec culture. Remember that if this image had not spoken to the Spanish occupiers too, none would have taken Juan Diego seriously.

Also, take a close look at the gold envelope that surrounds her. This is not, as one might first suspect, a series of bright gold darts emanating from Our Lady. Rather it is a series of dark darts emanating from her on a gold background, the outer limits of which describe the mandorla shape, which is a smooth almond. In other words, this mandorla is getting darker the closer it is to her. Why should this be?

She really is, to use a familiar phrase, a riddle wrapped up in an enigma!

The answer is that this is how it is painted in traditional iconography. As I wrote in a recent article on the subject: ‘The mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the center, rather than lighter. It is painted in this way so as to communicate to us, pictorially, the fact that we must pass through stages of increasing mystery in order to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. This encounter, which takes place in the Mass with the Eucharist at its heart, is one that transforms me supernaturally so that I can begin to grasp the glory of Christ more directly.’

You can see an iconographic mandorla here in the Dormition painted by Theophan the Greek in 1392:

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In the following icon, the sense of a mandorla getting darker as it moves towards the center is portrayed in a different way:

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As we can see above, the hidden ‘heart of darkness’ is suggested visually by darts of darkness that come from a point obscured by the figure of Christ. This is similar, but not identical to the device used by the artist in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Notice also, incidentally, that while the apostles are able to perceive the glorified Christ they still do so dimly. They are partially and temporarily deified, but not fully and so are partially blinded by the Light and are knocked off their feet. To indicate this we see the rays that strike them as shafts of darkness, and the apostles themselves have no halos (in contrast with the prophets who flank Our Lord are already in heaven). They do not receive these until Pentecost.

It is interesting to note that virtually every copy of the Our Lady of Guadalupe icon gets this detail wrong and inverts the direction of the lines. For example, here is one painted around 1700:

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Going back to the original, while the cherub does partially evoke in some ways those of Raphael in the art of High Renaissance Italy, it is not quite so sentimental as his, I would say, and the angel’s wings are not of the fluffy white variety, but layered green blue, white and red, which again is common in traditional iconography and gothic art.

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All of the constituent parts (including aspects not described here), both those particular to time and place and those that are universal combined to create a powerful force for persuasion. This being so, if we imagine for the moment that the artist is not divine, then we have indeed a remarkable mortal artist, one who is simultaneously aware of scripture, Christian artistic tradition going beyond 16th-century Spain, and Aztec culture. I suggest that someone of this profile would have been hard to find in Mexico in 1530!

To complicate matters further, there are the facts that have come to light as a consequence of scientific research of the image. These are things that could not have been known at the time. For example, there is an image reflected in the eye of Our Lady is of a room of people that corresponds to what was known about the people present when Juan Diego presented the image to his bishop. 

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It is not obvious to anyone looking at it with the naked eye that there is even a reflection. Furthermore, I’m not sure how the hypothesis could make the transition into a theorem, which is what is necessary to constitute genuine scientific proof. Let suppose, for argument’s sake, that the hypothesis is correct, then I suggest that this is a fact that was built into the image in order to convince skeptical 20th-century scientists and atheist materialists, but not 16th century Spaniards or Aztecs. You can make your own mind up on this one, here. For what it’s worth, I am sceptical about this one. – I don’t know how many computer algorithms it took to get the interpretation they were looking for. 

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In addition, we should consider the style of the image. Although it would never be mistaken for a Greek or Russian icon, it is nevertheless pretty much in accordance with the iconographic prototype. This would make sense theologically, for the iconographic style is the style of eschatological man. Our Lady is in glory in heaven and so it would be the most appropriate style for her to appear.

In accordance with the iconographic tradition, there is no strong cast shadow, the image is defined by line predominantly rather than tone. This is all the more remarkable. This is the period of the High Renaissance in Italy, which bears very little comparison to this stylistically. Spain did not take to this new style instantly and art of the period might have been more akin to northern Flemish art from the Spanish Netherlands and so stylistically closer to what we see here, nevertheless, I do not know of any other artist of the periods whose style is like this. It almost seems to be a new and unique style of iconography.

Again, if this was not a revealed image, then our artist aside from all else already mentioned is also a theologian of insight. He understood that the best artistic tradition to represent her should be iconographic, and then had sufficient familiarity with it to apply the principles of that tradition so as to create legitimate modifications of style that would make it more accessible to the local population, both Spanish and Aztec. In the case of the representation of the mandorla, this artist was seemingly more familiar with the iconographic prototype than many, at least, of his contemporaries  (judging from the flawed copies made of it by other artists) and this grasp of the underlying principles was so well understood that he was able to represent the nimbus getting darker in a unique way, without straying beyond the bounds of what constitutes the tradition.

If on the other hand, this is an authentic icon ‘not made by human hands’ and painted, so to speak, by the hand of God, then the remarkable degree of conformity to tradition, tells how authentic and true that tradition is. The iconographic tradition was developed by faithful Christians in the first centuries of the Church in order to communicate by visual means the truths of the eschaton. We must conclude that they were divinely inspired in their thinking to be so in conformity with this and all other acheiropoieta.

Whether we accept tradition and take it to be of the hand of God (and I do), or we believe it is the work of an artist of remarkable insight and inspiration, we have a wonderfully conceived and executed picture that participates in holy beauty.

David Clayton is Provost of www.Pontifex.University, an online Catholic university, and his blog and podcast can be found at thewayofbeauty.org. I recommend all their programs to you. I became aware of David because Pontifex University recognizes courses taught by myself and our faculty at the Theology of the Body Institute for a concentration in their Master of Sacred Arts program.


Is your heart restless? Are you searching for meaning in life and in your vocation? Do you need renewal in your faith?

In partnership with the Diocese of Cleveland, please join instructor Christopher West and the TOB Institute for our introductory course, TOB I: Head & Heart Immersion, from Sept. 8-13. Laity, clergy and religious from around the world flock to this course to learn truths of the faith that will echo in their hearts. Watch the video below for a glimpse of what awaits.

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