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The Tilma of Guadalupe: A Scientific Analysis

Br. Thomas Mary Sennott

In 1756, Miguel Cabrera, the most famous colonial artist of the day, examined the tilma and reported:

I believe that the most talented and careful painter, if he sets himself to copy this Sacred Image on a canvas of this poor quality, without using sizing, and attempting to imitate the four media employed, would at last after great and wearisome travail, admit that he had not succeeded. And this can be clearly verified in the numerous copies that have been made with the benefit of varnish, on the most carefully prepared canvases, and using only one medium, oil, which offers the greatest facility; and of these, I am clearly persuaded, that until now there has not been one which is a perfect reproduction as the best, placed beside the original, evidently shows.

Cabrera knows whereof he speaks, for his own copy of Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered the most faithful to the original. It was at the dramatic unrolling of this canvas that Pope Benedict XIV exclaimed, Non fecit taliter omni nationi, "Not with every nation has He dealt thus." In 1979, in the tradition of Miguel Cabrera, Dr. Philip Serna Callahan, a biophysicist at the University of Florida, an expert in infrared photography, and himself a painter, was allowed to examine and photograph the Image.

Callahan, a devout Catholic, after setting up his infrared equipment on a platform, asked for and obtained permission to receive Holy Communion before he began photographing. Concerning the utility of infrared photography in the study of the holy Image, Callahan writes:

Infrared photography is recommended before any restoration or cleaning is attempted on old paintings. It is most important because one can often detect undersketching accomplished before the artist applied paint to the canvas. Infrared photography also enables one to determine the nature of the sizing under the paint, provided the layers are not too thick. No study of art work can be considered complete until the techniques of infrared photography have been utilized, and certainly no valid scientific study is complete without such an analysis.

Callahan, who also has a background in entomology, makes the interesting comment that some of the effects of the painting are impossible to accomplish by human hands, but are found in nature in bird feathers and insects. He pointed out:

It is a simple fact that if one stands close to the painting, the face is very disappointing as far as depth and coloring are concerned. At a distance of six or seven feet, however, the skin tone becomes what might best be termed Indian-olive (gray-green) in tone. It appears that somehow the gray and "caked" looking white pigment of the face and hands combines with the rough surface of the unsized hue. Such a technique would be an impossible accomplishment in human hands. It often occurs in nature, however, in the coloring of bird feathers and butterfly scales, and on the elytra of brightly colored beetles ... By slowly backing away from the painting, to a distance where the pigment and surface sculpturing blend together, the overwhelming beauty of the olive-colored Madonna emerges as if by magic. The expression suddenly appears reverent yet joyous, Indian yet European, olive-skinned yet white of hue. The feeling is that of a face as rugged as the deserts of Mexico, yet gentle as a maiden on her wedding night. It is a face that intermingles the Christianity of Byzantine Europe with the overpowering naturalism of New World-Indian, a fitting symbol for all the peoples of a great continent!

It has been known for some time that there have been some additions to the Image and that these are beginning to flake off, much to the delight of the anti-apparitionists. But Callahan concludes that the original Image cannot be explained in natural terms:

The original figure, including the rose robe, blue mantle, hands and face ... is inexplicable. In terms of this infrared study, there is no way to explain either the kind of color luminosity and brightness of pigments over the centuries. Furthermore, when consideration is given to the fact that there is no underdrawing, sizing, or over-varnish, and the weave of the fabric is itself utilized to give portrait depth, no explanation of the portrait is possible by infrared techniques. It is remarkable that after more than four centuries there is no fading or cracking of the original figure on any portion of the agave tilma, which—being unsized—should have deteriorated centuries ago. Some time after the original image was formed, the moon and the tassel were added by human hands, perhaps for some symbolic reason since the moon was important to both Moorish-Spanish and Aztec mythologies. Some time after the tassel and the moon were added, the gold and black line decorations, angel, Aztec fold of the robe, sunburst, stars and background were painted, probably during the seventeenth century. The additions were by human hands and impart a Spanish Gothic motif to the painting. In all probability, at the same time the tilma was mounted on a solid support, the orange coloring of the sunburst and white fresco were added to the background. The entire tilma for the first time was completely covered with paint....

Callahan's conclusions regarding extensive human additions to the tilma might well be true, but I suspect he is overdoing it. This suggestion of a seventeenth century date for most of them can't possibly be true. In 1570, just thirty nine years after the apparition, Archbishop Montúfar sent King Philip II of Spain a copy of the miraculous Image which was placed in the flagship of Admiral Andrea Doria in anticipation of the Battle of Lepanto. This copy is now enshrined in the Church of San Stephano in Aveto, Italy. The Lepanto Image is identical to the original Miraculous Guadalupe Image, which means that any additions had to have been made well before 1570.

The Codex Seville, called the "oldest book in America" is an Indian calendar in picture writing that was begun around 1407 and ends around 1540. It is reproduced to size in an overleaf of the Historical Records and Studies, Volume XIX, September, 1929, of the United States Catholic Historical Society. It is about three and a half feet long, with small paintings illustrating important events. Reading from the bottom up, just above the symbol for 1532, is a tiny figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe about an inch high. The codex was probably kept up to date year after year by Indian scribes and the tiny figure of Our Lady was entered in 1531, the year of the apparition. Demarest and Taylor describe it in The Dark Virgin:

Under magnification, the tiny figure of the Virgin is startlingly similar to that of the Holy Portrait. The position in which she stands, her manner of dress, the way she holds her hands in prayer are the same; the colors are the same in tone, and figure is surrounded by clouds bordering the rays of the sun, indicated by thin streaks of yellow. When one considers that this miniature is painted on a very rough, thin, fibrous paper, it is astonishing that the likeness is so closely achieved. ... It is obviously intended as a figure of the Virgin ... as above her head there is a great crown, and there are the clouds and sunrays.

We can see from the Seville Codex that the Image was not just a simple figure originally, as Doctor Callahan suggests, but from the first there were clouds and the rays of the sun, and evidently the tilma was completely covered with color from the very beginning. It is possible that on top of the miraculous colors additions could have been made without sizing, but being unvarnished, they are now beginning to flake off. I suspect that all the additions were made almost immediately by Indian artists, to enhance the pictogram nature of the Image. Doctor Callahan concludes his study:

The additions to the Image of the Virgin, although by no means technically elegant compared with the original Image, nevertheless add a human element that is both charming and edifying. Any single addition—whether moon, Aztec fold, gold and black border, angel or whatever—does not alone enhance the portrait. Taken together, however, the effect is overwhelming. As if by magic, the decorations accentuate the beauty of the original and elegantly rendered Virgin Mary. It is as if God and man had worked jointly to create a masterpiece.

Source: A Handbook on Guadalupe, Academy of the Immaculate, 1997.

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