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Virgins, Saints, and Frida: My Year of Pilgrimages

Published onMay 06, 2017
Virgins, Saints, and Frida: My Year of Pilgrimages

I went on my first pilgrimage shortly before my fiftieth birthday, ostensibly for a book I am writing on visual culture for a series on sensory history. I had just finished a chapter on hoaxes and decided, for reasons still not clear to me, to add a chapter to the project on the persistence of what I am calling “miraculous vision.” So, as a first step, I hopped in my car and drove to Beaupre, a small town just north of Quebec City, to visit the shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre—the second most visited pilgrimage site in North America—to look at the collection of ex votos on display in the chapel and its adjacent museum.

From the Latin ex voto suscepto, meaning “from the vow made,” ex votos are small vernacular offerings placed in a church or shrine as acts of thanks for miracles received.  Ex votos can take the form of painted accounts or they can be small objects that in some way encapsulate the miraculous event being recorded (a tin pendant with a portrait of a loved one, a discarded crutch or brace, a carved body part made of metal, wood, or wax). Often the works are anonymous, depicting incidents and outcomes known only to the supplicants making the gift.  Other times they contain or are accompanied by detailed textual accounts of the favors asked and received with names, dates, and times described in various levels of detail. Ex votos are also offered in thanksgiving for unexpected miracles. They act as public affirmations of the presence of the divine in the lives of the faithful, in particular in the lives of the poor and dispossessed. In all instances, they are visual professions of faith, testimonials that the events described—as fantastic as they may seem—actually happened.1

My interest in ex votos started years ago, when just out of college, I took a trip to Frida Kahlo’s house and studio in the suburbs of Mexico City. Like many young women in the late 1980s, I felt a kinship with the then seemingly elusive Kahlo and wanted to see the spaces in which she worked—a feminist pilgrimage of sorts. Frida was not yet the cult icon she would soon become and few, outside of what seemed like a small circle of devotees, were familiar with her work. Travelling to her home to see her studio made me feel like part of a secret sorority of art lovers, an important step I now see in developing my own voice as a young women entering graduate school. Kahlo and her partner, Diego Rivera, had an extensive collection of small tin ex voto paintings and larger retablo-style works in their home and both artists incorporated aspects of these vernacular forms into their own works, Kahlo in particular.

Figure 1. Collection of ex voto paintings, Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

I remember that I liked the quirky images and improbable narratives in these ex votos and purchased a few to bring home with me from vendors selling contemporary versions outside her house-museum. But, like my interest in all things Frida once she became popular (and Madonna started collecting her work and Selma Hyack made a bio-pic), my interest in ex votos also waned and I turned my attention (both scholarly and personal) to other, more serious, things.

I was raised Catholic but actively stopped practicing years ago. Like many lapsed Catholics, though, the practice and its influence run deep. Despite my lack of belief, there is something about vernacular acts of devotion such as ex voto offerings that continue to intrigue me and that I wanted to further explore within the context of my new project. Perhaps it was an effect of the misogynistic political climate of the summer of 2016—where competent and ambitious women were repeatedly villainized in ways that began to seem personal to me; or the subsequent Presidential election—where assertions of will and forms of magical thinking seem to displace evidence on a daily basis and allow seemingly rational people to suspend notions of truth in favor of alternative facts.  Or, maybe it was turning fifty and an encroaching middle-aged ennui.  Whatever it was,  something compelled me to visit these sites, as a not quite participant-observer.

Thus began my year of pilgrimages. In the months that followed, I visited shrines in Fatima, Portugal; Kahnawake, Canada; Fulton, New York; and Mexico City. I was looking for some sort of intellectual enlightenment. In their 1978 text, Images and Pilgrimages in Christian Culture, anthropologists Edith and Victor Turner describe pilgrimages as a form of “kinetic rituals,” rooted in both communal and individual religious experiences. The pilgrimage, they argue, provides escape from mundane and everyday experience and cuts “across the boundaries of provinces, realms, and even empires.”2 Moreover, for the Turners,

A pilgrimage center, from the standpoint of the believing actor, also represents a threshold, a place and moment “in and out of time,” and such an actor—as evidence of many pilgrims of many religions attests—hopes to have there direct experience of the sacred, invisible, or supernatural order, either in the material aspect of miraculous healing or in the immaterial aspect of inward transformation of spirt or personality.3

The sites of pilgrimage centers become hallowed ground for those who journey to them in search of meaning—or miraculous transformations— through sensory experience, as well as for those who hope to bring their experience back home with them once the visit has ended. In these instances of miraculous encounter, sacred objects and spaces operate both inside and outside of daily life. They are supernatural and extraordinary yet they hold the power to transform the quotidian in both magical and mundane ways. Both the beholder and the object beheld participate in an exchange of meaning that hangs on a number of seeming contradictions that bridge the sacred and the secular. Nowhere was the blurry divide between the sacred and the secular made more clear to me than in my most recent trip to Mexico City, where I recently travelled to visit the National Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Figure 2. Virgin of Guadalupe sculpture. National Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, like many Marian visions, appeared as an apparition to an indigenous convert named Juan Diego while he was on his way to mass in 1531. According to the official Catholic Church account, the Virgin addressed him in the Aztec language of Nahuatl:

My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains its existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth. I desire a church in this place where your people may experience my compassion. All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my Mother’s Heart in this place. Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace. So run now to Tenochtitlan and tell the Bishop all that you have seen and heard.4

Juan Diego brought her appeal directly to the Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga, who rejected his petition on two separate occasions. Finally, after the Archbishop asked for proof of her existence, the Virgin instructed Juan Diego to pick roses that had miraculously appeared in a barren stretch of land and carry them in his tilma, or cloak, to present as verification of her existence.  According to legend, when Juan Diego opened his tilma to present the miraculous flowers to the Archbishop, not only did an abundance of roses spill out from it, but the Virgin’s image was imprinted on the cloth of the cactus-fiber cloak.  The Archbishop acknowledged the miracle and called for the creation of a church on the site she had chosen.  Despite Juan Diego’s repeated insistence that he had seen the Virgin’s likeness, it was only with the miraculous appearance of her portrait, imprinted on the coat, that the archbishop became convinced of the validity of his claims. Her image thus substantiated her presence.

Today millions flock to the hills of Mexico City to pay tribute to Juan Diego’s tilma, which hangs above the altar of the National Shrine and Basilica to Guadalupe, which was built in a space adjacent to the original church to accommodate the growing number of visitors. The Basilica of Guadalupe is the oldest and largest pilgrimage site in North America and the second largest Catholic devotional site in the world (next to the Vatican). Because of spatial constraints, and also because the old Basilica is sinking, a new church was constructed between 1974-76. The architect, Pedro Ramírez Vásquez constructed the new space in the round so that the image of the Virgin would be visible from every seat in the church. A moving sidewalk runs in both directions underneath the altar, providing visitors the opportunity to view the miraculous image without disrupting the masses that run throughout the day in the space above.

Figure 3. Juan Diego’s tilma on the altar of the National Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

In his 1958 study of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Eric Wolf designates her as a “Master symbol,” or something that “enshrines the hopes and aspirations of an entire society.” For Wolf:

the Guadalupe symbol thus links together family, politics and religion; colonial past and independent present; Indian and Mexican. It reflects the salient social relationships of Mexican life, and embodies the emotions which they generate. It provides a cultural idiom through which the tenor and emotions of these relationships can be expressed. It is, ultimately, a way of talking about Mexico: a “collective representation” of Mexican society.5

More recently, art historian Jeannette Favrot Peterson has contested Wolf’s reading of the Virgin of Guadalupe as “an unchanging single Master symbol,” arguing instead that the Virgin of Guadalupe has had “extraordinary staying power, based, paradoxically, on both her constancy and her flexibility to meet the shifting social, religious, and political needs of a heterodox society to the present day.”6 Nevertheless, for both scholars, it is the Virgin’s image that continues to contain her miraculous powers. Each iteration of her portrait contains the same potential divine authority as the original as she moves across time and space.

Indeed, the forms of and reasons for the Virgin of Guadalupe’s popularity have changed over time. In 16th-century Mexico, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe closely resembled that of the Aztec fertility goddess Tonantzin. Tonantzin is also known by her Nahuatl name, Coatlaxopeuh, or “our sacred mother.”  When the Virgin identified herself to Juan Diego—as well as to his uncle, whom she cured miraculously from his deathbed—she addressed them in Nahuatl not Spanish.  The poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldua contends that Guadalupe’s indigenous origins were in large part linguistic, since the pronunciation of the two names is similar.  Because of this, she argues that the Spanish saw her as parallel to “the dark Virgin, Guadalupe, patroness of West Central Spain.”7 Anzaldúa includes Coatlaxopeuh  and Coatlicue as variants of her name, thereby linking the Virgin to a range of other MesoAmerican fertility goddesses as well. For Irene Lara, Tonantzin, Coatlicue, and Cihuacoatl are “among a group of indigenous goddesses who were demonized by Christianity.” She reads Tonantzin in particular as “Guadalupe bruja-ized (witched).” Indeed, the hill on which the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego was the location of an Aztec shrine dedicated to Tonantzin, to whom regular offerings were made hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards.8 Thus, the substitution of one fertility goddess for another allowed for the seemingly seamless syncretism of the two worldviews under the auspices of miraculous vision.

Guadalupe gained a wider following in the seventeenth century, and according to Peterson can “best be understood in the context of class distinctions, which were largely based on skin color.” She became a creole Madonna with brown skin and black hair and began to work miracles for all classes of Mexicans—native, Spanish, and mestizo. Fidelity to her image continued to grow across Mexico and spread into South America in the 17th, 18th   and 19th centuries.  Her likeness was appropriated by revolutionaries in the Mexican Revolution and embraced by the artists of the Mexican mural renaissance in the early twentieth century as an emblem of native identity and pride.  Today, the Virgin of Guadalupe continues to be a symbol of Mexican and Mexican-American empowerment and her portrait can be found in Chicano murals and folk art across the United States and Mexico.

Figure 4. Chicano Park, Historical Mural, San Diego, CA. Summer 2011. Photo by author.

She acts both as a symbol of colonial oppression and one of contemporary liberation. She carries with her the often violent history of Catholic indoctrination and European settlement, but her likeness also acts as an indigenous touchstone, a means of claiming space for native voices and female empowerment in often oppressive patriarchal arenas.

The day before I visited the National Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, I made the trip once again to the plush Colinia del Carmen neighborhood of Coyoacan, to the Casa Azul, or the Blue House, the official Frida Kahlo Museum. I went this time not as a twenty-something on her way to graduate school and looking for her voice, but as a middle-aged art historian revisiting sites of youthful inspiration. I went almost out of obligation. I was there in Mexico City, I had a free day, I should see it again.

I arrived early, before the museum opened, to find long lines outside the door, stretching in all directions. Tour buses lined the narrow streets. The cult of Frida, it seems, had not abated just because I had lost interest. On the contrary, a mix of young and old, male and female—but mostly female—visitors waited in line to pass through the rooms of the small house, to peer inside Frida’s closets, to glimpse her corsets and easels, and contemplate her collections of folk art and ex votos.

Figure 5. Frida Kahlo corset and dress. Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

Perhaps it was the difference in scale, but Casa Azul seemed much more crowded than the National Shrine, and the visitors seemed much more emotionally invested in the life and travails of Frida than those I encountered at the Cathedral complex. Frida, I realized in that moment, was the secular saint of Mexico with a following just as devout as that of the Virgin.

Suddenly, everywhere I looked I seemed to see them in tandem—Frida and the Virgin. In restaurants and cafes, gift shops, and tourist brochures, images of these two women seemed to dominate the visual culture of the city; their likenesses appeared on t-shirts, coffee mugs, pill boxes, and other cheap knick-knacks.

Figure 6. Gift shop display. Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

Figure 7. Gift shop display. Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by author.

Figure 8. Roadside shrine. Mexico City. March 2017. Photo by the author.

At first I dismissed this as touristy schlock, further evidence of the market’s ability to transform sacred objects into consumable trinkets. But, as I moved through the city’s markets and gift shops, it occurred to me that these souvenirs operate much like the ex votos I had come to study. Purchasing such knick-knacks became a form of material evidence that visitors had been there, that they had made the trip to see the Virgin and look in Frida’s closet. And, while I may not have found spiritual enlightenment on my many pilgrimages, perhaps, when I slip on my bracelet stamped with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—purchased in the botanica adjacent to the Cathedral and blessed by the bishop—or slip my books into my large Frida tote bag, purchased from a vendor outside her house, I will feel a sense of protection and empowerment and I will conjur their spirits to help me face the sexism and misogyny that greets me back at home.


A. Joan Saab is the Susan B. Anthony Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Rochester. Her first book, For the Millions: American Art and Culture Between the Wars (2004,  2nd ed. 2009) was the inaugural volume in the “Arts and Intellectual Life in Modern America” series published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Her second project, a born-digital “book” entitled Searching for Siqueiros written on the digital publishing platform Scalar, is under review with the University of Pennsylvania Press. She is currently working on two book-length projects: Making Sense of What We See, which is under contract for the University of Illinois Press’s series on Sensory History and another book, tentatively entitled, Tales From the Crypt: Vincent Price and American Visual Culture, and editing the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Visual Culture with VCS alums Catherine Zuromskis and Aubrey Anable.

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