The word awesome has lost its zing.
“Webster’s dictionary defines awesome as ‘anything that leaves you in awe and wonder.‘ Like winning the lottery – twice,” comedian Bill Engvall once said. “That would be awesome. Getting a phone call from the IRS saying you’ve been audited and they owe you $50,000. That would be awesome.”
Know what else would be awesome?
Seeing an apparition of Mary, then having her grow roses in the middle of winter to prove it to the archbishop, then converting 9 million Aztecs within seven years.
That would be – wait – that was awesome.
On Dec. 12, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, marking the day when, in 1531, the Blessed Mother appeared in Mexico to a 57-year old peasant named Juan Diego.
According to the earliest reliable account of the story, Juan Diego was walking near what is now Mexico City (Tepeyac Hill) when he came upon an apparition of a “maiden” whom he soon came to recognize as the Virgin Mary.
In trying to convince the archbishop of what he had seen, Juan Diego eventually was asked for a sign to prove what he had seen.
Upon returning to Mary and sharing this with her, Juan Diego was instructed to climb to the top of the hill to gather flowers to bring back to the bishop. Reaching the crest of the hill, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, which were neither in season nor native to the region.
The Blessed Mother arranged the flowers herself in Juan’s tilma (a burlap-type cloak) and instructed him to open the cloak only upon return to the bishop.
When Juan Diego arrived back at the bishop’s residence and opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and left on the surface of the tilma was the image that’s come to be known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.
What happened next is history.
The image became the wellspring of a conversion movement the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since.
The fact that the Virgin Mother not only spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, but appeared to be wearing the dress of an Aztec princess sparked millions of conversions to the Catholic faith in just under seven years.
The shrine that was subsequently built on the spot, where the original tilma can still be seen, remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world.
But this post isn’t about the whole apparition story so much as it is about the tilma, Juan Diego’s cloak, on which the image of the Blessed Mother was imprinted. In the centuries following the event, some amazing and unexplainable qualities have been discovered about it.
Here’s four literally awesome facts about the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe:
1. It has qualities that are humanly impossible to replicate.
Made primarily of cactus fibers, a tilma was typically of very poor quality and had a rough surface, making it difficult enough to wear, much less to paint a lasting image on it.
Nevertheless, the image remains, and scientists who have studied the image insist there was no technique used beforehand to treat the surface. The surface bearing the image is reportedly like silk to the touch, while the unused portion of the tilma remains coarse.
What’s more, experts in infrared photography, studying the tilma in the late 1970s, determined that there were no brush strokes, as if the image was slapped onto the surface all at once.
Phillip Callahan, a biophysicist at the University of Florida, discovered that the differences in texture and coloration that cause cause Our Lady’s skin to look different up close and far away is impossible to recreate:
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.
This, along with an iridescent quality of slightly changing colors depending on the angle at which a person looks, and the fact that the coloration in the image was determined to have no animal or mineral elements, and synthetic colorings didn’t exist in 1531, provide a lot of seemingly unanswerable questions.
2. People say it’s just a painting, yet the tilma has outlived them all, in time and in quality.
One of the first things skeptics say about the image is that it somehow has to be a forgery or a fraud. Yet in every attempt to replicate the image, while the original never seems to fade, the duplicates have deteriorated over a short time.
Miguel Cabrera, an artist in the mid-18th century who produced three of the best known copies – one for the archbishop, one for the pope, one for himself for later copies – once wrote about the difficulty of recreating the image even on the best surfaces:
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;
Adolfo Orozco, a physicist at the National University of Mexico, spoke in 2009 about the remarkable preservation of the tilma compared to its numerous copies.
One copy created in 1789 was painted on a similar surface with the best techniques available at the time, then encased in glass and stored next to the actual tilma.
It looked beautiful when painted, but not eight years passed before the hot and humid climate of Mexico caused the duplicate to fade and fray. It was discarded.
However, Orozco said, no scientific explanation is possible for the fact that, “the original tilma was exposed for approximately 116 years without any kind of protection, receiving all the infrared and ultraviolet radiation from the tens of thousands of candles near it and exposed to the humid and salty air around the temple.”
3. The tilma has shown characteristics startlingly like a living human body.
In 1979, when Callahan, the Florida biophysicist, was analyzing the tilma using infrared technology, he apparently also discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as that of a living person.
When Carlos Fernandez del Castillo, a Mexican gynecologist, examined the tilma, he first noticed a four-petaled flower over what was Mary’s womb.
The flower, called the Nahui Ollin by the Aztecs, was a symbol of the sun and a symbol of plenitude.
Upon further examination, Castillo concluded that the dimensions of Our Lady’s body in the image were that of an expectant mother due quite soon. Dec. 9, the day of the unveiling, is barely two weeks from Christmas.
One of the most common attributions and reported discoveries lie with the Virgin’s eyes in the image.
When Jose Aste Tonsmann, a Peruvian ophthalmologist, conducted a study, one of his tests involved examining the eyes on the tilma at 2,500 times magnification.
With the images of the magnified eyes, the scientist was reportedly able to identify as many as 13 individuals in both eyes at different proportions, just as the human eye would reflect an image.
It appeared to be a snapshot of the very moment Juan Diego unfurled the tilma before the archbishop.
4. It appears to be virtually indestructible.
Over the centuries, two separate events had the potential to harm the tilma, one in 1785 and one in 1921.
In 1785, a worker was cleaning the glass encasement of the image when he accidentally spilled strong nitric acid solvent onto a large portion of the image itself.
The image and the rest of the tilma, which should have been eaten away almost instantly by the spill, reportedly self-restored over the next 30 days, and it remains unscathed to this day, aside from small stains on the parts not bearing the image.
In 1921, an anti-clerical activist hid a bomb containing 29 sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses and placed it before the image inside the Basilica at Guadalupe.
When the bomb exploded, the marble altar rail and windows 150 feet shattered. A brass crucifix was twisted and bent out of shape. But the tilma and its glass case remained fully intact.