The Fide Propaganda Schools were conceived for the purpose of carrying out various tasks, such as centers for learning native languages, a seminary for novices, living areas for priests who were passing through and shelters for sick or elderly missionaries. In short, they were centers for education and spiritual retreat.
The main goal of the School of Our Lady of Guadalupe was to prepare friars who were leaving for the north of New Spain. Many groups of monks departed from this missionary bastion, making the development and evangelization of the inhospitable northern territories possible. At the same time, these actions strengthened the foundation of cities along the historical route of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (“The Royal Inland Road”).
The building underwent various phases of construction work throughout the eighteenth century, and by the century that followed the building was in the form we see today. The European and American schools were abolished by papal bull in 1908, which is why most of the building was abandoned. In 1917, the building opening its doors as a Museum of Antiquities of the former Monastery of Guadalupe. Its first director was the painter Manuel Pastrana González. One year later, in 1918, President Venustiano Carranza granted the painter a federal appointment as director of the museum.
The Museum of Guadalupe is the oldest museum building in the state of Zacatecas and one of the oldest in Mexico. We are celebrating the centenary of its creation, as well as the fact that, as part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010.
The visual art collection of the Museum of Guadalupe includes some of the greatest New Spanish Baroque painters. Examples of these are the artists exhibited on the Royal Staircase: Nicolás Rodríguez, José de Ibarra, Miguel Cabrera and José Ríos Arnáes. Built between 1750 and 1770, it is a space filled with Baroque elements, and walking around it we can enjoy the monumental canvases adorning its walls. This area provides interpretaton of the work on display, including about the wide thematic repertoire of the canvases, including Baroque painting, the dissemination of the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the eighteenth century, and the artists’ biographies. We will briefly address these themes in one painting: "The Patronage of the Virgin of Guadalupe," a work by the most famous painter of the era, Miguel Cabrera, which sums up the evangelical work of the Franciscans in the inhospitable lands of northern New Spain. The iconography makes us aware of the principal Franciscan devotions: Saint Joseph and the Virgin of Guadalupe, both patrons of New Spain, while the Virgin was also a patron of the School; Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the order; the Holy Trinity, and Saint Michael Archangel, also a patron of this school.
In this painting, the Virgin of Guadalupe is at the center, connecting the work of the Franciscans on the Earth with Heaven; she is held up by Saint Francis, who acts as a column and in turn protects the monks arrived from Spain under his cape, led by Fray Antoni Lináz (on the left-hand side). The school’s founders are on the right-hand side, commanded by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús.
The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe was, for the inhabitants of much of New Spain in the eighteenth century, irrefutable proof of the Mother of God’s favor for this land and its children. In the 1750s, Bishop Manual José Rubio y Salinas promoted even more fervent devotion in the Virgin and, among other actions to try and strengthen the Mexican people’s faith in her, he asked Miguel Cabrera to analyze the peasant tilma or cloak that bears the image of the Virgin with the intention of determining if it was miraculous or human. The painter assembled a group of reputable artists and in 1756 he published the book “American Marvel and Set of Rare Marvels Observed in Accordance with the Rules of Painting in the Miraculous Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Following meticulous inspection of the tilma he concluded that this painting was made by miraculous hands. This book is a descriptive and meticulous analysis of the different technical and aesthetic aspects of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, from her inexplicable preservation to the crude material of the support, touching on the quality of the drawing, the figure’s proportions, the pigments, the coloring, her beauty and symbolism.
On the painting in question, beside the Virgin of Guadalupe, we see two groups of little angels. On the right-hand side, the phylactery (band) bears an inscription in Latin which reads: “The flowers appear on our land”; to the left, the phylactery held by the angels states: “She did nothing like this in other nations.” Both inscriptions allude to the miracle of the apparition of the Virgin in Mexico.
To finish, the third level of the canvas shows the presence of the Holy Trinity, as well as Saint Michael and Saint Joseph. Since the Middle Ages, God the Father has been represented as an old man, with a white beard and hair; the Son is depicted as the men of his time had known him, bearded as an adult of thirty years of age, and finally the Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove. Miguel Cabrera continues to observe this tradition and gives both the Son and the Father their distinguishing attributes. Christ still shows the wounds from the Passion on his hands, feet and flank, as well as the red robe; God the Father, on the other hand, wears a golden robe and holds a scepter as a symbol of his dominion. On the left-hand side, the Archangel Saint Michael can be seen, with his helmet and shield which distinguish him as prince of the heavenly host, and he also carries his sword. Saint Joseph is seen on the far right, carrying the Baby Jesus in his bed and the stick of the blossoming almond tree, an iconic symbol by which he is recognized. At Saint Joseph's feet, the crown which is usually attributed to him as patron saint of New Spain is found; however, as he is in the presence of the Holy Trinity, the crown has been placed at his feet as an act of respect.
A work of art carries with it the added baggage of its journey through the centuries. Baroque painting is rich in interpretations, which can be read in different ways, as we have already seen. In particular, painters from the era used the genre of allegory to share powerful messages full of symbolism. Through a work of art, we can seek out latent clues to the historical phenomena of the time. In this case, "The Patronage of the Virgin of Guadalupe" allows us to rethink our perception of painting in New Spain, with the aim of deciphering it through the study of different interpretations.
The museum is innovation and renovation, progress and revolution, the dynamic of an ongoing historic process, and the Museum of Guadalupe is no exception. To visit the Royal Staircase and walk around the rooms in this space, which is an emblem of Franciscan Baroque architecture, transports us back in time to a different era. This is why such high importance is placed on preserving, protecting and sharing our heritage. The Museum of Guadalupe protects both in the continent, and its contents, the historical and artistic heritage of the north of Mexico. Let’s preserve and share it.
- Pacheco, Francisco, 1990, El arte de la pintura, Madrid, Ediciones Cátedra.
- Mues Orts, Paula, 2008, La libertad del pincel: los discursos sobre la nobleza de la pintura en la Nueva España, México, UIA.
- Réau, Louis, 2006, Iconografía del arte cristiano, Barcelona, Ediciones del Serbal.