“In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”…a chant familiar to every school-age child in America. That famous date marked, of course, the year that the Italian-born navigator, Christopher Columbus, departed from Spain and discovered the continent of America.
Over the next two and a half decades more Spaniards would follow in his wake. One of these would be the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, whose miniscule army would defeat the massive military might of the Aztec empire. He left Spain prepared for battle, both military and spiritual. As well as soldiers, cannon and horses, he brought with him priests, crucifixes, and several wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One would become the most revered of them all: the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies.
Sculpted in the city of Tolosa, Spain, in the 14th century, she has the distinction of being the oldest statue of Mary on the American continent.
Our Lady of the Remedies was to play a key role in the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico: She accompanied Cortes and his soldiers in 1519 on their grueling march from Veracruz on the Mexican coast to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (site of present-day Mexico City), a journey of 400 miles over two mountain ranges. She also witnessed the triumphant entry of the Spaniards into the capital and the dramatic initial encounter between Cortes and the Aztec leader Moctezuma II. For a period of time she even replaced the “hideous” blood-thirsty idol of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, that graced Moctezuma’s private apartment. During the Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrows) of July 8, 1520, she was “implored with tears” as the Spaniards fled from the Aztecs in terror, suffering terrible losses. Hidden under the leaves of a cactus plant, she remained lost for 20 years. She was eventually found in 1540 by a newly converted Indian chief, Juan Cuautli, and was venerated for several years in his private chapel. In 1575 the shrine of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was built in Naucalpan, eight miles northwest of Mexico City.
Even in the 1500s the shrine was well-known. Bernal Diaz refers to it in his 16th century first-hand account of the struggle for Mexico, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain: “After the great city of Mexico was finally captured, we built a church which is called Nuestra Señora de and is now much visited. Many citizens and ladies go there on pilgrimages and to make novenas.” Diaz was a young 26-year-old soldier when he fought alongside Cortes in the battle for Mexico. He wrote his book while he was in his 70s.
Like most churches of the earliest Colonial period, it was built at the site of a destroyed Aztec sacrificial temple, thus sanctifying a place which had been a scene of previous abominations. It reflects the influence of the Spanish architect Juan Herrera, who had been commissioned by King Philip ll of Spain in 1563 to build the monumental monastery and royal tomb, El Escorial, near Madrid. The Herrerian style of architecture, which lasted a relatively short length of time, is characterized by a stark and somber austerity — a sad solemnity — and is evident in the façade of the single-tower church of Our Lady of the Remedies. The massive cathedral in the city of Puebla is another example of this type of architecture in Mexico. The nave of the church of displays a plain yet elegant simplicity.
But the altarpiece and cupola which showcases the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies — Herrerian it is not! It was built at a later period and is a riot of sumptuous splendor, reflecting the churrigueresque style of Baroque architecture unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. It is named after Spanish architect José Churriguera who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 17th century.
And there, at the center of everything above the main altar, is the diminutive 11” polychromed statue of Our Lady of the Remedies, holding the Infant Jesus. She stands on a slender crescent moon, a symbol of the Immaculate Conception in Mexico. Like most Mexican statues of the Madonna, this one is vested in exquisitely embroidered and bejeweled robes, a practice which began in the early 17th century. At one time, Mother and Child had as many as 16 complete sets of garments.
Visitors to the church will notice scores of colorful, small plaques adorning the walls of the sanctuary annex. Known as retablos (ex-votos), they are statements and pictures from grateful recipients describing favors and miracles that have been obtained through the help of Our Lady of the Remedies over the years.
She became renowned for her powers of intercession in great public calamities as well: From 1576 to the early years of the 20th century, she was carried in procession to the cathedral of Mexico City on 75 separate occasions, in times of urgent need: epidemics, droughts, floods, wars, political crises of all kinds — none of these proved obstacles for Our Lady of the Remedies.
The highlight of a pilgrimage here is a visit to the marble-walled camarin (dressing room) of the Virgin, which is situated behind the main altar. After ascending a small staircase, one comes nearly face-to-face with the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies. Here is an image of Mary that has lived through 500 years of Mexican history. The expression on her tiny, youthful face is so endearing, so full of sweetness and goodness that it is a moving experience, indeed, to be here.
Cortes’ “utterly unbelievable victory” in 1521 initiated the demise of paganism in Mexico. Christianity would become the religion of the land. To this day, 86% of the Mexican population is Catholic. It is said that the secret weapon of the Spanish missionaries in Mexico was their devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Ten years before the arrival of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios arrived on Mexican soil. She was the first. It was she who paved the way.
Mary Hansen writes
from North Bay, Ontario