The year is 1623. A family of aerial acrobats was traveling through the towns and villages of rural New Spain. One of their stops was San Juan Bautista Mezquititlán, a small town in what is now the northeastern part of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Soon after they arrived the acrobats set up their poles and ropes and were eager to perform to the delight of the villagers that evening. To heighten the suspense of their show, the father of the acrobatic family instructed that daggers facing upward should be inserted into the dirt beneath their performance space, which was routine for them to do. Audiences were always thrilled at the element of danger that the daggers introduced. That afternoon, while practicing, one of the girls of the family, who was about 7 at the time, was swinging on the ropes, lost her grip, then slipped and fell into the field of daggers. Her panicked parents, horrified at the sight, rushed to her aid, but she was already dead.
The parents later took the girl’s body to the local chapel to be anointed by the parish priest and to be prepared for burial. The caretaker of the chapel, an elderly native woman named Ana Lucía Antes who was very close to her 80th year, had heard of the tragic accident before the parents arrived with the little girl’s body. Ana Lucía had fetched a tattered statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception to present it to the parents. This statue had been brought to the village in 1542 by a Spanish priest and at the time of the accident it was nearly 90 years old. It had been made in the traditional Purépecha Indian way of plastering a mixture of corn meal and orchid juice to a wooden frame to mold the figure, a folk art method that is still in use today. Because of how it was made, the figure had not stood the test of time very well. The Virgin statue had always been special to Ana Lucía and when it was retired from the main church she kept it in her own quarters. She claimed that she was able to talk directly to the Virgin Mary through the statue, and that the statue talked back. Many villagers thought her to be eccentric, but the deeply devoted Ana Lucía was so convinced of the statue’s power that she told the parents of the deceased girl to have faith in God and the Virgin Mary and to pray for their little girl who was then lifeless and wrapped in a burial shroud before them. Ana Lucía placed her beloved statue on the girl’s lifeless body and a small group of people who had gathered there began to pray. Within the hour, they detected movement within the shroud and then they all heard the muffled soft voice of the little girl calling for her mother. The father unwrapped the shroud and the little girl emerged, unscathed. News of the miracle traveled fast and even caught the faraway attention of the King of Spain who, by royal decree, granted the town the right to incorporate as a city to henceforth be known as San Juan de Los Lagos.
The story of the traveling aerialists does not end with the resurrection of their little girl. The father of the acrobat family wanted to show his devotion to the Virgin and to give thanks to the small chapel of the town. He asked if he could borrow the Virgin statue to have it refurbished in Guadalajara. The parish priest gave him permission to take the statue to the regional capital. There, the acrobat met an unnamed artist who completely redid the statue, even giving it elegant clothing and an elaborate golden Byzantine-type crown. Her face is smooth and her hands are folded delicately in prayer. She stands less than 2 feet tall on a crescent moon, as is typical of many representations of the Virgin Mary throughout Mexico, as an unconscious tribute to the memory of the pre-Columbian moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. The statue now is pretty much the same as it was after its refurbishment almost 400 years ago. It remains today in a building on the same site of the original miracle, incased in glass and with two silver angels flying above it holding a banner boldly proclaiming in Latin, Mater Immaculata ora pro nobis. This translates in English to “Immaculate Mother pray for us.”
Since the story of the acrobat’s daughter in 1643 there have been tens of thousands of reports of miracles, intercessions and favors granted that have been attributed to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos. In the mid-17th Century news of the miracles of the Virgin spread like wildfire through colonial New Spain and the small chapel devoted to the statue could not handle the increasing influx of pilgrims, some of whom traveled from hundreds of miles away. To accommodate the growing number of visitors, in 1732 construction began on a much larger church made mostly of pink sandstone, with work on the main building completed by 1779. It would take 11 more years to finish the impressively towering baroque spires that would cap off the new church. The shrine is accented in Tuscan columns and cornices with the main altar fashioned of sandstone and cypress wood, done in neoclassical style. Behind the altar are 6 original oil paintings by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. The various construction and renovation projects occurring at the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos complex have been completely funded by a steady flow of gifts to the shrine. In the 1970s, two hundred years after the completion of the new church, the Vatican declared the church to be a basilica. The Basilica of the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos currently attracts 7 million visitors annually from all over the world with one million of them coming for the fiestas devoted to the Virgin in late January and early February. Another important devotional date is August 15th. It was on that date in 1904 when then Pope Pius the Tenth granted the statue a canonical coronation thus further sanctifying it and solidifying it as one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in all of Latin America.
To the right of the main entrance to the basilica is a room meant for devotions. A faithful person will make a promise to the Virgin and if the person’s prayers are answered the person will undertake a pilgrimage to the shrine and may leave something there. Sociologists call this exchange “petitionary devotion” where there is a reciprocity attached to holy sites or objects. In the words of Frank Graziano, author of the book Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico, the writer states:
“Devotion to miraculous images is concerned almost exclusively with petitioning sacred power for purposes that range from banal desires to resolution of life-threatening crises. It is a practical, goal-directed, utilitarian devotion; a survival strategy; a way of interpreting reality; and a resource enhancement realized through collaboration with a sacred patron. Miracles are petitioned above all for health-related matters, but also for matters concerning employment, family, pregnancy and childbirth, romantic love, education, migration, and agriculture, among others.
Petitionary devotion consists primarily of making miracle requests together with promises to offer something in exchange. In written petitions the promises, or vows, are sometimes explicit, like a signed agreement instead of a handshake, but usually the reciprocation remains unspecified. Promises may be made in prayer, before or after the miracle, but votaries also petition miraculous images without explicitly obligating themselves. Reciprocation is nevertheless always required and when no terms are stated it is likely to take the form of a shrine visit to give thanks in person. Votaries have little to lose in these arrangements, known as votive contracts, because they themselves establish the terms and are under no obligation unless the miracle is granted.”
In this votive exchange the person will leave behind at the shrine a physical representation of the favor or miracle granted. For example, a devotee may pray to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos to intercede in the serious illness of a child. If the child recovers, the faithful person may create or have commissioned an ex voto painting of the event and leave it in the shrine’s room of devotions. Paintings are usually done on tin but can be found on wood or cardboard and sometimes illustrated in simple pencil or crayons. The result of this phenomenon of offering physical objects as thanks is a room from floor to ceiling of devotional folk art, from the crude to the ornate. In all of Mexico, this room at the Basilica of the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos probably houses the biggest concentration of religious folk art outside of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. Gifts to the Virgin may not take the form of the devotional paintings, however. The room, with its high ceilings and steep stone staircase is full of hundreds of mementos of miracles, from crutches and braces to articles of clothing and dirty teddy bears to pieces from car wrecks. Flowers, both real and those made of corn husks, are also abundant. In addition to being very visual, this large devotions room is probably the most emotional part of the whole Basilica. Highly devoted people go there to leave their offerings while praying with tears pouring down their faces. It is often hard to tell whether or not the tears are those of sadness from a horrible life event or those of joy for having successfully connected with the divine.
REFERENCES (This is not a formal bibliography):
Compendio de la historia de Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos by Cango Aguayo (in Spanish)
Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico by Frank Graziano