I’m not a very religious person but I’m always amazed when I visit iconic religious sites. However, I do want to add that religion aside, I can always appreciate the incredible art and architectural details in many of these places, as well as the legends behind some of them. While the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe outside of Mexico City does not have the stunning level of detail and beauty that St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City has, it still has a unique touch to it, not to mention it is highly revered by millions of Mexican Catholics, and is one of the most popular shrines in the world. In December of 2007 I was lucky enough to visit it with my family.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe comprises a Roman Catholic church, minor basilica, and National Shrine of Mexico. Its significance is simple-the shrine was built near the location where Our Lady of Guadalupe is believed to have appeared to Juan Diego, a 16th century indigenous Native American from Mexico. The local bishop was hesitant to confirm that Juan Diego had seen the Virgin Mary so he asked the peasant for evidence. Juan Diego saw the vision a second time, on December 12, 1531 and when he asked the Virgin for proof, she instructed him to collect the roses that began blooming in the rocky soil at his feet. He collected the flowers in his cloak and returned to the bishop. When he unfurled his cloak, the flowers dropped to the ground and the image of the Virgin was emblazoned on his cloak. The bishop immediately ordered the building of a church on the spot, and upon its completion the cloth with the Virgin’s image was hung in a place of honor, framed in gold. The apparition had a major impact on the spread of the Catholic faith within Mexico, and the Catholic Church canonized him in 2002 as its first indigenous American saint.
The grounds that make up the basilica can best be described as a combination of old and new. The old Basilica (the original one) was vacated in 1987 with the opening of the new Basilica, since the former was already centuries old and too fragile and insufficient to handle the large number of visitors each year many of whom approach for hundreds of yards on their knees.
|D on the grounds of the Basilica|
The new Basilica is described as modern, which from one glance, you can see is true. One expects this style of religious architecture on Protestant or even Evangelical churches, not Roman Catholic ones. The architect who designed the New Basilica also designed the National Anthropology Museum. The “miracle cloak,” as it is called by some, hangs behind bulletproof glass above the altar of the new Basilica. If there was ever a time where you thought that the Roman Catholic Church has not entered the 21st century, a ride on the moving walkway inside the new Basilica will change your thinking. Moving walkways go in two directions in order to transport the crowds at a distance below the cloak. You also have the option of seeing it again or as many times as you like; I understand the need for such a mechanism but to me it definitely lessens its religious significance when giving it a Disney World-style vibe.
More than the cloak behind the impenetrable glass, I appreciated the sights at the Basilica that made it Mexican-the stunning Mexican flag, the lovely temperate weather that made it possible to be sans coat in the winter, and especially the garden which commemorates the moment Juan Diego showed the cloak to the archbishop. It was a stunning section of greenery ironic due to its close proximity to Mexico City, considered by some to be the smog capital of the world. Although I didn’t venture there, at the top of the hill is the Panteon del Tepeyac, a cemetery home to famous individuals including Santa Ana (yes children, of Remember the Alamo fame) and Velasco, an early viceroy. It’s also said that the view from the top is worth the arduous climb-something I wish I had known at the time.
Whether you’re a religious person or not, some sacred sites have histories that are unparalleled, especially in the case of Juan Diego. He’s a testament to Mexico’s earliest origins as a New World colony-when native indigenous populations mixed with the Old World conquerors. Even if you don’t believe the apparition it’s still a wonderful legend to know and the shrine is an ethereal place to visit.