Tuesday, February 26, 2008

mexico and discovered virgins

Just got back from a few days (too few) in sunny Mexico visiting the gorgeous colonial cities of Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, as well as the capital itself. A natural highlight was the Pena de Bernal (please imagine a tilde over the 'n' in Pena), considered to be the second-largest monolith in the world, and an abundant source of positive energies (or so Michiko assures me). Urban highlights included the laid-back plazas of Queretaro, the patchwork quilt of Guanajuato's houses scattered up and down their ravine, and Mexico City's urban villages of San Angel and Coyoacan.

I intended to call on the Virgin of Guadalupe while in Mexico, but time was short and there was too much else to do and see. Next time. But I did catch a glimpse of the Virgin of Guanajuato. Here is how she is described in the Eyewitness Travel book: "The statue was given to the city by Charles I and Philip II of Spain in 1557. Reputed to date from the 7th century, it is considered the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico." I didn't even have to see Our Lady to know that there was no way she dated from the 7th century, that she was, in fact, a virgen encontrada - a "discovered Virgin."

There are virgenes encontradas throughout Spain, but they are particularly thick along the Camino de Santiago. Nuestras Senoras de Roncesvalles, del Puy (Estella) and de Valvanera (matron of La Rioja), Santa Maria la Real de Najera, la Virgens del Manzano (Castrojeriz) and de la Encina (Ponferrada) are only a few of the most celebrated. But what are the virgenes encontradas? They are statues of the Virgin and Child (most often seated) that were created for churches of the Camino in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Later, however, a certain legend became attached to many of them.

According to the legend, which varies slightly from place to place, the statues were crafted in the early days of Spanish Christianity, before the Muslim conquests of the eighth century. When the invaders came, the Christians concealed the statues in caves, under the floors of churches, in holy springs and other secret places, before fleeing for the mountains of the north. Four hundred years later, when the Christian tide moved south again, the statues called out from their places of concealment through strange music or lights, mysterious birds or stags, wondrous deeds (the hoof of Saint James' horse splitting a tree trunk to reveal the Virgin concealed within). One way or another, they would call the attention of the returned Christians to let them know, "We are here, waiting for you. Bring us to the light and build us a church."

The tales of the discovered Virgins reveal the profound link between the mother figure, the feminine principle in the Spanish soul, and the earth over which she rules and watches. The holy mother and child rise up from the soil (or the water, or out of the very hearts of trees) as spontaneously and naturally as they rise up within the Iberian religious imagination.

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