Our Lady’s eyes

April 13 2003 | by

THE CANONISATION of Juan Diego, the native Indian who in 1531 witnessed the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Tepeyac hill, on the outskirts of Mexico City, is soon approaching. The solemn ceremony will take place in the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most visited Marion shrine in the world, thanks to the 10 million pilgrims who visit each year.
Last month we told the story of Juan Diego and the apparitions. We recounted how the brightly coloured image of the Virgin Mary worshipped in the Mexico City Shrine mysteriously materialised on Juan’s shawl in front of about 15 witnesses on 12 December 1531. On that particular day, Juan Diego had gone to see Bishop Zumarraga, who didn’t believe in his visions of the Virgin Mary, in order to bring him some roses gathered from the hill as a sign of the authenticity of the apparitions, since as it was impossible for anything to grow in the middle of winter in such an exposed location. The flowers which the Virgin told Juan Diego to pick were rosas de Castilla (Castilian roses). Diego had placed them in his tilma, a cape-like shawl which the Aztecs typically wore for work. When Juan unrolled the shawl, the presence of the roses was astounding. But truly miraculous was the image that had mysteriously appeared on the rough material of Juan Diego’s tilma.
The image is 143 cm high and a young woman with a slightly dark complexion; it is for this reason, in fact, that the Mexicans call her Virgen Morenita. The Virgin’s features are neither European nor native Indian, but a perfect mix of both races. It could be said that she is a perfect example of a girl of mixed race, but it is important to remember that in those days, such inter-racial mixes of Aztecs and Europeans did not yet exist. The physical structure of this image can thus be said to be prophetic in that it represents the mixed races which nowadays make up the majority of the Mexican population.
The image is surrounded by rays of the sun and under the Virgin’s feet there is the crescent of the moon and an angel propping her up. The angel’s wings are decorated with red, white and green feathers. The Virgin is wearing a green and blue mantle, covered with golden stars, and underneath a pink tunic embroidered with budding flowers outlined in gold. A dark purple belt is tied around the Virgin’s waist in a way which symbolises pregnant women for the Aztecs.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

As we already discussed in last month’s article, this miracle convinced the bishop. He immediately exhibited the image in the cathedral and ordered the construction of a church at the site of the visions, just as the Virgin had requested. The Shrine was finished in record time, on 26 December 1531, and the image was transferred there with a solemn procession.
Devotion to this image quickly increased. The Virgin had said to Juan Diego, ‘I am the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the true God’but many theologians have wondered why she asked to be called Our Lady of Guadalupe. Did she want to be called de Guadalupe because of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Estremadura, Spain? Did she do this in order to stop Spanish theologians from doubting the wisdom of a message originating from a native Indian? Other theologians say that she asked Juan Diego to call her ‘Coatlaxopeuh’ which in Nahuatl means ‘one who crushes the serpent’. We must remember that the Aztecs offered annually at least 20,000 men, women and children in human sacrifice to their gods. In 1487, in single four-day -long ceremony for the dedication of a new temple in Tenochtitlan, some 80,000 captives were killed in human sacrifice. Certainly, in this case she crushed the serpent (idolatry) and a few years later, millions of natives were converted to Christianity.
The shawl was woven using fibres twisted into twine. Once twisted, these fibres turn into rough, resistant threads. The resulting material was thus very coarse and completely unsuitable for painting on. Many people, upon looking at the image, asked themselves how such a beautiful figure could be painted on such rough material.
Research soon began, firstly by painters, then by doctors and finally by scientists, which revealed the incredible characteristics of this image which went above and beyond all scientific understanding. This mystery has continued to perplex over the centuries and has become one of the most surprising enigmas of all time.

The first scientific tests

The first scientific test carried out dates back to 1666. Some painters and scientists of the time obtained permission to carefully examine the shawl and to their great surprise they discovered that it had been painted without preparing a base, it was thus impossible to tell whether the image had been painted in oil or distemper. Moreover, the shawl is made of easily degradable fibres, which, upon exposure in a humid climate rich in saltpetrous particles capable of corroding even iron, should have deteriorated within a few years. Instead, however, 135 years had already passed at the time of the first scientific tests and the fibres were still intact. This observation has been made in all subsequent scientific research, and is still baffling even today. Mysteriously, this shawl made of fibres is the only one of its kind still in existence after 461.
In 1751, research was carried out by seven famous painters, led by Miguel Cabrera, and they noted that the image did not seem to have been painted by a human hand. The colours appeared to be ‘incorporated’ into the fabric. The painters wanted to reproduce copies of the image but in trying to do so, they realised that it was a practically impossible task. It was impossible to faithfully reproduce the expression and features of the figure because they had been created using the most amazing and inexplicable technique which made perfect use of every contour and irregularity in the rough material. They noticed, for example, that in the mouth, the imperfection of the material followed the upper lip perfectly, giving it depth and a profound expression.
Forty years later, in 1791, an incident occurred which revealed further surprises. Some workers were cleaning the golden frame in which the image had been placed in 1771. As they were carrying out their task, using a water solution of 50% nitric acid, a few drops fell onto the image by mistake. From a chemical point of view, this liquid should have caused irreparable damage. In fact, when nitric acid comes into contact with the proteins present in material of an animal or vegetable origin, it leaves a characteristic yellow colour as it breaks down the cellulose contained in the material. But this time none of this happened at all... The liquid which fell onto the shawl evaporated, leaving a faint mark which has completely disappeared over the years.
On that particular occasion, a very strange characteristic was noted: there is no sign of dust, or insects, dead or alive on the shawl. This very curious and inexplicable phenomenon has been observed every time the shawl has been examined for research purposes.
The most disconcerting findings however were discovered in more recent times. In 1936, Professor Richard Kuhn, director of the chemical division of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg, who two years later obtained the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, was given the opportunity to examine two threads, one red and one yellow, taken from Juan Diego’s shawl. The results of the analysis, using the most sophisticated technology of the time, revealed that these threads show no trace of colouring, neither animal nor mineral.

The reflected figures

Over the centuries, artists have painted around the original image of the Virgin. These additions have always cracked and faded with time, whereas the image always remains as fresh as if the colours had been newly painted.
There are many other details which academics are studying. In particular, the position of the stars which are on the Virgin’s mantle, perfectly reproduce the various heavenly constellations, even those which were unknown at the time.
However, the most surprising phenomenon which has awakened scientific curiosity regarding this image concerns the discovered facts in the Virgin’s pupils.
In 1929, Alfonso Marcue Gonzales, the official photographer of the Basilica of Guadalupe, studying some negatives of the image, found what seemed to be a clear image of a bearded man reflected in the right eye of the Virgin. He decided to inform the authorities of the Basilica, but was told to keep complete silence about his discovery, which he did. More than 20 years later, 1951, José Carlos Salinas Chavez, another official photographer of the Basilica of Guadalupe, declared that he saw a human figure in the left eye as well as the right. Since then, many people have had the opportunity to inspect closely the eyes of the Virgin on the tilma, including more than 20 physicians and opthalmalogists. One of them, Raffael Torija Lavoignet obtained permission to study the image without its protective glass cover. Between 1956 and 1958, he carried out five studies using magnifying lenses and ophthalmoscopes. He also confirmed the presence of images of human figures in the Virgin’s eyes.

It is known that in the human eye, three images of observed objects are formed which are called the ‘images of Purkinje-Sanson’ after the two researchers who discovered this in the nineteenth century. Two of these are ‘upright’, the first on the external surface of the cornea and the second on the external surface of the crystalline lens. The third image which is upside down, appears on the internal surface of the crystalline lens. In theory, such reflected images, can be seen not only in the eyes of a living person, but also in a photograph of a human being. However, they can never be seen in the eyes of a human face painted on material. Yet, several researchers had already witnessed reflected figures in the pupils of the Virgin’s image which dates back to 1531. This phenomenon became even more sensational once it was observed and studied with more sophisticated technology linked to computers.

The expert from Lima

In 1979, a Peruvian engineer, Dr. José Aste Tonsmann, PhD, arrived in Mexico. He had an excellent scientific background. In Lima, where he was born, he had studied at the Colegio San Luis, always coming top of his class. He then graduated in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Universidad National de Ingenieria of Peru, once again, finishing top out of all the students. He then obtained a second degree in Philosophy and moved to Cornell University in the States. where he specialised in computer science. He had worked with large companies and taught courses in some of the most prestigious American universities. He was, all in all, one of the most qualified modern researchers.
‘I knew nothing about the Virgin of Guadalupe,’Dr. Tonsmann recounts. ‘Right from the very first day of my arrival in Mexico, I had always wanted to digitize a characteristic emblem of Mexico’s culture but I didn’t know what yet. I thought about the famous Aztec calendar or something similar. I happened upon an American magazine which spoke of the studies carried out by José Carlos Salinas Chavez on the Virgin of Guadalupe and contained details of the research carried out on the image’s right eye. This aroused my interest and my curiosity. It appeared to be an interesting investigative field and so I contacted the Shrine’s directors and began my research.’
The work carried out by Dr. José Aste Tonsmann in the last 23 years is incredible. Using the most up to date equipment, the like of which is used by Nasa to decipher photographs taken by satellites in space, he has thoroughly studied the Virgin of Guadalupe’s eyes. He has been able to enlarge them up to 2,500 times their original size, using 25000 illuminated points per millimetre square.
After filtering and processing the digitised images of the eyes to eliminate ‘noise’ and enhance them, he made some astonishing discoveries: not only one person was clearly present in both eyes, but an entire scene, in which there were about ten people. Clearly pictured there is a native Mexican seated naked, with his legs crossed, long hair tied back in a pony tail, an earring and a ring on one finger. Next to him, there is an old man who is quite bald, with a white beard, straight nose, bushy eyebrows and a tear rolling down his right cheek: this character has been identified as the Bishop Juan de Zumarraga. On his left, there is a young man who we imagine is Juan Gonzales, a translator for the bishop. Further along, there is the profile of an old man with a beard and moustache, large roman nose, prominent cheekbones, sunken eyes and half closed lips, who seems to be wearing a pointed hood: he is a native Indian and he is opening his shawl as he turns to face the old bald man.
The scene described thus appears to be Juan Diego bringing the roses to the bishop. The Virgin was present, her eyes took a picture of the scene and its images in the moment she appeared on the native Indian’s shawl, remaining preserved forever.

The young black girl

In the description of the various people observed in the Virgin’s eyes, Dr. Aste Tonsmann also identified a young black girl. This caused great alarm among academics as at the time of the apparitions in Mexico, there weren’t any black people. Subsequent research however has since clarified this mystery. In the bishop’s will, it is written that he had a black slave girl who he wanted to release before he died to thank her for her invaluable work.
Next to these ‘historical’ characters who have been perfectly described in accounts of the miracle written around that time, Dr. Aste Tonsmann has singled out a second scene, distanced from the first, almost in the background, of a group of anonymous people, who could represent an Aztec family consisting of a father, mother, grandparents and three children.
Reflecting on his extraordinary scientific discoveries, Dr. Aste Tonsmann, who is a member of the Centro de Estudios Guadalupanos has come up with a possible theory as a believer. He says that the scenes discovered in the image’s pupils could be a ‘message’ from the Virgin of Guadalupe. ‘A message aimed exactly at this moment in time, because the Virgin knew that only by using modern technology would the secrets contained in her eyes be discovered. The scene of anonymous people could indicate the importance of the family and its values; the presence in the Virgin’s gaze of people of mixed race could be an anti-racist warning; the shawl, (the tilma) which for the Aztecs was an item used to work in rather than an actual garment, could be an invitation to make use of technology to spread the word of Christ.’

Updated on October 06 2016