“A Marian geography of Christian Spain”: Some early comments on La Conquistadora


La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, by Amy G. Remensnyder

La Conquistadora is the next book I will be reviewing for H-Net.  I’m not even halfway through this massive book–in its chronicling of the Reconquista of Iberia from the Moors, I have only just now reached the crucial year of 1492, only to see it backtrack a bit in Part II to talk about how Mary was an object of veneration for Muslims and Jews as well as Christians, even as she was also called upon by Spanish kings and aristocrats to fight on the side of Christian armies.  In the third section, Amy Remensnyder’s book will discuss Mary’s career in this hemisphere, which, given my book’s interest in discussing (New Spain’s) Virgen de Guadalupe, should make for engaging reading–not that it hasn’t been so far.  (What disappointment I feel is simply that I’m not further along in reading it than I am, and not with the book itself.)

Already, though, some of the claims Remensnyder has made about how Mary has been invoked and venerated during the Reconquista seem to mesh with observations made by Serge Gruzinski regarding miraculous apparitions of the Virgin in Tenochtitlan/Mexico City in his crucial book on Mexican iconology, Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492-2019).  Below the fold, I want to talk my way through some of that without making an argument, seeing that, as I noted, I haven’t yet reached Remensnyder’s discussion of Mexico.  But I especially want to muse a little on her elegant phrase “Marian geography.”  I’m betting she will use it when discussing this hemisphere, but (again, without yet knowing what she”ll say) I’d like to try to put a New World spin on that phrase that differs from the one it has so far had in her book.

Virgin of the Catholic Monarchs

Fernando Gallego, The Virgin of the Catholic Monarchs (ca. 1490), The Prado Museum. Image found here.

Remensnyder’s book’s goal is to provide a historical corrective to the assumption that the Virgin Mary, within Christianity, has always been associated with peace and tranquility: that she comforts those who venerate her as a mother would her children in the face of fear or adversity.  At least in the Spain of the Reconquista, beginning in the early 12th century, poems and songs began to appear that attributed Moorish defeats to prayers to the Virgin.  As the centuries passed, Mary would be credited with actual, direct engagement with the enemy on the battlefield.  In gratitude (and to honor those who provided assistance in battle), the victorious Spaniards built churches dedicated to Mary in the just-conquered cities, often doing little more than re-dedicating already-standing mosques to her. In addition, monarchs would show extraordinary devotion to Mary, believing that doing so would bring them her favor in war and, as a result, would themselves grow in honor and reputation.  The Gallego painting you see here, and which Remensnyder gives a brief but attentive reading of in her book*, depicts the essence of the symbiotic nature of this last: It depicts Ferdinand (kneeling, on the left of the aisle) and Isabel across from him, offering prayers to Mary–yet, even though the monarchs are placed lower in space relative to Mary, note that they are almost the same size as she (and the priests standing just behind them) are.

All of this is to say that Remensnyder’s book is a history of the Reconquista told through a lens that creates for us “a Marian geography of Christian Spain” (62): As I mentioned earlier, after Spanish victories following invocations to Mary to intercede on their behalf, one of the first orders of business would be the establishment of a church dedicated to her that also served as a kind of staking of the newly-won ground for Christendom.  As the decades and centuries passed, later monarchs, before going out on their own campaigns against the Moors, would make pilgrimages to the more prominent of those churches.  All these movements, combined with legends and songs about Mary’s appearing to various commoners and coming to the aid of Spaniards in battle, map certain regions of Iberia, at least, as thoroughly as one could wish for.


Anon., Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th cen. Museo de la Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. Image found here. I do not have exact measurements for this painting, but I have seen it in person; it measure approximately 6’x3′.

At first glance, one could easily say that a similar Marian geography exists in New Spain, now Mexico, and I suspect that Remensnyder will say something along those lines in Part III of her book.  As Gruzinski notes in Images at War, within the first few decades of Tenochtitlan’s becoming Mexico City, four prominent shrines to Mary, each commemorating a different appearance she had made, had been built, and each corresponding to one of the cardinal points of the compass.  Priests quickly realized that veneration of the Virgen was extraordinarily popular among indigenous people and so encouraged this, to the point of rivalries emerging among the different orders of priests on behalf of “their” Mary.  Idolatry of images of Mary was a real concern, due to, Gruzinski argues, Europeans’ and indigenous people’s fundamentally different conceptual understandings of the relationship between an image and the subject it represents (very briefly: the Spaniards assumed the Indians’ sculptures of gods actually were representations of those gods and so worshiped the sculptures, but they did not–the sculptures in fact depicted attributes of the gods, they were something like allegorical depictions of those gods rather than literal renditions of them; meanwhile, European religious art was intended to resemble the personages who were their subjects but were not meant to be understood as those personages–yet the Indians, according to priests, had trouble conceptualizing the distinction).  To be sure, as he marched toward Tenochtitlan, Cortés made it a practice to depose Indian “idols” and replace them with crosses and statues of Mary, in a process similar to that which Remensnyder describes as occurring during the Reconquista; and, as I mentioned just above, the Indians seemed especially amenable to conversion via veneration of Mary.**  Yet this latter already is a difference between the respective deployments of Mary in Iberia and in New Spain.  Back in Europe, at least as reported by Remensnyder, there was little to no interest in attempting to evangelize to Moors or Jews en masse.

Such was not the case in New Spain.  By far the best-known of the Marian apparitions is the Virgen de Guadalupe, named by Benedict XIV as the Patroness of New Spain in 1754, the naming of which the painting above commemorates.  While the painting is an allegory, it nevertheless proposes, I would claim, a different kind of Marian geography.  In Part I of her book, Remensnyder notes changes in various legends of Mary’s appearance which had the effect of claiming that she belonged to Spain and Spain to her long before the arrival of the Moors; yet all of the churches dedicated to Mary after successful battles against the Moors seem to me emblematic of a definitive claiming of Spain in her name.  Mary in effect is placed there to set a watch over these newly-conquered places.  The painting we see here, though, is another matter.  It shows the allegorical figures of Europe (the woman on the left) and the Americas (the male on the right) flanking the apparition of the Virgin; each stands on his/her own rock plinth, physically isolated from that which seems to support the apparition: an eagle perched on a cactus and with a snake in its mouth–the sign the Aztecs were to look for that would mark the site where they would build their city, and a symbol that over the centuries had since come to represent this land.  Mary’s positioning here declares that her appearance is another revelation, that of God’s favoring of New Spain.  Indeed, the Indian is speaking, in Latin, Psalm 147:20: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (“He has not done the like for any other nation”), a verse that by that time had come to be closely associated with the Virgen de Guadalupe.  But she and the cactus with the eagle occupy their own space, that of revelation, suggesting that she, and it, are of neither Europe nor the Americas but of another space entirely (the cactus seems not to be growing out of a rock).  Marian geography, indeed.

It is an extraordinarily strange painting, as religious art of this era goes.  It had official sanction when it was made, and yet it seems to go far beyond its official purpose of commemorating Pope Benedict’s naming this Mary as the Patroness of New Spain.  Maybe, in fact, it goes in a direction other than that of its official purpose.  It seems very nearly political rather than religious in its intent: by the mid-18th century, New Spain was a Spanish colony pretty much only in administrative, political, and economic terms.  In cultural and ethnic terms, it had long ago become a space that was neither European, indigenous, nor African; in about 60 years, the priest Miguel Hidalgo would lead an army of peasants in revolt against Spanish rule, using as his flag a banner emblazoned with a reproduction of the Virgen de Guadalupe on it.  Yes: Mary, used in Spain as the patron of the Spaniards’ centuries-long war to drive out the Moors, would, in another guise, be used as the patron of Mexicans’ war to drive out the Spaniards.  Ironic as that all is, though, it just is not as interesting as how this painting’s spatial depiction of two scenes of revelation is such that it implicitly argues that revelation exists in a space beyond the bounds of geography or culture or religion.

My broad claim about the Virgen de Guadalupe will be something like this: Even if the image and the stories regarding her appearances to Juan Diego are fraudulent, the fact remains that the person(s) behind this fraud lost control over that narrative the moment they decided to depict her as being a mestiza.  In that instant, she began to and continues to signify in multiple ways and thus her meaning cannot be controlled by anyone: not the Church, not the government, not the people throughout this hemisphere who venerate her (though that last group clearly has the largest claim to her).  Her space–her geography–is a heterotpic space, an example of Silviano Santiago’s entre-lugar.  She seems at times to me not to have been brought here from Spain: She is Mary the mother of God, but she is not so in the strictly, historically-Catholic sense of that expression.  In some sense, she has always been here, waiting for the right time, and for the emergence of her people, the ones whom she most resembles, to reveal herself.

*Strangely, Remensnyder never identifies Gallego as the maker of this painting, even though that is not in dispute and the sources she makes use of when discussing it would have referred to him as well.

**In fact, with regard to the Virgen de los Remedios, a statue which Cortés brought with him on his campaign against Tenochtitlan and which the Spaniards therefore much admired, some priests expressed concern that her close association with the conquest might have the effect of reducing her effectiveness as an instrument of conversion of indigenous people.  At least in that instance, then, there was the desire on the part of some to play down this Mary’s martial associations.

One thought on ““A Marian geography of Christian Spain”: Some early comments on La Conquistadora

  1. Pingback: La Conquistadora–Some Concluding Thoughts | Domestic Issue

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