La Conquistadora–Some Concluding Thoughts


[Update: Here is the link to the review.]

I (finally!) finished reading Amy G. Remensynder’s book La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, and have sent off a review of it to H-Net; I’ll post a link to it as soon as it’s published there.   Here, I thought I’d add some remarks that didn’t make it into the review but which have a bearing on the book project, at least some of which amount to editing my earlier remarks here.

In that earlier post, I said that I suspected Remensnyder would say some things about the “Marian geography” of New Spain.  That didn’t come to pass in her book, but that appears to be because (and here I’m speculating; Remensnyder doesn’t discuss this) the Spaniards did not think of the indigenous religions they encountered as competitors with Christianity in the way that they regarded Islam to be in Spain.  During the Reconquista, it was the various Spanish monarchs’ goal, as well as that of the Church, to assert the Iberian peninsula’s essential Christian nature, going so far as to claim in a legend that a statue of the Virgin found in a cave predated the arrival of the Moors.  In addition, Remensnyder devotes several pages to the competing claims in the Bible and the Qu’ran regarding Mary as the mother of God–in particular, the doctrine of the virgin birth; she even writes of debates held between Muslim and Christian scholars on this and other subjects.  As both religions’ adherents are known as People of the Book, the warfare engaged in during the Reconquista was theological as well as military.  In this hemisphere, on the other hand, indigenous religious practices–in particular human sacrifice–made simple opposition and imposition of the One True Faith a relatively simple matter for the Spaniards: Cortés was not quite an evangelizer in equal measure to a conqueror, but it would be a mistake not to take seriously his efforts to introduce the Indians to Christianity through Mary as he made his way through Mexico, perfunctory though those efforts may seem to us today.


Anon., El hallazgo de la Virgen de los Remedios. 18th century. Pinacoteca de la Profesa, Mexico City. Image found via Domestic Issue.

So, then, Remensnyder produces no Marian geography of New Spain comparable to that which she traces out for Iberia because no one made the argument that Mexico’s essential nature was  a Christian one.  Rather, her narrative is a record of the superimposition of Christianity on New Spain via Mary as the Church’s principal tool of conversion, a narrative that has as its center La Virgen de los Remedios, whom some of Cortés’s cronistas credited with rescuing the Spaniards on the Noche Triste (their escape from Tenochtitlan on July 1, 1520).  Because of her association with Cortés’s eventual triumph over the Aztecs, La Virgen de los Remedios was the most prominent iteration of Mary among the Spaniards, but not so much among the Indians until a legend emerged that her statue had been lost and then recovered from a maguey plant by an Indian named Don Juan (a scene depicted in the painting you see here).  The implicit message of this story was that this Mary had come to Mexico to intercede for indigenous peoples as well as for Europeans.  Even so, this Mary would in time be superseded in devotion by the dark-skinned, Nahuatl-speaking Virgin of Guadalupe: it would not be she who would lead Spanish armies into battle against the Maya in the south or the Pueblo Indians in the north . . . however, she would lead Miguel Hidalgo’s army against Spain at the beginning of the revolution against Spain.*  Both La Virgen de los Remedios and La Virgen de Guadalupe, in other words, became touchstones for a developing sense of respectively, criollo and Mexican identity.  (D. A. Brading traces out the Guadalupan thread of that story in his book Mexican Phoenix.)  Though Remensnyder does not phrase it this way, she at least hints that if there was a Marian geography of New Spain, it emerged within Spanish subjects who, for various reasons, began to think of themselves less and less as being Spanish.

Remensnyder’s book fills a large contextual void for me, at least, regarding the cultural uses to which Mary has been put.  It is also frequently enlightening regarding medieval Spain–in particular, the fact that Mary establishes a surprising point of contact between Islam and Christianity.  That section also provides me with some further insight into why Spanish priests were fairly receptive toward adopting and adapting practices from other religions into rituals that became part of the cults of these iterations of Mary in New Spain.  Though not as strong on New Spain as I had hoped it would be, and though it becomes a bit tedious through repetition in places, I am glad to say that I have this book.


*Remensnyder’s book’s focus in the section on New Spain is almost exclusively devoted to La Virgen de los Remedios, she being by far the one more associated with conquest; Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe receives not even a page.  (In Remensnyder’s defense, however, if she had tried to write a book covering every iteration of Mary with any sort of detail, she would not be finishing any time soon.)  Because her book ends about a century before the War for Independence, Remensnyder does not mention Hidalgo’s appropriation of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe as an agent of war.  Thematically, however, that story would fit Remensnyder’s point perfectly: Guadalupe is usually the embodiment of the traditional images we have of the Virgin as peace loving, caring and nurturing: the Maternal incarnate.  And yet even she is not immune to being used for bellicose purposes.

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