Thursday, November 06, 2008

A brief adventure in New World iconography

Frieze depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe's appearance to Juan Diego, on the east side of the old basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City. 1531-1709. Image taken by the Mrs. Click to enlarge.

What to do with stuff that turns up during sabbatical-related research that in all likelihood won't show up in the book project but which may yet be of interest to, oh, a dozen or so people besides myself?

What to do . . . what to do . . . ?

As regulars here know, I recently posted a discussion of a couple of paintings depicting the Virgin that I saw on my recent trip to Mexico City. I'll have more to say later regarding this façade within that context, but what I wanted to post on here is the depiction of Juan Diego. On the day we took the picture, I was more interested in the European-style hat on the ground directly below his kneeling figure and the maguey plant in the lower-right corner. (Pulque, a fermented drink made from the juice of the maguey, was drunk by the Indians on her feast day, December 12.) But as the Mrs. and I played around with cropping the image she had taken and we enlarged it, I really noticed for the first time the small animal to the left of the maguey plant.

We thought (at first) that it was a squirrel. However, in the course of Googling about for associations (if any) among squirrels and Christian and Aztec iconography and what any of that might possibly have to do with Juan Diego and/or the Virgin, I happened to run across this passage, from the Aberdeen Bestiary:

Of the beaver There is an animal called the beaver, which is extremely gentle; its testicles are are highly suitable for medicine. Physiologus says of it that, when it knows that a hunter is pursuing it, it bites off its testicles and throws them in the hunter's face and, taking flight, escapes. But if, once again, another hunter is in pursuit, the beaver rears up and displays its sexual organs. When the hunter sees that it lacks testicles, he leaves it alone. Thus every man who heeds God's commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil. Then the devil, seeing that the man has nothing belonging to him, retires in disorder. That man, however, lives in God and is not taken by the devil, who says: 'I will pursue, I will overtake them...'(Exodus, 15:9) The name castor comes from castrando, 'castrate'. (Emphasis added; image found here)
The clear association here between beavers and living a chaste life reminded me that it is said of Juan Diego that he and his wife--both early converts to Christianity--after hearing a sermon on chastity, dedicated themselves to live chaste lives. Some say that this is the reason the Virgin chose to appear to him. At any rate, I went back to the image of the frieze and enlarged it some more; sure enough, the animal has a flat tail, rather than a bushy one. And now, I would love to know what that plant is that it is eating.

The beaver's appearance here in a depiction of a scene that it ostensibly has nothing to do with is at one level, that of iconography, perfectly understandable. Most of us are familiar with Renaissance-era depictions of animals or objects along with saints (think of Peter often shown with a set of keys, in reference to Matthew 16:19). What's intriguing here is the application of this principle to a depiction of Juan Diego. It speaks to the apparent need to assert or remind the visitor of his virtue and, thus, of his worthiness to receive a visitation from the Virgin. It causes me to wonder if certain visitors were considered to need this reminder more than others did (even in the decades immediately following the apparitions, elements within the Church questioned the veracity of the story). And as for what indigenous people made of the beaver . . . As of this writing, I have not been able to find what if any significance beavers held for the Aztecs, but somehow I doubt that chastity figures into their thinking.

In short, in this frieze is a not-yet-seamless fusing of iconic languages, as embodied by the beaver and the maguey plant, from two different religious traditions. In the associating of European images--the hat and the beaver--with the Indian Juan Diego, we see hesitancy in depicting some more overt sign of his Indianness to the viewer due to those signs' inevitable associations with the very religions that the Church sought to supplant. Besides, in the Church's eye, the fact of Juan Diego's Christianity would trump all other identities he might claim. Meanwhile, the maguey, a plant firmly linked to life before the arrival of the Spaniards, is a sturdy, literally rooted presence here. It's a strange visual space, this frieze. But then again, the New World is a strange place.


Raminagrobis said...

Interesting stuff. Can the frieze be dated any more precisely?

I once mentioned on my blog that Sir Thomas Browne devotes a chapter of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica to the belief that beavers bite off their testicles when pursued. Even in antiquity this was not widely believed to be literally true (even a writer as credulous as Pliny the Elder gave it the lie) -- and Browne remarks, following Pliny that it was 'experimentally refuted by one Sestius a Physitian'.

Browne reads it as an apologue or allegory, but not for chastity: it signifies that a man should "in case of extremity, not strictly to endeavour the preservation of all, but to sit down in the enjoyment of the greater good, though with the detriment and hazard of the lesser".

In Alciati's emblem book (1531), the beaver stands for the principle that "Sometimes safety must be bought with money".

John B. said...

Thanks for coming by and commenting, first of all.
As to the frieze's dating, I would dearly like to know it more precisely as well. I suspect that it's from the earlier end of that span of time, if only because beavers don't show up in later depictions of this scene. Good old Wikipedia says that Juan Diego's devotion and even holiness (in 1666) were recognized fairly early on--before the basilica was finished, in fact. The frieze itself appears directly over the main east entrance; it's not some afterthought but is clearly intended to be seen and contemplated.

The Browne passage you cite is interesting: a sort of figurative chastity.