Thanks to Bellisario and a Suggestion or Two

Yesterday, Mr. Bellisario attempted to correct what he perceived to be a factual error in my previous post (link to Bellisario)(link to previous post). I appreciate the correction, and have updated my post.

There were a few main points to my post, but Mr. Bellisario happened to notice an issue with respect to a minor parenthetical remark regarding the idol whose worship played a prominent role in the article. Now, I appreciate that Mr. Bellisario carefully reads the articles presented here, just as I’m glad he listens carefully to Dr. White’s Sunday School lessons, but I’d like to encourage him to focus a little more on the main points. If, for example, Mr. Bellisario spent less time worrying about what images are supposed to represent (just as I should spend a bit more on that) and how many Roman Catholics served in the German army, and more time worrying about correctly interpreting Scripture and keeping himself from idols, he’d probably benefit spiritually.

This is not to take away from the importance of my getting the details and nuances correct too. Surely, it is wrong of me to distract attentive readers such as Mr. Bellisario from the main point by providing some minor, even trivial, error with respect to a very tangential point. I need to honor him by presenting him only with the most accurate information that I can.

Nevertheless, on this minor point, I’d like to encourage Mr. Bellisario to think a bit more deeply. I don’t say this to suggest that he change his mind, but simply so that he can perhaps get more out of this than he has already. So, a few thoughts:

1) How Does One Correctly Interpret This Idol?

a) Idol-Fashioner’s Intent

Usually, the best way to interpret a particular idol is to look to the intent of the maker. In the case of the more magnificent Renaissance-era idols, the artisan (whether painter or sculptor) left some clear indication of what was intended. Thus, in Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” we are informed by the painter (at least, that’s my recollection, I haven’t documented this) that the subject of the painting is supposed to Mary and Jesus as a child (link – warning, child appears to be naked). In this particular instance, if it were not for Raphael’s indication that this is supposed to be Mary and Jesus, we might think it could be any woman and her naked baby. The artist has informed us who he was painting and that helps us recognize his subject.

This is, by far, the most usual way to understand idols. But sometimes the one who fashioned the idols is unavailable. This is allegedly the case with respect to the “Our Lady of Guadalupe” idol, since the image is alleged to have miraculously appeared, much – one imagines – like the way that the golden calf came out of the fire – Exodus 32:24 And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.). How do we understand the image then?

b) Contextual

Sometimes the context can provide clues. For example, the following “woman and child” sculpture is of Roman origin (link to image). Could this be intended to be Mary and Jesus? That was probably not the sculptor’s intent, and we would want to look to contextual clues to ensure us that this is the case. Of course, if we’re very lucky, the sculptor places a legend on his work, or we find some other clues that lead us to his intent.

Here’s a more interesting example (link). This looks rather a lot like this image (link). If we had found the former statue in an appropriate context (late medieval Spain, for example) we might have thought it was supposed to be a statue of “Mary, Queen of Heaven” but instead, since this statue is dated to about 450 B.C., the statue is more likely to be that of a pagan goddess or queen.

Likewise, this idol of Isis breast-feeding Horus (link – Raphael-esque infant and breastfeeding) is similar in many ways to the collection of Renaissance-era paintings here (link – same warnings). However, the former is plainly too old to be intended as a sort of Egyptianized Madonna with child, while the latter collection can be contextually identified as idols of Mary and Jesus – and if we saw any other Renaissance-era paintings of a woman breast-feeding her child, given the cultural context, our first thought would probably be that the painting is intended to depict Mary and Jesus.

2) Application to the Guadalupean Idol

This idol allegedly appeared miraculously. Thus, there is no artist who could have told people what the painting was supposed to represent. Personally, I don’t believe this story, though. That doesn’t actually directly impact things, because whoever the artist was, he’s keeping silence about his work.

In theory, the woman in the picture could be any woman. But to view the woman as someone other than Mary requires us to ignore the context of to whom this idol allegedly came. It came to a Roman Catholic – someone in a religion filled with idols of Mary, including icons in which Mary looks something a bit like the woman in this idol.

If an idol of a woman were going to come to a Roman Catholic, it would almost certainly be an idol of Mary, not of some other woman. Additionally, this woman has a crown on (Thanks to Alex’s attention it’s worth pointing out that Mary’s crown is in many reproductions of the idol, but is not clearly visible in the idol as it presently stands. In fact, it looks like if there ever was a crown, it has been painted over. This nuance subtracts from our associating this with Mary, but still it seems likely to be intended to be her.), which is something most usually found of Mary (as opposed to other women) in Roman Catholic idolatry. Additionally, having a woman standing on a crescent moon seems to be a popular way to depict Mary either as Queen of Heaven (link) or during her Assumption (linklink). In fact, the assumption images have a lot of similarities to the Guadalupean one (some of them, of course, were painted later and so could have been influenced by that of Guadalupe).

So, despite the absence of any authorial clues, we can be pretty sure about the main subject of the idol. The main subject is supposed to be Mary. Quite possibly, the image was intended to be an image of the assumption and the little fellow at the bottom of the image is supposed to be an angel that is carrying Mary up into heaven. That’s sort of a best guess based on assuming (no pun intended) that the artist of the cloak modeled it after the European idolatry that is comparable.

When I first saw the Guadalupean image, I got the sense that the artist was trying to follow something along the lines of the following (link to image of Mary with crown and Jesus playing at her feet). If that were the case, the little fellow at Mary’s feet would more likely be some sort of representation of Jesus. If, however, the image is intended to fall in the Assumption or Queen of Heaven genre, then it would seem more likely that the little fellow is supposed to be an angel.

Another indication that this is supposed to be an angel are the wings. Although winged images of Jesus are not unheard-of (link to example), they seem to be fairly rare.

Another reason to suppose an angel is the location of the little guy. The guy is at the bottom of the image, directly under Mary’s feet. Although angels are in reality higher in dignity than any mere human (including Mary), in Roman Catholic idolatry they are very often depicted below her, both in several of the examples above as well as in this famous work (link). Here’s another example of a little cherub holding up the hem of Mary’s garment (link).

One of the facts that weigh against the person being an angel is that his back is towards Mary, whereas usually in Roman Catholic idolatry one expects to see angels looking adoringly at Mary. However, in some Roman Catholic idols, the representation of Jesus can back towards Mary (example of both aspects). Nevertheless, although angels tend to gaze adoringly at Mary, perhaps it would be an inappropriately-angled gaze from that particular position. Furthermore, such an illustration is not unprecedented (see this example of the “Mary Queen of All Saints” idol).

If this were an image of divine and not merely human origin, we would see no need to presume that the painter was building on pre-existing themes, and we would not assume that homologous design elements were intended to convey the same meanings or symbolism. Nevertheless, since this work is (fairly obviously, despite numerous pious papist protests to the contrary) a human composition and the composition of a Roman Catholic in particular (and not of a 5th century BC Egyptian or 2nd Century pagan Roman), we tend to use that context and presume that its visually similar themes are, in fact, derived from earlier European idols.

As such, my best guess at this point as to the derivation of the work is that it is a painting based on Albrecht Duhrer’s “Madonna in Heaven” (link) together with one or more similar portrayals (for example, the angel could be related to this one). If the “angel” at the bottom is not Jesus, then Jesus has been removed from the image. So, while I’m not claiming to have the final word on this, my best guess is that the little winged guy at the bottom of the image is really supposed to be some variety of angel and not, as I had originally suggested, Jesus. Instead, he’s entirely missing from the picture unless, of course, one sees Mary as pregnant in the picture, a hypothesis that seems popular on the Internet.


It would be handy to be more familiar with Rome’s idolatry in order to avoid distracting folks like Mr. Bellisario from the rather clear problem that this is, in fact, idolatry through making mistakes over a rather minor graphical element of the idol. One would hope that Mr. Bellisario would then not miss the parallels between Diana of the Ephesians and the Virgin of the Mexicans. I need to try to be careful as well that this post avoid similar minor errors lest it distract Mr. Bellisario (or folks like him) from the parallel between Aaron’s calf and this painting.



4 Responses to “Thanks to Bellisario and a Suggestion or Two”

  1. Alex Says:

    Where is the crown?How is it obvious that this is of human origin?

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    "Where is the crown?" the image there, it is right above her head. And the website claims " This is an exact 4" x 6" digital replica of the original Miraculous Image of Mary," but that's actually an interesting problem because … other reproductions don't show the crown and the photos that I've seen are ambiguous as to whether there is a crown there or whether there are simply rays coming off of her head-covering. at this one ( ) it looks like there is no crown, or perhaps that the crown has been painted over (the head is a bit dark where the crown should be)."How is it obvious that this is of human origin? "Just look at it!

  3. Natalie Says:

    who was the painter and what is the title and when was it made?

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    There is no title on the work. No painter claims it as his own, though Juan Diego is the one credited with bringing it to the public eye. The approximate date it was painted is 1531.

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