In the Hands of Our Merciful Mother

Truths of the Image
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a prayerful woman, who holds the desires and concerns of her children’s hearts in her hands.

Today, as millions of people pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe, we should keep in mind that Our Lady was herself a prayerful woman. We need only to look at St. Juan Diego’s tilma to see how Mary’s hands are joined together in a posture of prayer so familiar to us — and to the colonial Spaniards. However, Our Lady is praying in a way recognized not only by the Spaniards, but also according to the Indians’ posture of prayer: dance.

For the indigenous people, prayer was expressed not only by the hands, but by the whole body. In their sacred festivals, even amid their elaborate sacrifices and rituals, such prayer was an important highlight. As one of the early missionaries to Mexico, Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta wrote, the solemnities were elaborate occasions with “many roses and green and bright things, and with chants solemn in style, and with dances…of great feeling and importance, without disagreeing in tone or step, since this was their main prayer.” Even the emperor would unite himself to his people in prayer, dancing and singing for their gods. In this, we can see a new meaning in the flowers, in the birdsong, and even in the bright colors that Juan Diego observed before his first meeting with Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the image on the tilma, Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown in a position of dancing prayer, with her knee bent in movement. Above her praying hands, we find indications of her prayer in the gold-colored design. This design, you may remember from last month’s article, is one of nine heart-shaped flower blossoms decorating her tunic. And these blossoms, when viewed from different sides, resemble different glyphs of the Indian codices. One particular heart-blossom rests on her chest, above the location of her own heart. In the Indian codices, unlike the illustrations in European books, depth and the relationship between objects was shown by positioning objects beside or even behind one another (rather than using light or shadow), thus giving the images a very flat look. In this case, the technique gives the illusion that Mary’s heart — a symbol of both love and sacrifice — is held between her hands, in an act of prayer and offering to God.

Furthermore, this heart is placed not only in a place of possession, but of protection. As one ancient indigenous text explains, “You rise with gracefulness, with gentleness. Next to you different birds feed: the hummingbird, the zaquan, the quecholli, the tzinitzan, the quetzal. In your hands they take shelter from the heat, they protect themselves from the sun.” Indeed, Our Lady’s hands can be entrusted with our own hearts.

This powerful message of Mary’s loving relationship with us and her care for our relationship with God continues in the oral traditions of the indigenous people, which has been transmitted from generation to generation, even to this day. For the Totonac people of San Miguel Zozocolco, Veracruz, the elders share this beautiful message of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s intercession to their descendants: “Our elders offered hearts to God, so that there would be harmony in their lives. This Woman says that, without tearing them out, we should place our own hearts in her hands so that she may present them to the true God.”

Thus, in a visual way, the image of the heart is not only her own, but ours as well, conveying such a bond of love that makes Mary’s compassion an acceptance of our hearts, ourselves, within her. This is a true testimony of her words to Juan Diego: “I am your merciful mother, the mother of all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me. I truly will listen to their cries and their sadness in order to remedy all their sorrows, their miseries, and their pains.”