The Virgin of Tepeyak

A brief history of la Virgen de Guadalupe

When Spanish forces under the command of Hernando Cortes first set foot on the eastern coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519, they christened the site of their landing Veracruz, “the true cross” (Cortes et al. 2001:4). Within five years of Cortes’ arrival, a group of Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico, tasked with converting the previously unknown indigenous people to Christianity. These missionaries brought with them a worldview forged in the apocalyptic and millenarian ideas that had become characteristic of Spanish Franciscanism.

Driving this project of missionization was what J. L. Phelan described as “the millennial kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World” (Phelan 1970). In this essay, I explore the millennialist roots of these early Franciscan missionaries and argue that their apocalyptic beliefs not only influenced the emergent Mexican identity but directly resulted in what is easily Mexico’s most recognizable national symbol: the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Legacy of Joachim of Fiore

“The beginning of the last preaching of the gospel on the eve of the end of the world.”

The millennialist worldview held by Franciscan missionaries to the New World were rooted in the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a Cistercian abbot who lived from 1130–1202 CE. Fiore led a controversial reform of his order and established a monastery in which a vow of poverty was required. Historian Delno West has called Fiore “the most important apocalyptic writer and exegete of prophecy in the Middle Ages” (West 1989:294). Fiore is best known for developing an outline of world history in which humanity would pass through three “ages,” (figure 1) ending in an age of the Holy Spirit (Whalen 2009:102–108).

Guided by Joachimist thought, Franciscan missionaries sought to create a “New Jerusalem” in Mexico, in which “The age of the Holy Spirit, the return to primitive Christianity, the millennial kingdom promised in revelation, and the restitution of Eden all coalesced to inspire a new Church worthy of its New World” (Graziano 2010:42–44). The conduit that introduced Joachimist thinking into Mexico was the ecclesiastical province of San Gabriel in Extremadura, Spain. San Gabriel was the home province of the first Twelve Franciscan missionaries sent to Mexico.

Figure 1. The three Ages of Joachim of Fiore

The province of San Gabriel was established by Fray Juan de Guadalupe in 1518. Fray Guadalupe advocated a return to the strict observance of the vow of poverty, and his ideas were directly inspired by the Joachimist theology and writings of the “Spiritual” Franciscans of the thirteenth century. As Georges Baudot observed, the fact that this newly established province was so deeply influenced by Joachimist thought meant that any events surrounding the discovery of the New World, as well as the subsequent victory of Cortes in 1521 would inevitably be interpreted in this light (Leisa Kauffmann 2010:122–123).

In his fourth letter to King Charles V, Cortes petitioned for Franciscan and Dominican friars to spread the gospel in the new world (Cortés et al. 2001:332–335). Charles V responded by appointing Fray Martin de Valencia of San Gabriel to lead a group of twelve Franciscans to Mexico, a deliberate reference to Christ’s twelve disciples. Among the twelve were Martin de Valencia, Geronimo de Mendieta, and Toribio de Benavente, the last of whom would eventually take on the Nawatl name “Motolinia.” These first twelve missionaries sought to create a monastic spiritual church in the new world based on the vita apostolica, a concept that sought to reclaim the primitive church through three principles: “poor, simple, and penitential” (McDonnell 1955). They viewed their mission as the “beginning of the last preaching of the gospel on the eve of the end of the world” (Phelan 1970:23).

A Millennial New World

On May 13, 1524, the twelve missionaries departed Spain and headed to Mexico. These men saw themselves as inheriting the legacy of the Spiritual Franciscans and were therefore “convinced that they were beginning the last great preaching of the Gospel before the end of the world, that the New World was, in fact, the platform for the third age of history, the Age of the Spirit” (Weckmann 1982:97). This reference to the “Age of the Spirit” is a clear indication of how deeply rooted the twelve missionaries were in Joachimist thinking. Their belief that a New Jerusalem was to be established in Mexico was reinforced by the popular myth that the indigenous people of the Americas were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel (Durán and Heyden 2009:3–11).

One of the most influential of these “new” spiritual Franciscans was fray Toribio de Benavente, or “Motolinia” as he preferred to be called. Motolinia wrote a book titled La Historia de Los Indios de la Nueva España, a collection of three treatises detailing the history of the Indians of New Spain. Given that Motolinia’s worldview was shaped by Joachimist thought, it is apparent that the book’s organization into three separate sections is not without meaning.

As Leisa Kauffmann notes: “The three-part structure of the Historia de los indios de la Nueva España can be seen as a rough superimposition of Joachim’s three stages of history onto Mexican reality. The Age of God or the Old Testament (the time of the Israelite’s darkness and wandering, their idolatry) corresponds to the description of Aztec religious practices in Treatise One, the vision of Mexico as a world of darkness and deception, in servitude to the “Prince of Darkness.” The Age of Christ or the New Testament (the salvation of mankind through the coming of a Messiah — Jesus) corresponds to the descriptions of the Franciscans’ establishment of the sacraments of baptism, marriage, and penitence in Treatise Two. Finally, the Age of the Spirit, the millennial reign of the saints, corresponds to the extolling of the Mexican landscape and the faithful Indian Christians in Treatise Three” (Leisa Kauffmann 2010:123–124).

On June 18, 1539, a group of recently converted Tlaxkaltekah natives gathered in the central plaza of Tlaxkala, a vast city-state located to the southeast of Mexico City, to perform a mock battle in celebration of Corpus Christi. This theatrical event, titled “The Conquest of Jerusalem” was written by Franciscan missionaries (Motolinía 1950:109–120). In it, thousands of Tlaxkaltekah warriors engaged in a fierce battle against “The Great Sultan of Babylon,” whose infidel forces were occupying Jerusalem (Restall 2004:120–121). After several hours, the Tlaxkaltekah forces emerged triumphantly, and the bloody reconquest of Jerusalem was complete. Motolinia prefaced his description of this event by “praying that this prophesied victory would soon happen” (West 1989:293).

Other prominent Franciscan missionaries sent to New Spain included Diego de Landa, Gerónimo de Mendieta, and Bernardino de Sahagun. Diego de Landa was one of the first Franciscans sent to the Yucatan peninsula and is infamous for burning approximately 5,000 Maya ceremonial images and books during an auto de fe on July 12, 1562 (Timmer 1997). Bernardino de Sahagun sought to record Nawa history and cosmovision in as much detail as possible so that his fellow priests would be better equipped to identify and weed out Mexican “idolatry.” His efforts resulted in the twelve-volume Florentine Codex, a massive undertaking written in both Spanish and Nawatl.

Gerónimo de Mendieta was born in 1525 and entered the Franciscan order in Bolbao when he was twenty years old. In 1554 he traveled to Mexico to spread the gospel and learn the Nawatl language. Once in Mexico, Mendieta lived in the monastery of Tlatelolko and spent most of his time working on the book that would make him famous, the Historia eclesiástica Indiana, a chronicle of the early evangelization of the New World. The church initially prohibited the publication of this work, declaring that it contained millenarian Joachamist ideas (Martínez 1980:189–191). The Historia was eventually published in 1870, after being rediscovered by the historian Joaquin Garcia Icazbalceta. As previously noted, the millennialist views brought to Mexico by Franciscan Friars manifested themselves in a variety of ways, from the production of Nawatl language plays to the public destruction of “works of the devil.” However, no millennial concept would have a greater influence on the Mexican people than the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Dark Woman of the Apocalypse

“Aside from her association with a traditionally sacred space, her female gender, and her reputed powers over natural forces, the Mexican Guadalupe was an eminently European image that had little meaning for the native worshipper.”

It may come as no surprise that the famous Virgin of Guadalupe of Mexico has its origins in the province of Extremadura, Spain. After all, Extremadura had served as ground zero for apocalyptic Joachimist teachings. According to the Guadalupe tradition, it was in Extremadura that a Spaniard named Gil Cordero discovered a small image of the Virgin Mary (figure 2) on the bank of the Guadalupe River sometime in the middle of the thirteenth century (Lafaye 1987:219). The Christians of Seville may have buried the small wooden image in the year 714 while fleeing the Moors (Lafaye 1987:220). The name of the river “Guadalupe” appears to be an Arabic/Latin compound word meaning “river of the wolf.” Cordero built a small hermitage on the site of his discovery, in honor of “La Virgen de Guadalupe,” or “The virgin of the wolf river” (Nebel et al. 2013).

The discovery of the carved image was viewed as a sign from God. In 1337, King Alfonso XI visited the hermitage, asking the Virgin for assistance in his battle against the Muslims. On October 30, 1340, the unified Castilian and Portuguese forces led by Alfonso XI defeated the Muslim Marinids of North Africa at the battle of the Salado River. King Alfonso credited the victory to his faith in La Virgen, and he ordered a Monastery built on the site of the hermitage (Lafaye 1987:222). To help spread the veneration of “our lady,” artists began to paint replications of the carving and earned money for the shrine by selling prints of it. The images’ influence quickly grew.

Figure 2. La Virgen de Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain.

Among the devotees to La Virgen was a soldier named Hernan Cortes. Cortes was fanatically devoted to the worship of La Virgen de Guadalupe, and he carried an image of her on his banner (figure 3). In 1519, Cortes invaded the valley of Mexico, bringing the image of La Virgen with him to the New World. It was Cortes’ banner that served as the “official” flag of the Spaniards until the first Spanish officials began to arrive. It is said that Hernan Cortes was so devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe that he had a special necklace commissioned and sent back to Extremadura as an ex-voto, though not all historians agree with the historical veracity of this claim (Muller 1968).

Other prominent devotees to La Virgen included King Ferdinand II, Queen Isabella I, and Christopher Columbus. It was during a pilgrimage to the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1486 that Columbus negotiated the royal sponsorship of his proposed voyage to India. When Columbus returned from his 1492 journey, he visited the shrine to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for granting him a safe and successful voyage. As a symbol of his gratitude, Columbus named the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in her honor. Eventually, a shrine in honor of Cortes’ beloved Virgin of Guadalupe was established in Tepeyak, near Mexico City.

Figure 3. Virgen de la Conquista del Estandarte o Pendon de Hernan Cortes. Museo del Castillo de Chapultepec, Cdad. de México, D.F.

The shrine at Tepeyak attracted a small but loyal following, leading fray Diego de Santa to request that it be renamed, as “the Guadalupe of Tepeyak was making people forget the Guadalupe of Extremadura, and that many who contributed to the ermita believed that their money was going to Spain” (Poole 2004:72). As Catholicism spread, several community-based cults sprung up throughout Mexico, each centered around the veneration of a different Catholic figure. Guadalupe’s small following among Spanish and Indigenous Communities was a “relatively local phenomenon” (Peterson 1992).

Sometime around 1556, a new painting of La Virgen was placed inside of the shrine at Tepeyak. It is this image that we most closely identify with La Virgen de Guadalupe today (Figure 4). While the authorship of this image is unclear, it is generally accepted to be the work of indigenous artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino (Poole 2004:63). In a now-controversial sermon delivered on September 8, 1556, fray Francisco de Bustamante mentioned that the image hanging in the shrine had recently been “painted by an Indian” (Poole 2004:60), and was detrimental to the “Indian neophytes already confused between adoring what was on the altar made of “cloth, paint, or wood” and the true mother of god who is in heaven” (Peterson 2005:584).

Figure 4. La Virgen of Guadalupe: Tilma Image, Marcos Cipac de Aquino, 16th century
 Oil and Tempera on Cloth, Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico D. F.

In 1648, The creole priest father Miguel Sanchez hoped to popularize the shrine at Tepeyak by writing a book titled “The image of the Virgin Mary.” It was in this book that the modern myth of “la Virgen” was born. Sanchez wrote the book hoping to attract more followers to the temple at Tepeyak, and establish Guadalupe as the “primary Virgin Mary in New Spain” in an effort to overshadow the Virgen de los Remedios, which was favored by Spaniards who had been born in Spain (Peterson 1992:42).

According to Sanchez’s story, on December 9, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to a recently Christianized Nawa by the name of Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyak. Juan Diego reported his encounter to the Catholic Archbishop Zumarraga, who at first did not believe him. Once again, Mary appeared to Juan Diego, and once again Archbishop Zumarraga did not believe him. A few days later on December 12, 1531, Mary appeared once more and caused flowers to grow on the barren hill. She then told Juan Diego to gather up the flowers in his tilma, a long cloak made of cactus fiber, and take the flowers to the Archbishop as proof of her appearance.

When Juan Diego unfolded his Tilma in front of the bishop to let the flowers fall out, it was revealed that “Mary” had left an image of herself on the Tilma. This “miracle” tilma, made of simple maguey fiber and bearing the image of La Virgen, is allegedly the same tilma that hangs in the temple at Tepeyak, which is now known as “La Basilica de Guadalupe” (Lasso de la Vega et al. 1998). With the publication of Sanchez’s book, Marcos Cipac de Aquino’s modest painting was transformed into a sacred object through literary invention–an immaculate deception, if you will.

“A woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”

The painting of Guadalupe created by Marcos Cipac de Aquino bears little resemblance to the Guadalupe figure that sits in Extremadura, Spain. Aquino’s tilma at Tepeyak appears to be a hybrid image, combining two popular Marian themes: The Woman of the Apocalypse as described in Revelation 12:1, where she is “A woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” and common depictions of the Assumption of the Virgin. A comparison of the famous tilma image to Marian depictions which were widely available at the time strongly suggests that they served as a visual basis for the tilma image (figures 4–6). Of particular note is the Virgen del Coro, which hangs in the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura, and was created in 1499. The following are just a few examples of the images Marcos Cipac de Aquino had available as inspiration for his famous painting.

Figure 4. Virgen del Coro, Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura, Spain c 1499
Figure 5. The Madonna and Child in a Rosary, ca. 1490
Figure 6. Detail of “The Assumption of the Virgin,” Ambrogio di Stefano da Fossano, c 1500

The site of Tepeyak was most likely selected because it had been the location of ceremonies venerating the female deity figures (Teteoh) known as Chikomekoatl “seven serpent” and Ziwakoatl “serpent woman” (Lujan and Noguez 2011). By placing a shrine in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe at Tepeyak, the Spaniards hoped to subvert an indigenous sacred space and transform it into one of Catholic obedience. Every September 8th, a feast day was held in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as was the practice in Spain. However, the task of supplanting an Indigenous sacred site for a Catholic one proved more difficult than they had hoped, as ceremonies in honor of Nawa mother deities persisted at this location.

In the Florentine Codex, Sahagun expressed his frustration at the Indigenous preference to recognize the shrine of Guadalupe as the location of “Tonantzin.” Tonantzin means “our beloved mother” and is a common title associated with various traditional Nawa mother deities. Sahagun argued that this confusion of La Virgen with Tonantzin was “something that should be remedied, for the correct native name of the Mother of God, Holy Mary, is not Tonantzin but rather Dios inantzin (literally “the mother of god”). He continues, “It appears to be a satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin. And they now come to visit from very far away, as far away as before, which is also suspicious, because everywhere there are many churches of Our Lady and they do not go to them. They come from distant lands to this Tonantzin as in olden times” (Bernardino et al. 2012:Introduction and Indices, 90).

Indigenous participation at the Guadalupe shrine was not driven by faith in her image, but rather the desire to continue venerating the ancestral mother figures of Chikomekoatl and Ziwakoatl, both of whom held the title of Tonantzin. It is also clear that the Spaniards were struggling with how to resolve this issue of perceived “satanic idolatry.” After all, Indigenous patrons to the shrine had little interest in La Virgen de Guadalupe. As Jeanette Peterson notes “Aside from her association with a traditionally sacred space, her female gender, and her reputed powers over natural forces, the Mexican Guadalupe was an eminently European image that had little meaning for the native worshipper” (Peterson 1992:40).

Eventually, the official feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe was changed from September 8th to December 12th. It is unknown exactly when this took place, but the effort to distance the Guadalupe of Mexico from the Guadalupe of Spain was no accident. Indigenist critics have long decried the Mexican Guadalupe as a tool invented by the Spanish to indoctrinate Indigenous people under the guise of Tonantzin, but as I have demonstrated, this is not the case. Mexico’s Indigenous people felt no special relationship to Guadalupe beyond her place as one of several Catholic images brought from Spain. In fact, the motivation behind the invention of a distinct Mexican version of Guadalupe is far more mundane: it was all about the money.

The Virgin’s association with the image in Extremadura meant that the majority of donations collected at the Tepeyak shrine were diverted to the monastery in Spain. The Creole plan was simple: craft a new image of the Virgin that was visually distinct from the Guadalupe statue in Extremadura, establish a new feast day in her honor, and create an origin story that reframes her as an American apparition. By disconnecting the Mexican version from her Spanish roots, the Creoles could claim her image as an independent event. As a result, all of the alms collected at her shrine in Tepeyak would remain in Creole hands. She was transformed from a source of Spanish economic control into a symbol of Creole identity and independence (Lafaye 1976:232–238)

La Criolla Rises

“The Virgin’s apocalyptic iconography embodied all the components of the creole program: to verify the miraculous apparitions of Guadalupe as an American phenomenon, to justify the conquest, and to glorify Mexico”

The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, preserved in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, depicts a woman standing atop a crescent moon being supported by a small angel, her blue mantle covered with golden stars. She has a small black band tied around her waist, a common indication that she is pregnant. The image is a graphic representation that Christ is to be “born” again among the peoples of the New World, and is a message as relevant to the “New World” today as it was during the lifetime of Juan Diego.

As years passed, tensions in Mexico grew between Spaniards born in Spain (peninsulares, or the more pejorative “gachupines”) and the ethnic Spaniards who had been born in Mexico, known as Creoles (Peterson 1992:40). The Creoles established an identity for themselves as the true chosen people of the New World and pointed to the “miraculous” appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe as described in Father Miguel Sanchez’s book as evidence of their preferred status. The Creoles referred to La Virgen as “La Criolla” and saw her alleged appearance in Mexico as proof that they were the chosen people of the New Jerusalem. After all, According to Stafford Poole “She was born a second time, not in Judea but in New Spain, her new homeland, whose people were specially favored by her” (Poole 2004:214). The Virgin of Guadalupe became a symbol of Creole divine providence, as “The Virgin’s apocalyptic iconography embodied all the components of the creole program: to verify the miraculous apparitions of Guadalupe as an American phenomenon, to justify the conquest, and to glorify Mexico” (Peterson 1992:42).

In the eyes of the Creoles, the Virgin of Guadalupe was the perfect nationalistic symbol. Despite their European heritage, the Creoles felt as though they were being treated as second-class citizens by the “pure” Spaniards. Fray Juan de Villa brought this view to the forefront in a sermon delivered on December 26, 1733, when he declared that “As God gave Moses the Law on the mountain, so he gave Zumarraga the image on a hill” (Poole 2004:183). These tensions came to a head on September 16, 1810, when a Creole priest named Miguel Hidalgo de Castillo rallied his fellow Creoles in a struggle for Independence from Spain with his famous “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms that ended with the words “Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!” Ultimately, the Virgin of Guadalupe was effectively made “into a utopic vision for the evangelization and colonization of the Americas, as a way to defeat paganism, to realize a New Jerusalem, and ultimately to endorse the formation of a Mexican nation” (Peterson 2005:610). It was Father Hidalgo’s grito that transformed the Virgin into a national patroness, her image emblazoned across banners and flags during the war for independence as a symbol of creole resistance to Spain.

Miguel Hidalgo, issuing his famous “Grito de Dolores.”

Following the Mexican revolution of 1910–1920, a wave of nationalism based on the exaltation of Mexico’s Indigenous past swept across the nation. It was during this time that the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe was reinvented as a symbol of Indigenous pride. Reproductions of her image were often darkened to signify her position as Indigenous patroness. Efforts were made to conflate the image of Guadalupe with those of Nawa mother deities–a misguided practice that continues to this day. Some of her more ardent followers even crafted an addendum to her origin story, claiming that she originally spoke to Juan Diego in the Nawatl language. In this updated version of events, she refers to herself as “Coatlaxopeuh,” a word that allegedly translates as “she who crushed the serpent’s head” which in turn was misunderstood by Spanish priests who mistook the name for their beloved Guadalupe of Extremadura. However, this attempt at reframing the myth rings hollow, as the word Coatlaxopeuh does not translate to an actual word, nor does it follow basic rules of Nawatl grammar (M. Pharao Hansen, personal communication, November 29, 2020). Essentially, the word is a nonsensical invention.

Millennialism Triumphant

Today the Virgin of Guadalupe stands as one of Mexico’s most recognizable national symbols, rivaling the Mexican flag itself in terms of popularity. Her image is found emblazoned on votive candles, rosaries, t-shirts, murals, and all other manner of religious and secular art. Every year on December 12th, the day of the virgin’s alleged appearance to Juan Diego, thousands of Mexican faithful flock to the Basilica at Tepeyak to venerate her image and pray for the Virgin to intercede on their behalf.

In 1996, Monsignor Guillermo Schulenberg Prado, the abbot of the Basilica, was forced to resign after publicly doubting the historical veracity of the virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego (Dillon 1996). Despite numerous analyses of the tilma, all showing that the “miraculous” story of the image is nothing more than an elaborate hoax, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as a Saint on July 31, 2002. The Virgin of Guadalupe and the story of her appearance to Juan Diego at Tepeyak remain firmly entrenched in the collective Mexican and Mexican-American identity. One could say that the influence of Joachim of Fiore continues to radiate throughout the Mexican countryside and Chicano barrios of the United States. She remains an immaculate deception, brought to Mexico by Spanish invaders, and forcefully grafted onto the Mexican psyche by creole nationalists.


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