In 1531, a decade after Cortez and his army sacked the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and built a new city on its ruins, an Indian named Juan Diego had a vision. As he walked past the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City, an old woman spoke to him in Nahuatl, telling him to ask the bishop of Mexico City to build a shrine at Tepeyac. Juan Diego went to the bishop with a tale of seeing the mother of Christ, yet the request was refused by the bishop. Juan Diego returned to the site of his vision. The woman reappeared, bidding Juan Diego to pick the roses from a bush in winter bloom and take them to the bishop. He gathered the roses in his cloak, and when he presented them to the bishop, the image of the Madonna was imprinted on the cloak, surrounded by a golden corona. The bishop was duly impressed, and a church was built to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Tepeyac had previously been a sacred site associated with the Aztec goddess Tonatzin, and images of the Virgen de Guadalupe were a grafting of this religious figure with Catholic imagery — the dark-skinned saint with indigenous symbology enabled many Indians to accept the new religion of the Spaniards. The Virgen de Guadalupe remains perhaps Mexico's most revered symbol, both sacred and secular, and Dec. 12 is the day that thousands of Mexicans travel to the basilica at the site of Juan Diego's vision. Followers worldwide likewise honor her.
ArtBeat Gallery celebrates “The Birth of the Virgin Empress” with a mixed-media and installation exhibition around the theme of the Virgen de Guadalupe. In addition to artwork, the event also features a lecture by Ana Montano on “The Mystery of Virgen de Guadalupe/Tonatzin,” an Aztec dance performance, an acoustic guitar serenade, poetry readings, and other offerings of devotion. The celebration lasts from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday at ArtBeat Gallery, 3266 21st St. (near Valencia), S.F. Admission is free, but bring a rose to place on the Virgen's altar; call 643-8721.