top of page

So many Mary's...

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

I have been trying to get a better understanding of the Virgin Mary.

Not being a Catholic, it’s difficult. My exposure to Catholicism is limited to terrifying warnings from my seven-year-old cousin, just six months older than Methodist me. “You better not do that, or you’ll go to Purgatory.”

When I dared to ask, the reply, “It’s where you wait to go to be burned in Hell.”

A current exhibition, Art and Empire: The Golden Age of Spain, (1600-1750) at The San Diego Museum of Art is all about the era in Spain's history when art and culture and expansion reached unprecedented heights. The expansion included the both Americas and both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean explorations all the way to the Phillipines.

Through September 2, 2019

The art from these glory days of Spain and New Spain features a multitude of versions of the iconic Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Mary is known by many different titles—Blessed Mother, Madonna, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, and Queen of Heaven to name a few, which in itself is complicated.

Typically, Mary wears a blue cloak representing her purity with a red garment under. Red signifies love, passion and devotion—all traits connected with motherhood and exemplified by Mary’s presence at the Crucifixion. Most often, she wears a golden halo created in techniques passed down from the masters in the gold workshops of the Italian Renaissance. This is most often not the case in the images created in New Spain during this time. New and different versions—are they the same person, I wondered?

Virgen de Guadalupe con apariciones, 1759 Miguel Cabrera Mexican, 1695-1768

The Virgin of Guadalupe has intrigued me for a long time. Is she the Queen of Heaven too? I have visited the Basilica in Mexico City and seen hundreds of pious worshippers making their way to her on their knees. Michael Cabrera, one of Mexico’s most important artist of the time presents the virgin as an Aztec maiden. Her pale red dress is the color of an Aztec princess; the turquoise of her robe is associated with the supreme Aztec. She wears a black band, the sign of one to come or fertility. No baby Jesús yet.

Guadalupe, Body and Soul, one of my favorite books ever, given to me by eight-year-old Sophie, colorfully illustrates the “Queen of Mexico, Empress of the Americas.” I believe she is the beloved Spanish Catholic version of the Roman Catholic Virgin Mary.

Virgin and Child with Saint John, Francisco de Zuburán, 1658

In the museum exhibition, along with Francisco de Zuburan’s newly-restored, Virgin and Child with Saint John, Miguel Cabrera’s Virgen de Guadalupe con apariciones is one of the most popular images.

But nearby there are more virgins painted in both Spain and New Spain. The Virgin of Loretto, Our Lady of the Pillar, Virgen de la Leche, The Virgin of the Forsaken, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, some with the baby, some without. Most garbed in red denoting the blood of Christ and blue, signifying the Virgin’s purity. Many with halos on their heads. I struggled, more and more confused…

Any good Catholics out there with input?

After my last docent tour for a most responsive group of Visual Art Students from Southwestern College, one of my museum buddies introduced me to her guest, an angelic plump little woman who I think said she was a nun from the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, a Catholic religious teaching institute for women which was founded in Spain in 1848. Certainly, she could clear up my confusion, I reasoned.

I studied her crisp habit, sparkling white and dark charcoal grey, nearly black. Her beaming face invited my question. “Can you explain all the different Virgin Marys? I’m confused.”

“Oh them?” she chuckled, continuing with a pshaw gesture of her hand, “They’re all the same. Every region has their own fairytale; everybody has their own myth of Mary and unique way to worship her.”

Oh, I get it.

From Renato...

I love to read your stories, and this one relating to our docent jobs required more attention than usual.

Though I grew up a Catholic, religion fell off my wagon so many years ago. 

I wonder if a main concern in images such as Virgin of Guadalupe was the need the Spanish had back then to make the heathen Aztecs turned away from idolatry to Christianity. So, how convenient to allow the Christian array of saints to somehow overlap with the Aztec pantheon of gods. It is no coincidence that the Virgin of Guadalupe made her apparitions at Tepeyac Hill, the exact location of a shrine of the Aztec Mother Earth Goddess. More than introduce the First Nations to the 'true' religion, the Catholics have let them adore their old gods dressed as the new ones. No wonder the Protestants don't allow the representation of saints (idolatry !!)

From Margaret

Hi Marilyn 

While on duty Thursday a gentleman arrived with a definite request, " I would like to go to the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe and find out all about who she is! I wonder if the fellow is here today that speaks Spanish, he was so good I'd like him if he's available! " 

I pointed out Ray in front of the Kitchen Maid but he said that wasn't I told him I think it's my best friend Renato who isn't here but maybe I could direct you. He had 6 El Greco stickers on his wallet indicating this was not unfamiliar territory. I proceeded to OLG , picking up Leonor and Marsha enroute..    

Leonor took centre stage and our guest asked   "Is she like the other Mary's or does each country have their own version." I chimed in that indeed they were all representing the Mother of Jesus but in the custom and theme connecting her to miracles in their county. 

Marsha wondered about the Black Madonna from Poland ..check out u tube The Holy Icon of Black Madonna of Czestochowa. 

The fact that Mary was a human , became a mother, a symbol of compassion and healing , delivered messages to children , or lowly peasants, thus she became a universal mother figure for all !

My Mother prayed through the war etc.  met with ladies every Tuesday as they still do here to pray to OLPH. , Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Believing  can do wonders! 

I pray to Our Lady of Lost Causes for Muffin to come home , she didn't come in Thursday and no sign since...full moon isn't a good time for cats , too many coyotes! 🙏🏻🙋🏼

Love your writing! I have a nice pamphlet from the Prado about all the Immaculate Conceptions that were donated by a trustee in 2015. 

Maybe we should go back,, ,


From Donna

So, I was raised Catholic and now you know more than I do !  Good job!


From Joan

Interesting, Marilyn, all my education - starting from kindergarten - was with the Immaculate Heart nuns!!!

From Jackie

Hi Marilyn - You will have to enlighten your cousin about Purgatory - it's where you go to cleanse yourself of your sins until you are 'pure' enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, where we will all meet some day (not Purgatory - Heaven).  I hope they have playing cards there!

This from my sweetheart housekeeper who did her best to explain her virgin:

Maria, who comes regularly with her husband Gorgonio, let me know her virgin is "Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles.

Very anxious to educate me, she sent this image and wrote" This one is stay in my house for one week - take it back Sunday to the (here she inserted the church emoji, but hers was a Catholic mission church)."

"This information for today to The Virgen," she concluded and added a red heart, praying hands and illuminated star emjoi.

See More from Marilyn Woods

166 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All


You have really cleared up the Mary mystery for a lot of us. Great writing too, so approachable. I can't get over the The Virgin of Guadalupe's full body halo.


Thanks for this confession of confusion about all the Mary's. I love the nun's response: "Every religion has their fairytales." It's what we do to try to make sense of it all, our attempts to explain the mysteries.

bottom of page