New special exhibition reveals the origins of the Empress of the Americas

December 8, 2015

HOUSTON — The Houston Museum of Natural Science will feature a special exhibition, “La Virgen De Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas,” in collaboration with The Basilica de Guadalupe, opening Dec. 11.

The exhibition will trace back the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to St. Juan Diego.

For some, the Virgin’s appearance is the absolute, incontrovertible truth and a matter of faith. For others, her iconography is a powerful rallying point for a common cultural identity. 

For still others, hers is an epic tale representing the apocalyptic clash of two worlds and the resulting germination and flourishing of a new civilization, like the rebirth of a forest after its cataclysmic destruction.

“Regardless of your personal take on this story, we invite visitors to the exhibition to consider the history and reality surrounding the apparition of The Virgin of Guadalupe,” said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of Anthropology at HMNS. “She is in both image and name the patroness of hundreds of millions of people who call her their mother, who call her their queen.”

The exhibition begins in 8th-century Spain and ends in the Americas of the 21st-century. In between is a long, complex and fascinating story of deep faith, conquest and conversion, and the development of contemporary expressions of devotion to the Virgin.

The story starts in the Iberian Peninsula, at a time when Muslim forces have overrun most of the territory. Over the next eight centuries, Catholic kings ruling the northern edges of the Peninsula fight to reconquer these lost lands. During this epic struggle, in the early 14th century, a new empire rises in Central Mexico, that of the Mexica, better known as the Aztecs. In 1519, when conquistadors invade the New World, these two cultures meet and are forever changed. 

According to deeply held beliefs, during the later years of Aztec history, a humble individual by the name of Juan Diego was born. In the year 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe revealed herself to him. This meeting, and the subsequent decision to build a chapel on the spot where this event occurred, had far-ranging effects on the history of this part of the world. Over the next three centuries, the Virgin of Guadalupe grew ever more popular, gaining numbers of adherents as well as influence. At the dawn of the modern age, with independence looming on the horizon for many Latin American countries, the Virgin’s role transcended that of pure religion and extended into the political realm. The exhibition closes with a display of contemporary devotions to the Virgin and the story of the canonization of Juan Diego by Pope John Paul II. 

Exhibition highlights include: 
• An authorized reproduction of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, displayed in a contemplative setting. (The original tilma image never leaves the Basílica in Mexico City). 

• The original manuscript known as Nican Mopohua, an Aztec-language document in which the Guadalupan Apparition is recounted. Dating to the 16th century, this manuscript is part of the collections of the New York Public Library and rarely travels.

• One of the first books printed in Mexico. Pedro de Gante, Doctrina Christiana (1553). On loan from the Benson Library at The University of Texas at Austin.

• An interactive version of the oldest known map of Mexico City (1550).

• An 18th-century painting of the Virgin, said to have touched the original image in the Basílica (This made the later, man-made painting more important).

• Expressions of modern devotion to the Virgin. 

La Virgin De Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas and runs through Sept. 5, 2016. Translation services generously supported by Trini and O. C. Mendenhall Foundation. For tickets or more information, visit or call 713-639-4629.