Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
In the past five centuries since 1531 each generation of scientific researchers have found the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the tilma of St. Juan Diego an unsolvable puzzle. Our Blessed Mother left a portrait painted by a heavenly hand on material produced by human hands. Keep in mind this happened only a handful of years after Columbus discovered the western hemisphere and the Spaniards colonized what is now Mexico. Juan Diego was among the first converts of the Franciscan missionaries.
A tilma was the broad cloak worn by the early Aztecs of Mexico. It was woven from the thick and coarse fibers of the agava plant (cactus ayate), and had the color of raw linen. Anything made with these fibers generally disintegrates completely within two decades. Because of its coarse and uneven surface and its loose weave, the fabric is unsuitable as a canvas for a painting.
Scientific studies verify that the Guadalupe tilma is formed from the fibers of the agava plant. After almost 500 years no sign of any decay has been detected and it endures in its pristine condition. This baffles modern science. Amazing also is the freshness of colors in this incredible image. Equally impressive is the absence of any indication of spoilage even though the image hung unprotected over a hundred years and was exposed to a variety of pollutants like incense smoke, soot, perfumes, and the burning wax of innumerable votive candles.
The noted Mexican painter, Miguel Cabrera, reported that in 1753 he observed in a period of two hours the pilgrims touching the image about 500 times with a variety of objects. Under similar conditions any other image would be damaged beyond recognition. Yet this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe remains intact and vibrant. For unexplainable reasons its material is resistant to dust, insects, bacteria, and mold.
Dr. Phillip Callahan, University of Florida, studied the Guadalupe image in 1979, and reported that one lighted votive candle emits over 600 microwatts of light. In such enclosed premises and in the presence of hundreds of burning candles and thousands of pilgrims one would expect the colors to fade and the image to suffer irreparable damage. But the image has been resistant to nay harmful agent.
The perfect preservation of the fabric and its colors has elicited genuine wonder among scientific experts and art specialists. Some skeptics and rationalists confronted with the facts resulting from their studies of the holy image abandoned their unbelief and bowed before the mystery of God. In 1975 Ramirez Vasquez, the renowned Mexican architect entrusted with the design of the new Guadalupe basilica, was permitted to scrutinize the holy image. The results of his study persuaded him both intellectually and spiritually to renounce agnosticism and he became an ardent Catholic.
Throughout its centuries-old history the image experienced numerous incidences of preservation from unfortunate circumstances. In 1791 a worker accidentally spilled an entire bottle of nitric acid on the image when cleaning its silver frame. During the 1920s the Church in Mexico suffered bloody persecution under Plutarco Calles, and many met death because of their Catholic faith. The atheistic Masonic regime closed all the churches in the country except the Guadalupe basilica and planned to destroy Our Lady's image as well as to kill the members of the hierarchy.
November 14, 1921, government agents planted a powerful time bomb in a flower vase under the tilma. At 10:30 a.m. the bomb exploded as a Pontifical Mass was being celebrated. The blast rocked entire basilica and destroyed the floor, altar, and stained glass windows. Some people suffered minor wounds, but miraculously no one was killed. The miraculous image survived untouched.
Over the years the Guadalupe image underwent careful examination by many scientific researchers and art experts to determine if its preservation was the result of natural causes. Studies were conducted with the help of electron microscopes, infrared irradiation, and other state-of-the-art methods. The conclusions were always the same: no human hand could have painted the image.
In 1936 Dr. Richard Kuhn, chemist and Nobel Prize laureate at the University of Heidelberg, ran meticulous tests on fibers of the tilma. His results concluded that the dyes used to produce the image are unknown to natural science, and are not of animal, plant, mineral, or synthetic origin,
Microscopic studies in 1946 showed that the image bears no trace of brushstrokes or a preliminary sketch or an artist's signature. Additional studies in 1954 and 1966 by Dr. F. Camps Ribera and his associates reinforced these previous findings. Authorities have agreed that the greatest artist could not have painted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Professional photographer Alfonso Gonzales in 1929 enlarged Our Lady's face many times and discovered that her eyes showed the clear reflection of a bearded man's face. This prompted a series of detailed studies of her eyes from 1950 to 1990. The results of all researchers indicated that Mary's eyes are like those of a living person. They exhibit extraordinary depth, the phenomenon of reflection that occurs only in living persons, and the best of painting techniques cannot replicate this. Scientists enlarged Mary's eyes up to 2500 times, and this showed that 12 persons are reflected in her eyes -- the scene of Juan Diego's meeting with Bishop Zumarraga and his associates. The scene is so lucid that it shows details such as tears of emotion, earrings, Aztec sandal laces, a bald man with a white beard, another man with an aquiline nose and whiskers on his cheeks, and other details.
These scientific studies rule out any possibility that a human hand may have painted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the tilma of St. Juan Diego. Among the experts conducting these studies were some of the world's leading scientists in the fields of optics and ophthalmology: Dr. Charles Wahling, Dr. Francis Avignone of Columbia University, Dr. H. G. Noyes, Edward Gebhardt of NBC, Dr. Italo Mannelli of the University of Pisa, and others of this caliber.
Only faith can tell us that the author of this image is God Himself. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a sign calling all people to conversion. Gazing on the miraculous image we can experience the maternal love of the Mother of the Redeemer and our own spiritual mother, who is concerned about the salvation of all her children. This extraordinary sign reminds us that true happiness is found in God alone.