Meet the oldest statue of Our Lady on the American continent!


“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—a chant familiar to every school-aged child in America. That famous date, marked, of course, the year that the Italian-born navigator, Christopher Columbus, departed from Spain and discovered the continent of America.

Over the next two and a half decades more Spaniards would follow in his wake. One of these would be the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, whose miniscule army would defeat the massive military might of the Aztec empire.

He left Spain prepared for battle, both military and spiritual. As well as soldiers, cannon and horses, he brought with him priests, crucifixes, and several wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One would become the most revered of them all: the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies.

Sculpted in the city of Tolosa, Spain, in the 14th century, she has the distinction of being the oldest statue of Mary on the American continent.

Our Lady of the Remedies was to play a role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. She accompanied Cortes and his soldiers in 1519 on their grueling march from Veracruz on the Mexican coast to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, (site of present-day Mexico City), a journey of 400 miles over two mountain ranges. She also witnessed the triumphant entry of the Spaniards into the capital and the dramatic encounter between Cortes and the Aztec leader Moctezuma. For a period of time she even replaced the “hideous” blood-thirsty idol of  Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, that graced Moctezuma’s private apartment.

During the Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrows) on July  8, 1520, she was “implored with tears” as the Spaniards fled from the Aztecs in terror, suffering terrible losses. The diminutive 11”(28cm) statue was hastily hidden under the leaves of a cactus plant and she remained lost for twenty years!

She was found in 1540 by a newly converted Indian chief, Juan Cuautli, and was venerated for several years in his private chapel. In 1575 a shrine was built in her honour in Naucalpan, eight miles northwest of Mexico City.

Even in the 1500’s this shrine was well-known. Bernal Diaz refers to this shrine in his famous 16th century first-hand account of the struggle for Mexico, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain: “After the great city of Mexico was finally captured we built a church which is called Our Lady of the Remedies and it is now much visited.” Diaz was a young 26-year-old soldier when he fought alongside Cortes in the battle for Mexico. He wrote this book while he was in his 70s.

Like most churches of the earliest Colonial period, it was built at the site of a destroyed Aztec sacrificial temple,  thus sanctifying a place which had been a scene of previous abominations. It reflects the influence of the Spanish architect, Juan Herrera, who had been commissioned by King Philip ll of Spain in 1563 to build the monumental monastery and royal tomb, El Escorial, near Madrid. The Herrerian style is characterized by a stark and somber austerity-“a sad somemnity”- and is evident in the facade of the single-tower church of Our Lady of the Remedies.

But the altarpiece and cupola which showcases the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies—Herrerian it is not! It was built at a later period and is a riot of sumptuous splendor, reflecting the Churrigueresque style of Baroque architecture, unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. It is named after Spanish architect Jose Churriguera who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 17th century.

She became known for her powers of intercession in great public calamities: From 1567 to the early years of the 20th century, she was carried in procession on 75 separate occasions, in times of urgent needs: epidemics, droughts, wars, and political crises of all kinds—none of these proved obstacles for Our Lady of the Remedies.

Cortes’ “utterly unbelievable victory” in 1521 inititated the demise of paganism in Mexico. Christianity would become the religion of the land. It has been said that the secret weapon of the Spanish missionaries in Mexico was their devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Ten years before the arrival of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady of the Remedies arrived on Mexican soil. She was the first. It was she who paved the way.


Mary Hansen

Reprinted with permission from the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER.