Lady of mystery

The statue doesn't look like a traditional Our Lady of Guadalupe, but its appearance is just the start of the puzzle

Louise Burkhart, a University of Albany associate professor of anthropology who is writing Before Guadalupe: Virgin Mary in Early Literature: "I don't see any connection to Guadalupe. A lot of the iconography is of the Immaculate Conception. The Guadalupe image isn't like that. The shape of the image is more like the Immaculate Conception."

As for the fact that La Virgencita appears to be speaking, these scholars say: interesting, but coincidental. Aztecs often carved speaking figures in order to convey a sense of authority, Poole says. The artist who made La Virgencita could have used the same technique.

Miller thinks La Virgencita's expression and native features were unintentional, more related to a pre-Columbian style of art than a deliberate reference to the Guadalupe story. "They were having a hard time carving faces, so when you look at how faces were carved, they often looked pained, awkward and stressed," she says. "La Virgencita looks native because she's carved by a native person. When you look at that style of work, she looks like a native woman as they were typically represented."

But Kline is correct in one way, these scholars agree: Although La Virgencita is probably not Our Lady of Guadalupe, no one can be absolutely certain. "Our evidence for the actual apparition of Our Lady is very sketchy and, in fact, grown out of other legends," explains Linda Hall of the University of New Mexico. "In the Valley of Mexico, two or three decades after the conquest, there were various reports of the apparition of the Virgin in areas sacred to mostly female goddesses. There's not really good evidence until the 17th century. The whole idea of Guadalupe in that period is really in question. We don't know. We just don't know."

December 12, 1998
On the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, churches held special masses in celebration; neighbors opened their kitchens to visitors; and believers everywhere gave special thanks to the benevolent Virgin. In a few weeks, the Pope will visit the hilltop where Juan Diego saw her 467 years ago.

Fred Kline is not bothered by those who disagree with his suggestion that La Virgencita could actually be Our Lady of Guadalupe. He welcomes the discussion. He encourages the debate. As much as anyone else, he wants to know what La Virgencita is, where she came from, and where she belongs.

Unlike he did with his other discoveries, Kline has no plans to sell La Virgencita. One day he hopes to find her a permanent home inside a museum; she's already been displayed at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Iowa's Davenport Museum of Art, and the Meadows Museum in Dallas. And next summer, if all goes well, the statue will join a major exhibition of Mexican Colonial art traveling the United States and then Mexico. Perhaps for the first time in more than 450 years, La Virgencita will return home.

From time to time, Kline contacts the man who sold him the sculpture on that celebration day for Our Lady of Guadalupe three years ago. Out of respect for the man's privacy, Kline will not reveal his name or his village and says only this: The man has no regrets about letting La Virgencita go. "She came to you," Kline remembers him saying. "She came to you for a reason."

That is how Kline likes to think about it, as an unfolding mystery. Though he is not Catholic, he has developed an affinity for the Mexican Guadalupe and a deep respect for those who believe in her. Exhibitions and position papers will come eventually, he says. For the moment, he is content to sit back with Jann and gaze at the strange and beautiful statue that caught his eye.

"It all comes back to faith," Kline says. "You can't push this. La Virgencita has her own agenda, her own timetable. The truth will come out in time. I believe that.

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