In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 3
Conversations with Prof. Amy Remensnyder, author of La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary and War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.
By Jeffrey Richardson
After relating how the Spanish veneration of the Virgin Mary evolved over centuries on the Iberian Peninsula both in peace and war, Prof. Remensnyder’s narrative sets the stage for the Spanish entrada in the New World. As the violent, breathtaking saga of the Conquest in the New World unfolds in her book, we sense that indeed we have stepped onto a more familiar shore, yet beyond the fringe of that shore is a land laced with mysterious trails and full of secrets.
One of the important findings from Remensnyder’s research revolves around the way in which indigenous people of the New World came to welcome the Virgen Mary among them.
“[Another] surprising thing was to discover indigenous peoples accepting Mary as a conquistador, not simply as a replacement for Native goddesses,” says Remensnyder.
As she had been doing for several hundred years in helping Christian armies re-take the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, Mary arrived in the New World as the patron of military men. But also as in Spain, she came with two distinct identities: Mary, the author of military victories through her support of men-at-arms in the cause of Christianity, and Mary, the compassionate mother figure of infinite love and forgiveness.
The priests who would take up the all-important task of evangelizing to the indigenous people in the Americas didn’t arrive in numbers until a quarter century or more after the first contacts. It was the conquistadors who came with weapons, and with Mary. Their own veneration of the Virgin compelled them to erect shrines at every place they camped or conquered, and her dual nature was not lost on the native onlookers.
“The indigenous people knew her from the outset as both a conquering and a compassionate figure,” says Remensnyder. “Over time, she didn’t simply become a stand-in for the goddesses among the pantheon of deities vanquished by the Europeans, she was incorporated in her own right [into their spiritual lives].”
Remensnyder notes that as a cultural historian her task in researching and writing the book was not to iterate all, nor prove any, of the miracles or other extraordinary occurrences that gave rise to Mary’s emergence as a favored saint among the warring Spaniards. Rather, she says, “I tried to understand people in their own world, undoing notions of what we think about the past”
Additional comments from our interviews with Dr. Remensnyder:
Did you get the impression that Marian veneration of the conquistadors lost a little something of its sincerity in the rarified air of the New World, in the avaricious pursuit of gold and silver? Or put another way, given their circumstances, were accounts of Marian veneration left by conquistadors likely to be more self-serving than those of the Spaniards who won back the Iberian Peninsula?
It’s easy for us in this secular age to look back at the pre-modern era and say how easy it must have been for them to use religion to justify conquest, to justify the pursuit of wealth and power. And while they did use religion to justify their actions, that doesn’t mean they didn’t truly believe in the precepts of their faith. Just think of all the treasure of the Americas that went to adorn churches in Spain. Just last summer I went to Granada in Spain and had a chance to see the San Juan de Dios Church, a church that is just covered in New World gold.
Can you elaborate on the idea of indigenous peoples accepting Mary in her own right, not simply as a replacement for native goddesses.
On one level, the Spanish presented Mary to the New World as a powerful spiritual intercessor, and also brought with them a hierarchical political and economic structure in which intercession by a patron at a higher level of society was the norm. So, Mary became a go-to intercessor in spiritual as well as temporal matters, accessible to anyone including the indigenous peoples with little or no leverage in the Spanish system, a way for them to cope on a daily basis with this new, imposed colonial system.
On perhaps a more emotional level Mary came to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as a spiritual figure markedly different from the goddesses of their pre-contact pantheon. While she could be stirred to anger and action, she was more consistently kind and nurturing than some of the more complicated, fearsome, even bloodthirsty goddesses to whom they had paid homage.
This is not to say that Native peoples universally or immediately embraced Mary upon the arrival of the Spaniards. Aside from the omnipresence of Spanish arms, the waves of friars who soon followed the conquistadors strategically targeted indigenous youth, indoctrinating them from an early age, setting up painful generational conflicts with their elders. But again, we have to be careful to not categorically dismiss as insincere the power of Marian veneration that grew up among native peoples in the New World. It is interesting to note that in the late 17th and 18th centuries there were in Mexico and Peru a number of anti-Spanish rebellions among indigenous peoples with the Virgin Mary at their heart. They had adopted her in a very deep way.
What if France had colonized Mexico and Central/South America instead of Spain?
It’s really hard to answer that. It’s true that the French had a long tradition of Marian veneration, and included proselytizing as part of their colonial enterprise in the New World. They even, like the Spanish, had known Mary in peace and at war. But one key difference is that, unlike the Spanish, they lacked the centuries-long collective experience with people of another faith and culture in which Mary figured so prominently in framing the inter-cultural relationship. I also wonder if the French would have been quite as intent upon re-claiming or co-opting the indigenous spiritual space, the temple, as part of establishing Christian domination.