In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 2
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
The biggest surprise for Amy Remensnyder in researching her recently-published book on the Virgin Mary was that which first drew her to the subject: the apparent contradiction of Mary’s association as much with war as with peace. Recalling her first encounter with a Madonna known as La Conquistadora, she writes:
“I first encountered La Conquistadora in the tranquil backyard of New Mexico’s most famous pilgrimage site, Chimayó . . . I was not a pilgrim but a tourist. Ill at ease being a spectator to devotion, watching people in these intimate moments as they offered fear in exchange for hope, I went outside. There, on a shady stone wall behind the sanctuary, I found La Conquistadora. She was one among a number of saints whose images were set into stone: Saint James, Saint Francis, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their shrines dwarfed the small colored ceramic tile depicting her as a dainty Madonna clad in white and blue. Yet clearly she had her imposing side----her name was ‘La Conquistadora,’ proclaimed the blue lettering beneath the image. Disquieted, I lingered in front of the tile. Conjuring all the aggressive violence of warfare, ‘the Conqueress’ hardly seemed a suitable title for the Virgin Mary, crowned with her halo of tenderness.”
Remensnyder’s book offers a deep and far-reaching look at this Marian dichotomy and with great detail and cogence traces (among many other things) the evolution of Mary’s veneration by the Christian kings, knights and faithful foot soldiers who fought for centuries to end the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, it was that long line of kings that produced another surprise for Rememsnyder.
“I didn’t expect that I was going to write a book that was in large part about men and masculinity,” she recalls.
The author’s findings did not hinge solely on the prevalence of men in prominent positons of power in social, economic and military affairs, although it certainly was a man’s world in that sense. However, by careful study of the writings of the day—songs, epic poems, letters, biographical sketches, official documents and decrees—she found ample evidence that medieval Iberian conceptualizations of Mary shaped the very foundations of masculinity itself. Knights defending the faith were encouraged to see the Virgin Mary as their “lady love,” to enter into a committed relationship with her of such spiritual ecstasy and perfection than only the language of romantic love and longing could contain it. Thus, in tracking the centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict in Iberia, Remensnyder traces the gossamer boundary where medieval notions of romance and chivalry touch and intertwine the language and precepts of masculine Marian devotion in a way that is arrestingly earthy.
“Offering their love service to Mary, knights played the manly roles of faithful suitor and valiant champion. They also announced their Christian virility, for warriors often make themselves men by defending the women they cherish . . . Wartime rhetoric and propaganda, as well as the stress of combat itself, often encourage soldiers to imagine the women they love—whether wife, mother, or lover—as pure and innocent icons of the values for which they fight. For a Christian knight of medieval Iberia, what woman could more perfectly represent the purity, innocence, and moral order he was supposed to defend than Mary, embodiment of the Church, the monarchy, and the land?
“Our Lady’s Christian champions could believe they owed her military service against the Muslims because they were her vassals as well as her lovers.”
Remensnyder’s research has produced some interesting surprises for the reader, too. Surveys of Spanish history sometimes leave the impression that the centuries-long Muslim occupation of Iberia was complete and continuous and only ended when Ferdinand and Isabel drove the Saracens from Spanish shores. In fact, the epoch was marked by intense warfare punctuated by extended periods of peace, tolerance and lively commerce. The arenas of military action constantly shifted and Ferdinand and Isabel were only the last in a long line of Christian rulers who had gradually re-asserted dominion over the peninsula. Remarkably, Christian mercenaries often fought for Muslim princes (and vice versa) and Spaniards vying for pre-eminence fought among themselves as often as they did their common foe.
Ferdinand and Isabel’s success in pushing the Muslims from their last Iberian stronghold in Granada did set the stage for imperial adventures in the new world—adventures in which the Virgin Mary would figure prominently and in surprising ways.