In Search of La Conquistadora, One Woman’s Journey – Part 1
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
Raised by parents who loved history, Amy Remensnyder may have been destined for a career absorbed in the past, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few surprises along the way. The first came just after graduation from high school in 1978 when she went to England, traveling the country by rail. Stopping over in Lincolnshire she went to visit the ancient Norman cathedral there and was awestruck by the experience.
“It was overwhelming,” Remensnyder recalls. “The cathedral was so imposing, so majestic, so mysterious. I looked at this incredible architecture and I thought to myself, ‘I do not understand the people who built this at all, how they did this. Who were they?’ I’m still at it, trying to understand medieval people.”
Remensnyder plunged into her quest for understanding, earning a bachelor’s in history and literature from Harvard, and completing advanced studies in Cambridge, England and Paris, France. She added to her credentials in the field of medieval history with a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and is now an associate professor of history at Brown University. She is the author of two books, including the history of La Conquistadora traditions, as well as countless academic articles.
Yet even as she settled into her life’s work, Remensnyder’s more personal journey—and its attendant surprises—continued. Raised in the Episcopal faith, she later embraced atheism, a striking contrast to her scholarly encounters with early Christianity, including the traditions and underlying beliefs of Marian veneration and its iconography. While the images spoke more to her mind than her heart, the winding path of inquiry was taking her into new country.
“What I found in studying medieval religious imagery is that things mean more than what simply appears on the surface,” says Remensnyder. “I came to sense that medieval people, unlike so many secular modern Westerners, believed that the world had meaning beyond the surface of things. Through these images, including Marian figures, they found pathways, channels to that deeper meaning.”
Remensnyder’s interest in La Conquistadora grew out of a chance encounter during a road trip to New Mexico in the summer of 1992. Visiting the venerated Santuario at Chimayó north of Santa Fe, she strolled the grounds, turned a corner, and came face-to-face with the diminutive figure of New Mexico’s patroness, set discretely in a stone wall along a quiet walkway.
“ ‘Wow, what is that?,’ she recalls thinking. ‘I’ve never heard of an image of the Virgin Mary called La Conquistadora!’ It was a startling juxtaposition of military violence with what I’d been trained to understand as the compassionate, benevolent Mary balancing the stern judgment of Christ.”
When she began investigating New Mexico’s conquistadora, she discovered there have been other Marian figures that carry the same name. She also discovered that notwithstanding the aggressive connotation of the title, these figures carried deeper meaning to the protagonists in Spain’s history in both the old world and the new.
“I started off thinking the story was going to be all about war, a one-sided story of war and subjugation of Native peoples by the Spanish, but it was more complex than that. It was as much about cultural exchange in the long run. In New Mexico, for example, it was common for Christianized tribes or groups to invoke the name of Mary, La Conquistadora in conflicts with traditional indigenous foes,” Remensnyder says.
Remensnyder explains that her academic research of La Conquistadora was significantly augmented in another surprising way. In 2002 she accepted an opportunity to travel to Katmandu for a one-month retreat. There, as a participant, not just a detached observer, she found a religious tradition comprised in large measure of visualizing, of imagining, the Buddha.
“And it’s the religious imagery that you meditate on,” notes Remensnyder. “So I was suddenly having a powerful, tangible experience that strongly mirrored the essential practice of Marian veneration with its focus on beloved images. It really informed my research and gave me a much clearer idea of what I was dealing with in examining La Conquistadoras and their followers down through the ages.”
Now a practicing Buddhist, Remensnyder put the finishing touches on her new book last summer after more than a decade of research.
Note: The title of Dr. Remensnyder’s book was changed slightly after a previous post on this blog. The title as given above is correct. In an upcoming blog post we’ll continue our visit, looking at the long lineage of La Conquistadoras and the ways in which this veneration resembles and differs from other Marian devotions.