Monday, July 28, 2014

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, ChimayĆ³ . . . 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.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

 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 ChimayĆ³ 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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Guadalupe To Go, the Guadalupe as an Arm Tattoo

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is one way to let everyone know what you're feeling. Wearing your devotion on your arm is another form of displaying a deep commitment.  This Southern California man generously offered his arm for my photo. He was very proud of his Guadalupe tattoo and told me that "everyone loves this tattoo and they talk to me about it".  He just didn't want his face in the photo.

La Guadalupe as a social lubricant is one of her many roles, especially in the melting pot that is Southern California, where she's a cross-cultural icon.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Madonnas in Print

 This blog, American Madonnas, is a place to learn, reflect and share.  We’re always looking for books for our virtual library that shed a particularly strong light on the history or spiritual roots of Marian veneration in the Americas. Here are a couple you might want to make note of:

La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old World and the New
Amy G. Remensnyder
Oxford University Press/2013

This book covers a lot of ground but will be of particular interest to those interested in the storied La Conquistadora of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Professor Remensnyder, who teaches medieval history at Brown University, has made a thorough investigation of the La Conquistadora lineage, tracing its origins to ancient Spain, rendering the story in very accessible prose. The book includes chapters dedicated specifically to New Mexico’s beloved Madonna.

American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary
Deirdre Cornell
Orbis Books/2010

Deirdre Cornell has given us a wonderful weave of stories comprised of her own faith journey, the extraordinary lives of Mexican immigrants in the United States, and the events in Mexico shaping the immigrant experience. This is done through a sensitive and compelling examination of three important Marian venerations: The Virgen of Guadalupe, The Virgin of Juquila (in Santa Catarina Juquila, a small mountain village in a remote part of the state of Oaxaca), and Our Lady of Solitude (in the city of Oaxaca). Drawing from her personal experiences and extensive research, Cornell has given us a little volume that is courageous, poignant, and always grounded in spiritual integrity. I have savored it twice and have started lending it out to friends. I can’t wait to get it back and read it again.

 Felipe O’Riley

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Guadalupe and Conquistadora Madonnas as Symbols of Reconciliation

Native American Indigenous Symbols Intertwine with 

The Virgen of Guadalupe and La Conquistadora  


When I paint a retablo of a Madonna, the way I create my images is very internal as I mostly feel as though the image comes through me more than it comes from me. If I have any kind of preparatory sketch, it is usually very cursory and I often don't rely on it as I build the image. Inherent in this process is surprise, serendipity and destruction.

Detail - La Conquistadora
Destruction, in tandem with construction, is a necessary part of creating. Often, destroying the parts of the painting that don't work opens up a passage in the process that results in new images replacing them. Because I don't work with a strict plan I often riff with the image of the Madonna, following tangents of feeling and thought that reveal to me a new vision of the Divine Feminine in the Madonna's image.

The result of my process is that I often learn more about my image after I've painted it. Both from myself and from others.

Quite a few people have shared their experiences of seeing my Madonnas. Several have said they saw my series of Madonnas as being symbols of reconciliation between cultures and genders. For example, La Conquistadora's personage is intertwined with the Dine tribes' Spider Woman and the Puebloan's Corn Maiden.

One aspect of creating images of the Devine Feminine is my effort to rebalance the perception of God/Creation as being solely male. Another aspect is the reconciliation between cultures. Each North American Madonna I make is layered with symbols of her Native American counterparts.

Cristina Acosta

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Guadalupe Shrine is Portable for Feast Day Processions

Antique Mexican mahogany shrine to the Guadalupe with painting by Cristina Acosta

Antique Mexican Shrine: Guadalupe as a Symbol of Cultural Identity

Sometimes things happen that seem so mysteriously destined that I'm amazed at the richness of this universe. In about 2004 a man called my business number and asked if I had any interior design need for furnishings. He was a semi-retired fine carpenter and furniture maker and was looking for new business contacts.

The man told me he was in Albany, a city in Oregon's Willamette Valley about 2 1/2 hours from my home in Bend, on the east side of the Cascade Range. I was curious as to why he would call someone out of his geographic area. When I asked him, he said that he had just started experimenting with calling people and that I was the first Hispanic name he saw under the Designer category in the phone book. As he was Chicano (Mexican-American) he said he hoped I would be nice because my name was Spanish. (My late father was also Chicano, hence my Spanish name.)

Once he told me he was practicing his business skills on me, we both relaxed and chatted a bit, talking about what it was like to be among the very few Mexican-Americans in Oregon during the 1980's. I told him about the series of retablo paintings of Madonnas that I was working on.

He then told me that he had something he needed to get rid of before he retired, and that I might be the perfect person for it. He said that he had a Catholic Church confessional from a church that had been closed. Though he was vague as to how he came by the piece, he'd had it for over 30 years and asked if I would like to buy it. Without photos I said no, though it sounded interesting. After our conversation, I sent him a postcard of one of my retablos, La Conquistadora / the Corn Maiden / Dine Spider Woman.

The next month, and for about 6 months afterward, the man would check in with me to see if I'd like to buy his confessional. I never saw a photo and always said no.

Then one Saturday morning he was parked at my studio in a work van with a friend. I was stunned that he had driven over 2 hours over a mountain pass and hadn't called to even see if I would be there.

Stepping behind his van I looked in to see the "confessional" and was struck with amazement. The sections of cabinetry and plastic ziploc bag of "extra parts" looked like nothing but scraps of old wood and a lot of work, but I could see that what I was looking at was an altar.

That was it -- I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at, but I really wanted that pile of cabinetry. The man and I went back and forth on a price, and I bought the cabinet.
La Guadalupe with Child, by Cristina Acosta

I was so filled with amazement at the synchronicity and magical quality of life. I cleaned the pieces of wood with citrus thinner and with help,  put the puzzle of pieces together until it was a complete shrine. I asked everyone I thought might know, if they knew anything about the cabinet. Nobody did, but I felt that it was a shrine for the Guadalupe. So, I had my artisan woodworker friend, Terry Scoville, make me 2 wood panels to fit the "holes" left in the cabinet where someone had removed something (presumably a painting) years ago.

I wanted to create an intimate and loving image of the Guadalupe that would reflect the intimacy of the shrine cabinet, so I painted an image of the Guadalupe with Child in oils, 22kt. gold leaf, wax and antique ceramic mosaic on a birch panel.

My shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe is my constant reminder of the strange and often ironic, abundant beauty of life. I often light beeswax candles I put in the cabinet and enjoy the way the oil colors and gold leaf shimmer with the flickering light.

A couple of years later, while traveling in Taxco, Mexico I saw identical woodwork on two confessional chairs in the Cathedral at the top of the hill and knew that the shrine had "found" me. The man from Albany, Oregon had indeed found the "right" home for what he thought was a confessional, but in reality was a Shrine to the Guadalupe.

For the Procession of the Guadalupe, the top part of the cabinet (with the portrait of the Guadalupe) is removed from the stand (or bottom section) and is carried at the head of a procession on Dec. 12th. Sometimes the curtain is across her image during part of the procession, other times not -- it depends upon the local traditions. During the rest of the year, the top part sits on the cabinet in a church. She may also "get out" on other days of the years, depending upon her congregation.

Catholic traditions include Feast Days which are specially designated days for a Saint or Holy Person. December 12th is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Mexico, this feast is one of the holiest days of the year. Though the concept is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, some people consider the Guadalupe to be the Christian version of the Aztec Mother Earth goddess Tonantzin. The Our Lady of Guadalupe festival is much more of a tradition in Mexico than in the U.S., though in areas with a lot of Hispanics there are often processions to celebrate the day. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe are often considered Chicano art, Catholic religious art or Hispanic art -- To Hispanics of Mexican-American ancestry, the image of the Guadalupe is a symbol that goes beyond religious affiliations to become an icon of identity.

I was raised very Catholic and consider myself a Chicana or Latina. Despite the spiritually seismic shifts I've experienced that re-shaped my beliefs, I love to paint Madonnas and think of them as expressions of the Divine Feminine. Someday I hope to be walking with my Guadalupe shrine in a Feast Day Procession.

Cristina Acosta

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Faith and history meet in La Conquistadora

  A North American Madonna, La Conquistadora is the embodiment of living history and spirituality.

Faith is a vital aspect of the human journey, its threads inseparable from the weft and weave of history’s fabric. As with any tapestry, it’s not always clear or obvious how the threads form their parts of the whole pattern, hence there is mystery as well as history. Strongly held spiritual beliefs are integral to how people view themselves individually and collectively; such beliefs have often defined the landscape where one group meets another. Faith has repeatedly informed social development and geopolitical decision-making with enormous historic ramifications. Spirituality is often the source of courage, forbearance, inspiration and sheer stamina that allow people to confront crisis or overcome hardship, also with transcendent implications.

The role of faith in the world view and daily lives of Spanish colonists in New Spain and New Mexico is perhaps a perfect example of the intertwining of faith and history. It affords a great opportunity to see that studies of and reflections on the physical manifestations of faith, the objects of ritual and veneration, the tools used to plant, nurture and periodically re-new faith, are more than simple academic exercises, more than quaint cultural explorations.

These are the perspectives that make the history of La Conquistadora compelling and relevant. Here is a cherished, tangible image of deep religious significance that has been manifestly part of the community of Santa Fe (and thus of New Mexico generally) almost since its inception. As such, it is a classic embodiment of living history. 

The history of La Conquistadora 

is both a symbol of Spanish colonial history and heritage,

and of contemporary spirituality.

Felipe O'Riley