In the sanctuary of the abbey church of St. Michael’s Abbey can be found a portal to the hidden hilltop of Tepeyac in the heart of Mexico. In this little chapel one can still witness that mystical scene in which Our Lady, appearing to Juan Diego, filled his tilma with heavenly roses. When we were asked to design the image for the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, Fr. Frederick and I were hoping that it would give our confreres here at the abbey a chance to escape to the hill of Tepeyac and be consoled by our Lady’s presence there.
Fr. Frederick took on the challenge of designing the dome above the chapel and I began work on the image below the dome—the image of the apparition itself. One of the first things you may notice about the scene is its bright colors. Before setting to work, I remembered reading an account of the apparitions which described how, in the light of our Lady’s presence, the “rocks became as precious gold; the earth sparkled like emeralds and multi-colored jewels; even the shrubs and prickly pears were splattered with a sheet of color, as if their thorns had been changed into stained glass.” I was certainly trying to evoke this supernatural sense and effect of Our Lady’s brightness on the landscape of the mosaic. Thus, the bushes burn with a bright red glow, the cacti are vibrant shades of green, the ground has glowing golden hues, and the water is multiple shades of lively blue. The colors may not be the natural colors commonly associated with the Central Mexican landscape and the reason for this is because of the Virgin Mary’s supernatural effect on the terrain.
There are also certain animals in the landscape which might also catch the attention of the viewer. For example, a deer can be seen drinking from a river. This imagery is a motif often depicted in sacred art which recalls the words of forty-second Psalm: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” In the version depicted in the chapel, the deer drinks from the stream flowing below the Virgin while looking up at her, recognizing that this longed-for stream is flowing because of the presence and intercession of this Holy Virgin.
Along with this deer, there is also an eagle which is engaged in a victorious battle against a serpent. More immediately, this is an image inspired by and taken from the Mexican Flag which features a similar scene. A priest confrere here recommended I include this because of the obvious and very fitting connection between Our Lady of Guadalupe and the nation she so chose to bless with this powerful and significant apparition. It is also a fitting image which evokes Our Lady’s important role in our salvation from sin and her personal contribution in the ultimate defeat of the ancient serpent whom Eve chose to obey; Mary, in obeying God, reverses the curse which Eve’s disobedience brought about.
Finally—and probably most curiously—is the rabbit hiding under Our Lady in the rocks. This is an unusual image, but one that is also based on the book of Psalms, much like the deer. Psalm 104, which speaks of how God cares for all of His creation, likewise says that “the rabbits hide in the rocks.” The rabbits are representative of those souls who have placed themselves under God’s care; and seeing that God put Himself under Mary’s care, it seemed right to place a rabbit hiding in the rocks beneath her protection. We can all see ourselves in the little rabbit who safely hides there beneath the security of the Blessed Virgin.
There are many other considerations when it came to creating the design of this image. Throughout the whole design process, I felt very much like St. Juan Diego who so keenly felt a sense of his own inability to accomplish the task he was given by the Virgin, even asking her to send another man in his place. I look at the image and, though I see my own naivety and insufficiency, I also see Our Lady’s grace and good will, by which she arranges the details and duties of our lives.