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Claudia Talavera’s ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’, A ‘Street Culture’ Take on a Classic Marian Portrait

On the morning of December 9, 1531, 57-year-old Juan Diego had been going about his usual journey around the hill of Tepeyac. A new convert to Catholicism, the indigenous man was a very ordinary townsfolk — he didn’t live in poverty, but he wasn’t influential either. But he was fervent and committed to his faith.

That fateful Saturday would turn out to be a life-changing experience. While walking by the hill, he encountered a glowing, ethereal lady. My dearest son, where are you going? The lady asked Diego, reportedly in his native language. I am the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live.

She told him to build a church in that area to honor her. Diego then tried to reason with the Archbishop of the city, Juan de Zumárraga, who remained skeptical of the claims. He asked Diego to provide proof of the extraordinary story.

But the Holy Mother would continue to appear in Diego’s path, even when he purposely tried to avoid her by going another route. She was persistent in her mission and wanted Diego to partake in it. 

Am I not your mother? She’d asked him.

Diego would be able to provide proof a few days later, after encountering the Virgin Mary for the fourth time. She told him to pick some flowers atop the hill — which would have been an impossible feat, since the land was normally barren and it was the dead of winter. 

However, he did find the flowers and tucked them into his tilma (or cloak). Later on, upon meeting the Archbishop, Diego opened his cloak to reveal the flowers — Zumárraga identified them as Castillian roses, which were not native to Mexico — and they fell to the floor.

They also found that an image of the Virgin Mary herself had remarkably been imprinted on the cloak.

‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’ by Claudia Talavera, available here

Many would contest the story’s veracity, but that’s hardly why it remains so significant. A chapel was erected in honor of the Holy Mother, but more than that, her portrait as the Lady of Guadalupe became a symbol of identity — not just for Mexico, but also for Continental America.

Diego’s tilma remains an important religious and cultural artifact to this day. No surprise here since Mexico is characterized by a colorful and lively fiesta culture — much like the portrait that first appeared on Diego’s cloak.

The Virgin Mary in Murals and Graffiti

And, as it turns out, ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ would be an all-encompassing point of reference for many Christian painters. Marian portraits, in general, tend to be replicated ever so often because of their distinctiveness, beauty, and versatility. 

Claudia Talavera, an artist from Peru, got her creative namesake — Pintando Virgenes — from the Virgin Mary herself. Identifying as “a Catholic whose faith shows when she makes art,” Talavera doesn’t exclusively do Marian art, but she does dedicate most of her creative pursuits to the Holy Mother.

“If we consecrate ourselves to Mary, then we do everything with her, for her, and in her. She is the way to her son,” said Talavera. “I try to pray my daily rosary, put everything I am and what I have in her hands — from my children to my work.”

One of her favorite Marian portraits to paint is ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe,’ which she calls “a tangible miracle.” She’s talking about the miraculous tilma, which, in her words, is “the only apparition where the Virgin Mary remains on earth.” 

Detail from ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’

In this rendition, Talavera puts a contemporary flair to it while not taking away its authenticity. Perhaps it’s even fair to say that she adds to it by incorporating more colors: the image, after all, is regarded for its detail and vibrance. 

“I wanted to introduce some elements of my non-religious work constructed through superimposed spots, agile lines, and a lot of colors. The street culture is read between the lines,” Talavera explained.

She’d faced some challenges during the creation process, since there are so many recognizable portraits of the Holy Mother. Of course she wanted to bring something new to the table.

Detail from ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’

“Representing a sacred icon so well-known to people is difficult because you need a balance between your proposal and the original image, so that it remains a representation that the viewer recognizes,” she said. But Talavera is a seasoned artist — she can easily render any standard portrait in her unique style of wide strokes and bright hues.

“I’ve painted several portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but this one, in particular, has a unique identity,” she told us. “It even differs from my own work, which at times becomes more conservative.”

‘A Non-Imposing Presence’

But more than anything, Talavera saw this as an opportunity to engage more people into the Catholic faith and its seemingly archaic traditions. There’s always something to learn from them, Talavera believes, and it’s vital to pass them down to posterity.

Street culture is the way to go from here — veering away from conventional art styles, and introducing a fresh perspective on the age-old story. “This version of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an attempt to enter into dialogue with young people,” she said.

Detail from ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’

Faith and spirituality aren’t always perceived openly in the secular world. But Talavera’s ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’ explores these nuances by contextualizing the Holy Mother in an age where her presence doesn’t seem so overt. 

She’s still there, Talavera argues — and uses art to show it.

“I thought of young people, I thought of the way the Virgin is present, but at the same time, hidden,” she said. “A non-imposing presence: subtle and diffused.”

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