Jan 052019
 

Today is the feast day in the Roman Catholic communion of Saint Simeon Stylites or Symeon the Stylite (Classical Syriac: ܫܡܥܘܢ ܕܐܣܛܘܢܐ‎ Koine Greek Συμεών ὁ στυλίτης, Arabic: سمعان العمودي‎) (c. 390 – 2nd September 459), a Syriac ascetic saint who achieved notability for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria). Several other stylites later followed his model (the Greek word style means “pillar”). He is known formally as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger, Simeon Stylites III, and Saint Symeon Stylites of Lesbos.

Simeon was the son of a shepherd. He was born in Sis, now the Turkish town of Kozan in Adana Province. Sis was in the Roman province of Cilicia. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Cilicia became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christianity took hold quickly there. According to Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Simeon developed a zeal for Christianity at the age of 13, following a reading of the Beatitudes. He entered a monastery before the age of 16. From the outset, he gave himself up to the practice of an austerity so extreme and to all appearance so extravagant, that his fellow monks judged him to be unsuited to any form of community life, and asked Simeon to leave the monastery.

He shut himself up in a hut for one and a half years, where he purportedly passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. When he emerged from the hut, his achievement was hailed as a miracle (which it certainly would have been if he had lived over 40 days without drinking). He later took to standing continually upright so long as his limbs would sustain him. After one and a half years in his hut, Simeon sought a rocky eminence on the slopes of what is now the Sheik Barakat Mountain, part of Mount Simeon. He chose to live within a narrow space, less than 20 meters in diameter. But crowds of pilgrims invaded the area to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, and leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions. This eventually led him to adopt a new way of life.

In order to get away from the ever-increasing number of people who came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived among ruins in nearby Telanissa (modern-day Taladah in Syria), and formed a small platform at the top. He determined to live out his life on this platform. For sustenance small boys from the nearby village climbed up the pillar and passed him parcels of flat bread and goats’ milk. He may also have pulled up food in buckets via a pulley.

When the monastic Elders living in the desert heard about Simeon, who had chosen this new and strange form of asceticism, they wanted to test him to determine whether his extreme feats were founded in humility or pride. They decided to order Simeon under obedience to come down from the pillar. They decided that if he disobeyed, they would forcibly drag him to the ground, but if he was willing to submit, they were to leave him on his pillar. St Simeon displayed complete obedience and humility, and the monks told him to stay where he was.

The first pillar that Simeon occupied was little more than nine feet high. He later moved his platform to others, the last in the series reportedly more than 15 meters (50 ft) above ground. At the top of the pillar was a platform, which is believed to have been about one square meter and surrounded by a baluster. Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Simeon’s life as follows:

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

Even on the highest of his columns, Simeon was not withdrawn from the world. If anything, the new pillar attracted even more people, both pilgrims who had earlier visited him and sightseers as well. Simeon was available each afternoon to talk with visitors. By means of a ladder, visitors were able to ascend within speaking distance. It is known that he wrote letters, the text of some of which have survived to this day, that he instructed disciples, and that he also lectured to those assembled beneath. He especially preached against profanity and usury. In contrast to the extreme austerity that he practiced, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion, and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism. Much of Simeon’s public ministry, like that of other Syrian ascetics, can be seen as socially cohesive in the context of the Roman East. In the face of the withdrawal of wealthy landowners to the large cities, holy men such as Simeon acted as impartial and necessary patrons and arbiters in disputes between peasant farmers and within the smaller towns.

Reports of Simeon reached the church hierarchy and the imperial court. The Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Aelia Eudocia greatly respected the saint and listened to his counsels, while the Emperor Leo I paid respectful attention to a letter he sent in favor of the Council of Chalcedon. Simeon is also said to have corresponded with St Genevieve of Paris. Patriarch Domninos II (441–448) of Antioch visited the monk, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the pillar. Once when Simeon was ill, Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down and allow himself to be attended by physicians. But Simeon preferred to leave his cure in the hands of God, and before long he recovered.

A double wall was raised around him to keep the crowd of people from coming too close and disturbing his prayerful concentration. Women, in general, were not permitted beyond the wall, not even his own mother, reportedly telling her, “If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come.” She submitted to this, remaining in the area, and embraced the monastic life of silence and prayer. When she died, Simeon asked that her coffin be brought to him.

Simeon spent 37 years atop the pillar. He died on 2nd September 459. A disciple found his body stooped over in prayer. The Patriarch of Antioch, Martyrios performed his funeral before a huge throng of clergy and people. They buried him not far from the pillar.

Simeon inspired many imitators. For the next century, ascetics living on pillars, stylites, were a common sight throughout the Christian Levant. He is commemorated as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, where his feast is on 29 Pashons. He is commemorated on 1st September by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, and 5th January in the Roman Catholic Church. A contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession of Simeon’s remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city. The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honor and known in Arabic as the Qalaat Semaan (“the Fortress of Simeon”) can still be seen. They are located about 30 km northwest of Aleppo.

A recipe to commemorate a celebrated austere ascetic is always a challenge. We know that Simeon ate flat bread and goat milk, so you could go in that direction. Depends how austere you want to be. Syriac Christians, on the other hand, have a wide variety of recipes you could follow. I have been making some version of their stuffed eggplant and zucchini for over 45 years. You make a mix of cooked rice, ground lamb, and spices, hollow out the vegetables, stuff them with the rice/meat mix, and bake in a hot oven for 30 minutes. I usually added a small amount of broth and tomato paste to the pan for added flavor and juiciness.

Syriac Christians also make a soup with lentils, noodles, and spinach. I am fond of this one too, and it is austere enough even for a stylite. Place a cup of dried lentils in a large pot with abundant broth. Add several handfuls of washed spinach with the toughest stems removed. Bring to a boil and then simmer covered for 30 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the soup does not dry out, and add more broth as needed. Meanwhile, peel and slice an onion and sauté it over medium heat in a skillet in a little olive oil until it is evenly browned on all sides. Doing this well takes more time than you might think – 20 to 25 minutes at a minimum (and you need to stir regularly to avoid burning and to brown evenly). When the lentils start to soften add a cup of uncooked egg noodles broken into short strips. Continue to simmer until the lentils are fully cooked and the noodles are also cooked through. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the browned onions and stir them in thoroughly. Ideally the soup should be thick rather than watery. Serve in deep bowls with lemon wedges (for guests to add a splash of juice if they desire), and flatbread.

Jan 172018
 

Popeye the Sailor, created by Elzie Crisler Segar, first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip, Thimble Theatre, on this date in 1929, and Popeye became the strip’s title in later years. Popeye has since appeared in cinematic and television animated cartoons. Segar’s Thimble Theatre strip was in its 10th year when Popeye made his debut, but the one-eyed (left) sailor quickly became the main focus of the strip, and Thimble Theatre became one of King Features’ most popular properties during the 1930s. After Segar’s death in 1938, Thimble Theatre was continued by several writers and artists, most notably Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf. The strip continues to appear in first-run installments in its Sunday edition, written and drawn by Hy Eisman. The daily strips are reprints of old Sagendorf stories.

In 1933, Max Fleischer adapted the Thimble Theatre characters into a series of Popeye the Sailor theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures. These cartoons proved to be among the most popular of the 1930s, and Fleischer—and later Paramount’s own Famous Studios—continued production through 1957. These cartoon shorts are now owned by Turner Entertainment, a subsidiary of Time Warner, and distributed by its sister company Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Over the years, Popeye has also appeared in comic books, television cartoons, arcade and video games, hundreds of advertisements, and peripheral products (ranging from spinach to candy cigarettes), and the 1980 live-action film directed by Robert Altman, starring Robin Williams as Popeye.

Differences in Popeye’s story and characterization vary depending on the medium. Originally, Popeye got his strength from rubbing the head of the Whiffle Hen, changing to spinach by 1932. Swee’Pea is definitively Popeye’s ward in the comic strips, but he is often depicted as belonging to Olive Oyl in cartoons. There is no absolute sense of continuity in the stories, although certain plot and presentation elements remain mostly constant, including purposeful contradictions in Popeye’s capabilities. Popeye seems bereft of manners and uneducated, yet he is often depicted as capable of coming up with solutions to problems that seem insurmountable to the police or, most importantly, the scientific community. Popeye has, alternatively, displayed Sherlock Holmes-like investigative prowess (determining, for instance, that his beloved Olive was abducted by estimating the depth of the villains’ footprints in the sand), scientific ingenuity (as his construction, within a few hours, of a “spinach-drive” spacecraft), or oversimplified (yet successful) diplomatic arguments (by presenting his own existence—and superhuman strength—as the only true guarantee of world peace at diplomatic conferences). Popeye’s pipe also proves to be highly versatile. Among other things, it has served as a cutting torch, jet engine, propeller, periscope, musical instrument, and, of course, a whistle with which he produces his trademark toot. Popeye also on occasion eats spinach through his pipe, sometimes sucking in the can itself along with the contents. Since the 1970s, Popeye is seldom depicted using his pipe to smoke tobacco.

Popeye’s exploits are also enhanced by a few recurring plot elements. One is the love triangle among Popeye, Olive, and Bluto, and the latter’s endless machinations to claim Olive at Popeye’s expense. Another is his near-saintly perseverance in overcoming any obstacle to please Olive, who often renounces Popeye for Bluto’s dime-store advances. She is the only character that Popeye will permit to give him a thumping. Finally, Popeye usually uncovers villainous plots by accidentally sneaking up on the antagonists as they brag about or lay out their schemes.[citation needed.

Thimble Theatre was cartoonist E. C. Segar’s third published strip when it first appeared in the New York Journal on December 19, 1919. The paper’s owner William Randolph Hearst also owned King Features Syndicate, which syndicated the strip. Thimble Theatre was intended as a replacement for Midget Movies by Ed Wheelan (Wheelan having recently resigned from King Features). It did not attract a large audience at first, and at the end of its first decade appeared in only half a dozen newspapers. In its early years, the strip featured characters acting out various stories and scenarios in theatrical style (hence the strip’s name). It could be classified as a gag-a-day comic in those days.

Thimble Theatre’s first main characters were the thin Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Harold Hamgravy. After the strip moved away from its initial focus, it settled into a comedy-adventure style featuring Olive, Ham Gravy, and Olive’s enterprising brother Castor Oyl. Olive’s parents Cole and Nana Oyl also made frequent appearances. Popeye first appeared in the strip as a minor character. He was initially hired by Castor Oyl and Ham to crew a ship for a voyage to Dice Island, the location of a casino owned by the crooked gambler Fadewell. Castor intended to break the bank at the casino using the unbeatable good luck conferred by stroking the hairs on the head of Bernice the Whiffle Hen. Weeks later, on the trip back, Popeye is shot many times by Jack Snork, a stooge of Fadewell’s, but survives by rubbing Bernice’s head. After the adventure, Popeye left the strip but, due to reader reaction, he was quickly brought back.

The Popeye character became so popular that he was given a larger role, and the strip was expanded into many more newspapers as a result. Initial strips presented Olive as being less than impressed with Popeye, but she eventually left Ham Gravy to become Popeye’s girlfriend and Ham Gravy left the strip as a regular. Over the years, however, she has often displayed a fickle attitude towards Popeye. Castor Oyl continued to come up with get-rich-quick schemes and enlisted Popeye in his misadventures. Eventually, he settled down as a detective and later on bought a ranch out West. Castor has seldom appeared in recent years.

In 1933, Popeye received a foundling baby in the mail, whom he adopted and named “Swee’Pea.” Other regular characters in the strip were J. Wellington Wimpy, a hamburger-loving moocher who would “gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” (he was also soft-spoken and cowardly; Vickers Wellington bombers were nicknamed “Wimpys” after the character); George W. Geezil, a local cobbler who spoke in a heavily affected accent and habitually attempted to murder or wish death upon Wimpy; and Eugene the Jeep, a yellow, vaguely dog-like animal from Africa with magical powers. In addition, the strip featured the Sea Hag, a terrible pirate, as well as the last witch on earth (her even more terrible sister excepted); Alice the Goon, a monstrous creature who entered the strip as the Sea Hag’s henchwoman and continued as Swee’Pea’s babysitter; and Toar, a caveman.

Segar’s strip was quite different from the cartoons that followed. The stories were more complex, with many characters that never appeared in theatric cartoons (King Blozo, for example). Popeye rarely ate spinach, and Bluto made only one appearance. Segar would sign some of his early Popeye comic strips with a cigar, due to his last name being a homophone of “cigar” (pronounced SEE-gar).

After Segar’s death in 1938, many different artists were hired to draw the strip. Tom Sims, the son of a Coosa River channel-boat captain, continued writing Thimble Theatre strips and established the Popeye the Sailorman spin-off. Doc Winner and Bela Zaboly, successively, handled the artwork during Sims’s run. Eventually, Ralph Stein stepped in to write the strip until the series was taken over by Bud Sagendorf in 1959.

Sagendorf wrote and drew the daily strip until 1986, and continued to write and draw the Sunday strip until his death in 1994. Sagendorf, who had been Segar’s assistant, made a definite effort to retain much of Segar’s classic style, although his art is instantly discernible. Sagendorf continued to use many obscure characters from the Segar years, especially O.G. Wotasnozzle and King Blozo. Sagendorf’s new characters, such as the Thung, also had a very Segar-like quality. What set Sagendorf apart from Segar more than anything else was his sense of pacing. Where plotlines moved very quickly with Segar, it would sometimes take an entire week of Sagendorf’s daily strips for the plot to be advanced even a small amount.

From 1986 to 1992, the daily strip was written and drawn by Bobby London, who, after some controversy, was fired from the strip for a story that could be taken to satirize abortion. London’s strips put Popeye and his friends in updated situations, but kept the spirit of Segar’s original. One classic storyline, titled “The Return of Bluto”, showed the sailor battling every version of the bearded bully from the comic strip, comic books, and animated films. The Sunday edition of the comic strip is currently drawn by Hy Eisman, who took over in 1994. The daily strip began featuring reruns of Sagendorf’s strips after London was fired and continues to do so today.

Even though Popeye did not use spinach to gain strength in his earliest incarnation, spinach and Popeye are now completely wedded. Spinach is an extremely versatile food, and is one of my favorites. I always grew it in containers in my garden in New York, and used it primarily for salads. Because raw spinach contains oxalic acid, which blocks absorption of iron and calcium and may contribute to the formation of kidney stones, there was a time when health nuts avoided spinach that was not cooked. It is now understood, however, that the amount of oxalic acid in spinach is not as deleterious as once thought, and regular eating of probiotics in natural yoghurt and kefir counteracts the acid. On the other hand, if you boil or steam spinach you should discard the water, as well as the liquid it is packed in if you use canned.

I will put spinach in pretty much anything if I have it on hand: soups and stews, omelets, pots of lentils or beans. Curries in India can be made with all the ingredients cooked slowly for hours and if they have spinach (sa’ag) in them, it becomes silky and smooth, almost blending into the sauce. Or you can lightly steam spinach on its own. I cook it by rinsing it thoroughly in a colander, then placing it in a dry saucepan over high heat covered, and letting it steam for a few minutes until it cooks down. Drain off the excess juices and serve it hot or cold as a side dish – plain or dressed with a little sesame oil (although in keeping with the Popeye theme it ought to be olive oil — no comment on extra virgin please). You can put chopped, steamed spinach in sour cream or yoghurt as a dip, or use it as the main ingredient in cream of spinach soup. Spinach will go with anything. Eggs Florentine are like eggs Benedict except you replace the ham with spinach – delicious. “Florentine” is the culinary shorthand for “with spinach.” Hollow out a baked potato and stuff it with spinach and cheese for potatoes Florentine. Use your imagination.

Feb 232017
 

Today is the birthday (1868) of William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois, U.S. sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, and editor. Now is an excellent time to champion Du Bois because of his brief return to the spotlight when Trump’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who is about as nakedly ignorant and ambitious as they come, tried to win points by quoting Du Bois in a tweet, but then misspelled his name. DeVos joins a long line of bigots who think that by quoting an eminent and respected African American they are cleared of all accusations of racism and bias.  Sorry – it doesn’t work that way.  What’s more DeVos most certainly does not subscribe to what Du Bois had to say, even though she quoted him:

Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.

DeVos, along with numerous colleagues on the far right, right, center, and slightly left of center all hold up education as the path to jobs and financial success, and hold schools accountable by such criteria.  To the best of my knowledge, no one in politics thinks education is of much value (as seen by constant cuts to education and threats to the whole involvement of the government in education at all), and when they do value it it’s because of its ability to turn out skilled workers, not for its intrinsic merits.  I am a rare bird these days because no matter what the subject matter, my underlying agenda is to teach students to think for themselves, and in the process to pursue truth, beauty, and happiness. I TEACH LIFE.

Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community. After completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African-American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Du Bois rose to national prominence as the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists who wanted equal rights for Blacks. Du Bois and his supporters opposed the Atlanta compromise, an agreement crafted by Booker T. Washington which proposed that Southern Blacks would work and submit to White political rule, while Southern Whites guaranteed that Blacks would receive basic educational and economic opportunities. Instead, Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop leadership skills.

Racism was the main target of Du Bois’s polemics, and he strongly protested against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in colonies. He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism and helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for independence of African colonies from European powers. Du Bois made several trips to Europe, Africa and Asia. After World War I, he surveyed the experiences of Black American soldiers in France and documented widespread bigotry in the United States military.

Du Bois was a prolific author. His collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, was a seminal work in African-American literature; and his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America challenged the prevailing orthodoxy that Blacks were responsible for the failures of the Reconstruction Era. He wrote one of the first scientific treatises in the field of American sociology, and he published three autobiographies, each of which contains insightful essays on sociology, politics and history. In his role as editor of the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, he published many influential pieces. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was an ardent peace activist and advocated nuclear disarmament. The United States’ Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned his entire life, was enacted a year after his death.

Here’s a few salient quotes. I feel the need to annotate each one because each is so rich and insightful. But . . . I am also mindful that this is a cooking blog (even though it doesn’t always seem so) so I will resist:

There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.

I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty for Beauty to set the world right.

Human nature is not simple and any classification that roughly divides men into good and bad, superior and inferior, slave and free, is and must be ludicrously untrue and universally dangerous as a permanent exhaustive classification.

The world is shrinking together; it is finding itself neighbor to itself in strange, almost magic degree.

The time must come when, great and pressing as change and betterment may be, they do not involve killing and hurting people.

The cause of war is preparation for war.

I believe in God who made of one blood all races that dwell on earth. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and in the possibility of infinite development.

Amen and amen to all of that and more. Du Bois had quite a lot to say about African-American cooking habits as well as the role of African Americans in the food industry. His best known quote concerns soul food:

The deceitful pork chop must be dethroned in the South and yield a part of its sway to vegetables, fruits, and fish.

There isn’t a broad line between Black and White cooking styles in the South. Greasy greens, foods fried in lard, fatty meats such as pork belly are the mainstays of Black and White equally, and are equally unhealthy as a steady diet. Once in a while is all right. You can’t beat lard in some dishes. You don’t have to eat them every day.

Catering was dominated by African Americans in the North in the 19th century but they were supplanted by Greeks and Italians by the early 20th century. In antebellum Philadelphia there was practically an African-American monopoly on catering and restaurant business with many chefs and entrepreneurs claiming fame:

The institution of catering reaches its highest excellence in Philadelphia. This occupation was originated by a Phildelphia Negro, Robert Bogle, whose services were marked by such superlative excellence that one of his discriminating patrons, Nicholas Biddle, the leading Philadelphia financier of this time, was moved to poetic expression, and wrote his ‘Ode to Bogle’ in 1829. The Negro caterers have given to this art a quality and flavor which is unique and distinctive and which tradition is being continued along admirable lines by Holland’s, Augustine and Baptiste, and others.

As a tribute to Du Bois and his inclinations towards healthy eating I have created this dish which is simple, yet elegant – tonight’s dinner for me. You can call it Perch Du Bois or Perch Florentine. The term “Florentine” means served on bed of spinach. No need for a detailed recipe.  I found some perch in the market this evening and I had spinach on hand. There is no need for fat of any kind.  I don’t cook with salt either.

Wash your spinach well, drain it, but leave some water on the leaves. Heat a wide skillet over medium heat, add the spinach and let it cook down. Push the spinach to one side, then add a perch fillet to the skillet. If it is thick, cover it so that it cooks through evenly.  Turn once – carefully. Season with freshly ground black pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice and serve with boiled new potatoes.

Dec 122015
 

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Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe), is a title of the Virgin Mary associated with a famous pictorial image housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in México City. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.

Official Catholic accounts state that the Virgin Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474–1548), and once more to Juan Diego’s uncle. According to these accounts the first apparition occurred on the morning of December 9, 1531, when Juan Diego, a native Mexican peasant, saw a vision of a maiden at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which would become part of Villa de Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City. Speaking to him in his native Nahuatl language, the maiden identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity” and asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor.

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Because of her words, Juan Diego sought out the archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, on the same day to tell him what had happened. The bishop did not believe Juan Diego, but later that day, Juan Diego saw the Virgin Mary for a second time (second apparition) and asked him to keep insisting. On Sunday, December 10, Juan Diego talked to the archbishop for the second time, who then instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. That same day the third apparition occurred in which Juan Diego returned immediately to Tepeyac and, encountering the Virgin Mary, reported the bishop’s request for a sign; she consented to provide one on the following day (December 11).

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By Monday, December 11, however, Juan Diego’s uncle Juan Bernardino had fallen sick and Juan Diego was obliged to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, Juan Bernardino’s condition having deteriorated overnight, Juan Diego set out to Tlatelolco to get a priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and minister to him on his death-bed. In order to avoid being delayed by the Virgin and embarrassed at having failed to meet her on the Monday as agreed, Juan Diego chose another route around the hill, but the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going (fourth apparition); Juan Diego explained what had happened and the Virgin gently chided him for not having had recourse to her. In the words which have become the most famous phrase of the Guadalupe event and are inscribed over the main entrance to the Basilica of Guadalupe, she asked: “No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?” (Am I not here, I who am your mother?). She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and she told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in December. Juan Diego followed her instructions and he found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming there. Juan arranged the flowers in his tilma (cloak), and when he opened his cloak before archbishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

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The next day, on December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered, as the Virgin had assured him, and Juan Bernardino recounted that he too had seen her, at his bed-side (fifth apparition); that she had instructed him to inform the bishop of this apparition and of his miraculous cure; and that she had told him she desired to be known under the title of Guadalupe.

The bishop kept Juan Diego’s tilma, first in his private chapel, and then in the church on public display where it attracted great attention. On December 26, 1531 a procession formed for taking the miraculous image back to Tepeyac where it was installed in a small hastily erected chapel. In course of this procession, the first miracle was allegedly performed when an Indian was mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow shot by accident during some stylized martial displays executed in honor of the Virgin. In great distress, the Indians carried him before the Virgin’s image and pleaded for his life. Upon the arrow being withdrawn, the victim made a full and immediate recovery.

Juan Diego’s tilma has become Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural symbol, and has received widespread ecclesiastical and popular support. In the 19th century it became the rallying call of American-born Spaniards in New Spain, who saw the story of the apparition as legitimizing their own Mexican origin and infusing it with an almost messianic sense of mission and identity – thus also legitimizing their armed rebellion against Spain.

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Historically the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe did not lack clerical opponents within Mexico, especially in the early years, and in more recent times some Catholic scholars, and even a former abbot of the basilica, Monsignor Guillermo Schulenburg, have openly doubted the historical existence of Juan Diego. Nonetheless, Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, under the name Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.

Following the Conquest in 1519–21, the Spanish destroyed a temple of the mother goddess Tonantzin at Tepeyac outside Mexico City, and built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin on the site. Newly converted natives continued to come from afar to worship there, often addressing the Virgin Mary as Tonantzin.

What is purported by some to be the earliest mention of the miraculous apparition of the Virgin is a page of parchment (called Codex Escalada) which was discovered in 1995. This document bears a pictorial representation of Juan Diego and the apparition, several inscriptions in Nahuatl, referring to Juan Diego by his Aztec name, and the date 1548. Doubts have been cast on the authenticity of the document, however.

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A more complete early description of the apparition occurs in a 16-page manuscript called the Nican mopohua, which was acquired by the New York Public Library in 1880, and has been reliably dated to 1556. This document, written in Nahuatl, but in Latin script, tells the story of the apparitions and the supernatural origin of the image. It was probably composed by a native Aztec man, called Antonio Valeriano, who had been educated by Franciscans. The text of this document was later incorporated into a printed pamphlet which was widely circulated in 1649.

In spite of these documents, there are no written accounts of the Guadalupe vision by Catholic clergymen of the 16th century, as there ought to have been if the event had the importance it is claimed to have had. In particular, the canonical account of the vision features archbishop Juan de Zumárraga as a major player in the story, but, although Zumárraga was a prolific writer, there is nothing in his extant writings that can confirm the story. This is the most important omission in the verification of the tale.

The written record that does exist suggests the Catholic clergy in 16th century Mexico were deeply divided as to the orthodoxy of the cult springing up around the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with the Franciscan order (who had custody of the chapel at Tepeyac) being strongly opposed to the cult, while the Dominicans supported it.

The main promoter of the cult was the Dominican Alonso de Montúfar, who succeeded the Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga as archbishop of Mexico. In a 1556 sermon Montúfar commended popular devotion to “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” referring to a painting on cloth (a tilma) in the chapel of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac, where certain miracles had occurred. Days later, Fray Francisco de Bustamante, local head of the Franciscan order, delivered a sermon denouncing the cult. He expressed concern that the Archbishop was promoting a superstitious regard for an image:

The devotion at the chapel . . to which they have given the name Guadalupe was prejudicial to the Indians because they believed that the image itself worked miracles, contrary to what the missionary friars had been teaching them, and because many were disappointed when it did not.

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The next day Archbishop Montúfar opened an inquiry into the matter. At the inquiry, the Franciscans repeated their position that the image encouraged idolatry and superstition, and four witnesses testified to Bustamante’s claim that the image was painted by an Indian, with one witness naming him “the Indian painter Marcos”. This could refer to the Aztec painter Marcos Cipac de Aquino, who was active at that time. But Jody Brant Smith (referring to Philip Serna Callahan’s examination of the tilma using infrared photography in 1979) says that,  “if he did, he did so without making a preliminary sketch – in itself a near-miraculous procedure. Cipac may well have had a hand in painting the Image, but only in painting the additions, such as the angel and moon at the Virgin’s feet”,

Ultimately Archbishop Montúfar (himself a Dominican) decided to end Franciscan custody of the shrine. From then on the shrine was served by diocesan priests under the authority of the archbishop. Moreover, Archbishop Montúfar authorized the construction of a much larger church at Tepeyac, in which the tilma was mounted and displayed.

The report of the 1556 inquiry is the most extensive documentation concerning the Virgin of Guadalupe from the 16th century, and significantly, it makes no mention of Juan Diego, the miraculous apparition, or any other element from the legend. If the miracle story did have currency at that time, it seems strange that it would have been omitted from this report.

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In the late 1570s, the Franciscan historian Bernardino de Sahagún denounced the cult at Tepeyac and the use of the name “Tonantzin” to call Our Lady in a personal digression in his General History of the Things of New Spain, in the version known as the Florentine Codex.

At this place [Tepeyac], [the Indians] had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means Our Mother. There they performed many sacrifices in honor of this goddess…And now that a church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is built there, they also call her Tonantzin, being motivated by the preachers who called Our Lady, the Mother of God, Tonantzin. It is not known for certain where the beginning of this Tonantzin may have originated, but this we know for certain, that, from its first usage, the word means that ancient Tonantzin. And it is something tha should be remedied, for the correct [native] name of the Mother of God, Holy Mary, is not Tonantzin, but Dios inantzin. It appears to be a Satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin.

Sahagún’s criticism of the cult seems to have stemmed primarily from his concern about a syncretistic application of the native name Tonantzin to the Virgin Mary. However, Sahagún often used the same name in his sermons as late as the 1560s.

In the 16th century and probably continuing into the early 17th century, the image was modified by adding the sunburst around the Virgin, the stars on her cloak, the moon under her feet, and the angel with folded cloth supporting her – as was determined by an infrared and ocular study of the tilma in 1979.

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Neither the fabric (“the support”) nor the image (together, “the tilma”) has been analyzed using the full range of resources now available to museum conservationists. Four technical studies have been conducted so far. Of these, the findings of at least three have been published. Each study required the permission of the custodians of the tilma in the Basilica. However, Callahan’s study was taken at the initiative of a third party: the custodians did not know in advance what his research would reveal.

These are coded as follows:

MC – in 1756 a prominent artist, Miguel Cabrera, published a report entitled “Maravilla Americana,” containing the results of the inspections by him and six other painters in 1751 and 1752.

G – José Antonio Flores Gómez, an art restorer, discussed in a 2002 interview with the Mexican journal Proceso, certain technical issues concerning the tilma. He had worked on it in 1947 and 1973.

PC – in 1979 Philip Callahan, (biophysicist, USDA entomologist, NASA consultant) specializing in infrared imaging, was allowed direct access to visually inspect, and photograph, the image. He took numerous infrared photographs of the front of the tilma. Taking notes that were later published, his assistant noted that the original art work was neither cracked nor flaked, while later additions (gold leaf, silver plating the moon) showed serious signs of wear, if not complete deterioration. Callahan could not explain the excellent state of preservation of the un-retouched areas of the image on the tilma, particularly the upper two-thirds of the image. His findings, with photographs, were published in 1981.

R – In 2002 Proceso published an interview with José Sol Rosales, formerly director of the Center for the Conservation and Listing of Heritage Artifacts (Patrimonio Artístico Mueble) of the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) in México City. The article included extracts from a report which Rosales had written in 1982 of his findings from his inspection of the tilma that year using raking and UV light. It was done at low magnification with a stereo microscope of the type used for surgery.

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Summary conclusions (“contra” indicates a contrary finding)

(1) Support: The material of the support is soft to the touch (almost silken: MC; something like cotton: G) but to the eye it suggested a coarse weave of palm threads called “pita” or the rough fiber called “cotense” (MC), or a hemp and linen mixture (R). It was traditionally held to be made from ixtle, an agave fiber.

(2) Ground, or primer: R asserted (MC and PC contra) by ocular examination that the tilma was primed, though with primer “applied irregularly.” R does not clarify whether his observed “irregular” application indicates that the entire tilma was primed, or just certain areas – such as those areas of the tilma extrinsic to the image – where PC agrees there are later additions. MC, in contrast, observed that the image had soaked through to the reverse of the tilma suggesting a lack of primer.

(3) Under-drawing: PC asserted there was no under-drawing.

(4) Brush-work: R suggested (PC contra) there was some visible brushwork on the original image, but in a minute area of the image (“her eyes, including the irises, have outlines, apparently applied by a brush”).

(5) Condition of the surface layer: PC reports that the un-retouched portions of the image, particularly the blue mantle and the face, are in a very good state of preservation, with no flaking or peeling. The three most recent inspections (G, PC and R) agree (i) that additions have been made to the image (gold leaf added to the sun’s rays-which has flaked off; silver paint or other material to depict the moon – which has discolored; and the re-construction or addition of the angel supporting the Marian image), and (ii) that portions of the original image have been abraded and re-touched in places. Some flaking is visible, though only in retouched areas (mostly along the line of the vertical seam, or at passages considered to be later additions).

(6) Varnish: The tilma has never been varnished.

(7) Binding Medium: R provisionally identified the pigments and binding medium (distemper) as consistent with 16th – century methods of painting sargas (MC, PC contra for different reasons), but the color values and luminosity are in good condition.

You’ll have to make of it what you will. There is no question that the original image is in a good state of preservation, and subsequent additions have all deteriorated. The lack of contemporary eye witness accounts of the legend is not encouraging. However, I find it odd that the image depicts a young mestiza woman at a time when mestizos (male or female) were an extreme rarity, if they existed at all.

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I have chosen a Mexican festive dish to honor Guadalupe that could be part of a celebratory meal — sopa de coditos y espinacas (macaroni and spinach soup). I’ve given the recipe in Mexican Spanish but it’s very easy to read, I believe, even if your Spanish is limited (Google translate will do the trick too). I mean, what’s complicated about cooking spinach and elbow macaroni in a chicken and tomato broth with onions and garlic? Some cooks add epazote for flavoring. It’s also common to add chunks of soft white cheese (queso blanco).

Sopa de Coditos y Espinacas

Ingredientes

6 jitomates cortados en cuartos
¼ pieza de cebolla
1 diente de ajo
2 cucharadas de consomé de pollo en polvo
3 cucharadas de aceite
6 tazas de caldo de pollo (1 ½ litros)
200g de coditos cocidos y escurridos
1 manojo de espinacas limpias y en trozos
queso parmesano

Preparación:

Licua el jitomate, con la cebolla, el ajo y el consomé. Calienta el aceite y fríe la salsa anterior y cocina por 5 minutos, agrega el caldo los coditos y las espinacas.

Cocina por 10 minutos más o hasta que rompa el hervor. Sirve con el queso parmesano.