According to tradition, in 1531 the Virgin Mary appeared to the recently converted Indian Juan Diego at the hill of Tepeyac, north of Mexico City. She directed him to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga (reigned 1528–1547) so he could build a church for her. When the bishop refused to believe Juan Diego, he returned to the hill where the Virgin appeared to him a second time, asking him to return to the bishop's palace. Juan Diego followed the Virgin's command but was again rebuffed. The Virgin then appeared to Juan Diego a third time, this time instructing him to gather a group of rare flowers to take to the bishop as proof. During his visit to the bishop, Juan Diego unfolded his cloak filled with the extraordinary flowers, revealing the miraculously imprinted image of the Virgin on his tunic. In awe, the bishop fell to his knees and begged the Virgin for forgiveness. According to tradition, the image imprinted on Juan Diego's cloak is the same icon venerated at the Basílica of Guadalupe today.
Although the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe goes back to the second half of the sixteenth century, her tradition was only fixed in the mid-seventeenth century when a strong sense of criollismo crystallized in New Spain. (Criollismo is the strong identification with the local that surfaced among the descendants of Spaniards in Spanish America). Contributing to the popularity of the image were several publications about the image by Miguel Sánchez (1648), Luis Lasso de la Vega (1649), Luis Becerra Tanco (1666), and Francisco de Florencia (1688). Sánchez, for example, hailed her "our criolla sovereign", pointing to the uniqueness of New Spain by having such a holy image appear in the viceroyalty. Throughout the seventeenth century the fame of the Virgin spread rapidly. For example, she was said to have miraculously stopped the flood of 1629, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Mexico City. In 1666 a group of painters were invited to inspect the image, and declared that it was not painted by human hands. From that point Guadalupe became one of the most venerated images of New Spain whose fame spread much beyond the confines of the viceroyalty.
Arellano is one of the most accomplished painters of Mexico who straddled the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A barely legible inscription above the artist's signature reads: "Tocada al original" (after the original), which means that Arellano based his depiction on the original image of the Virgin. In this he followed the tradition of some of the most important artists of the time, including Juan Correa (Mexico, circa 1645–1716), who also had access to the original image. Images that were closer to the original were believed to be more miraculous and were therefore more valued.
The Virgin is depicted in the center surrounded by rays of light, encased by a mandorla of delicately rendered flowers. The composition is punctuated with four roundels at each corner that show the various moments of her apparition story. This is the first image of this iconic figure to enter the collectionan and is an important addition to our growing collection of Spanish colonial art.
Ilona Katzew, 2009