The most-visited Marian shrine in the world is in Mexico City, and houses what is perhaps the most mysterious Catholic icon in the world: the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

The cloak on which the image appears, called a tilma, is woven from a non-durable material that can’t normally be expected to last more than a few decades. But this tilma has survived intact for nearly 500 years, nurturing the Catholic faith of literally millions of people. 

Michael O’Neill, who has made a name for himself as “The Miracle Hunter,” examines the mysteries surrounding the tilma in the EWTN documentary “Guadalupe Mysteries,” airing this Sunday. 

The conquistador Hernan Cortes brutally conquered the peoples of the area, O’Neill says, but until the Guadalupe image appeared, the Spanish largely failed to evangelize them. 

ACI Prensa / CNA
ACI Prensa / CNA

It wasn’t until the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared that the native people began to accept Christianity on a large scale. Today, the image forms an inextricable part of the history of Mexico, and facilitated the evangelization of an entire people. 

In the 1530s, Juan Diego was a native man in his forties and a member of one of the first native tribes to be baptized. While passing on a December day by Tepeyac Hill, he heard a beautiful voice calling to him. When he reached the summit, he saw a woman there who spoke to him in his native tongue, and told him that she wanted a chapel built there. 

Juan Diego delivered the message to the local bishop, who didn’t believe him at first. Diego returned to the hill, and at Mary’s direction, found roses growing on the hill, even though it was winter. He gathered them into his cloak, or tilma. 

When he unfurled the cloak in the presence of the bishop to show him the roses, a miraculous image of Mary was on the tilma. 

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Mary herself used the name “Guadalupe.” Guadalupe was the name of a shrine in Spain, a fact which surprised the Spaniards. Spanish, Italian, and French artistic influences can be detected in the work. The Spaniards perceived the image as a Christian icon, full of intelligible Christian symbols such as the imagery of the moon at Mary’s feet and the blue of her dress. 

A basilica was built at the base of the hill, which eventually began to crumble. A new basilica was consecrated in 1976. 

The mysteries surrounding the tilma are innumerable, and many have been tested or brought to the forefront thanks to scientific inquiry. 

For example, astronomers have determined that the arrangement of stars on the Guadalupe image corresponds to how the stars would have appeared on Dec. 12, 1531. In addition, some of the flowers on the tilma correspond to the locations of volcanoes in Mexico, something no one at that time could have mapped with such accuracy. 

Under great magnification, shadowy figures have been discerned in Mary’s eyes, at a scale not possible for a human painter to have made. Various analyses have suggested a bearded man, and even several other figures, with the tiny images conforming to optical laws not known until the 19th century— such as the reflection patterns in real human eyes. 

Another baffling mystery is the tilma’s longevity. The cloak shows almost no signs of aging, despite the fragility of agave thread and the fact that the image was kept, unprotected, in a smoky, salty environment for over 100 years, seen and touched by thousands of people. 

Other, more miraculous occurrences have borne witness to the cloak’s resilience. At one point in 1785 when the frame was being cleaned, nitric acid spilled on it by accident, but it left no permanent stains. 

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A man once tried in 1921 to blow up the image by detonating dynamite in the church, but despite the church practically crumbling around it, the image was unharmed. 

O’Neill examines these and many other mysteries surrounding this image of the Patroness of all America in the documentary. “Guadalupe Mysteries” will air on Dec. 12 at 1:30pm Eastern Time on EWTN.