Few topics in Mexican history have aroused so much controversy as the origins of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the best account we now have in English, Stafford Poole presents a meticulous analysis of the “four evangelists” of this cult. To start with, he shows that although the “appearance” of the image in the “hermitage” at Tepeyac in 1555-56 caused a fierce polemic, an impressive silence reigned as regards the miraculous origin of that image.

It was not until 1648 that Miguel Sánchez published his account of the Virgin Mary’s appearances to Juan Diego in 1531 and of the miraculous imprinting of her image on his cape. Poole thus agrees with Joaquín García Icazbalceta and Edmundo O’Gorman in emphasizing the absence of any historical evidence regarding the existence of Juan Diego. After all, Sánchez himself based his account on oral tradition. But modern “apparitionists” rely on the Mican mopohua, the Nahuatl narrative published in 1649 by Luis Lasso de la Vega, the chaplain at Tepeyac, but written, so they argue, by Antonio Valeriano, the famous colegial of Santa Cruz Tlatelolco. On this text Poole employs his knowledge of Nahuatl to assert that it is written in standard church Nahuatl, belonging to stage 2 of James Lockhart’s tripartite schema. It thus could have been written anytime between the 1550s and the 1640s. The problem here is that no manuscript antecedent of Lasso’s text has survived. True, Luis Becerra Tanco, Francisco de Florencia, and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora all claimed to have seen such a manuscript; but as Poole demonstrates, they mention two separate manuscripts and do not identify Valeriano as the author of Lasso’s source. It was only in the late eighteenth century that Valeriano was finally recognized as the author of the Mican mopohua. In all this, Poole deploys a rigorous analysis and trenchant arguments to reach essentially negative conclusions.

Where Poole is less happy is in his handling of the Marian theology that underpins Sánchez’ interpretation of the Guadalupana’s significance. And although he has read a great many sermons on the Mexican Virgin, he exhibits little sympathy for their highly wrought metaphors. It is the rare modern Catholic clergyman who has any time for the theological conceits of the Baroque epoch. In point of fact, much of the devotional exuberance found in these sermons was based on the Marian doctrines of the Greek fathers, most notably St. John Damascene.

More bothersome is the number of factual errors. Juan de Grijalva’s chronicle was published in 1624, not 1611 (p. 90). Felipe de Jesús was beatified, not canonized, in 1627 (p. 97). Baltazar de Medina was a Franciscan, not a Dominican chronicler (p. 97). Miguel Sánchez was not an Oratorian (p. 99); he belonged to the archconfraternity from which the Oratory was later formed. Boturini never spelled his name “Botturini” (pp. 196-98). The Spanish bibliophile was Manuel Martí, not Martín (p. 183). None of these errors, however, in any way detracts from the force of Poole’s arguments.