I saw her from behind first, and so missed the famous face.
The church was cavernous and gaudy, filled with shiny baby jesuses, bloodied Christs and even the bones of a priest, but all eyes were skyward, on the Gothic altar that housed her.
She was 42cm tall, made from the wood of a maguey (agave), and dressed oddly in a stiff white tunic, but that didn’t matter. People crawled up these stairs to her throne, coming on foot from as far as Santiago de Estero to see her.
The Virgin of The Valley is an image of the Virgin Mary “discovered” in the early 17th century. She lives in the salmon pink Catedral Basílica in San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca, the capital city of Catamarca, a province in Argentina’s arid and mountainous northwest.
The virgin is a national and religious icon, visited by thousands of pilgrims a year, many of whom believe she has the power to cure the ill. On December 8, Argentines celebrate a national holiday in honor of the Virgin Mary, and the little wooden effigy will be paraded around the city, on a route that locals assure me gets longer each years
The Virgin is a fascinating object. Coronated, permanently clothed (though her original wooden form includes a dress she is never displayed without a regal cape and tunic) and adored by her followers for almost 400 years, she is part cult, part catholic, part earthy bisque doll, and quite baffling to a non-Catholic.
While I was here you had to line up to see her. People took selfies and pressed their hands against the glass, praying to her in eager, hushed tones. At the end of Sunday’s service, the priest and all present raised their hands in the air and exclaimed “Viva la virgen!”
And then there’s the face.
The Virgin would be like any wooden madonna doll – mantle, hands in prayer, expression of wooden piety – were it not for this. She has the features of a “morena”, dark, elongated, and with “pronounced criolla cheeks.” Hence her alternate names – the Morenita of The Valley or the Morena Virgin of The Valley.
Upon seeing her, your mind fills with questions: Who made this Virgin and why? Was it a wily missionary keen to build a bridge between the local indigenous people and the Spanish colonizers? Or a pious indigenous Christian? Or a criollo craftsman? And where was she made – Spain or America?
Sadly, or perhaps necessarily (she is the center of a very large religious tourism industry, after all) the Morenita is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows who made the virgin, though it seems likely she was crafted in Alto Peru (modern day Bolivia) by “no great artist”, as Presbyterian priest Antonio Larrouy tactfully put it in a 1916 historical essay.
What there is is an oft-cited story around her discovery. Part mythology, part history, it reaches into a rich and complex indigenous past. And this is where things get really interesting.
According to the Presbyterian priest, Alberto S. Miranda, the Virgin was discovered by the Calchaqui people in the early 17th century (Calchaqui is a very imperfect historical term used to refer to the diverse indigenous inhabitants of northwest Argentina).
Amazed by the fact she looked like them, they built a shrine for her in a mountain grotto in the town of Choya, where they worshiped her with tallow candles and dancing.
Manuel de Salazar, an elderly Spanish administrator, heard about this clandestine worship from an “Indian” in his service and decided to “rescue” her from the mountain. He then took the virgin with him to what is now the neighborhood of San Isidro, close to Catamarca Capital.
However the virgin wasn’t pleased with her new abode and legend has it she escaped, seating herself at the feet of a huge algarrobo tree that is now the site of the Cathedral.
A strange, maddening, and fascinating encounter between Spanish colonizer and colonized indigenous people that seems linked to the founding of the city. With modern eyes, I couldn’t help but feel a little outraged that Salazar took the morenita from the indigenous people who worshiped her, though she is a Christian symbol.
But what does the story mean in context?
Some argue that the history and legend of the Virgin makes sense if we understand it as an ideological justification for the domination of the Calchaqui, who fiercely resisted colonization in the century long “Calchaqui wars.”
Hence, in this tale of “innocent love” (as the Virgin of The Valley museum pamphlet describes the indigenous worship of the Virgin) turned to divine grace, there is peace between Indian and Spaniard, as the Indian accepts the mighty project of colonization.
It’s ultimately a pretty sad tale. Few vestiges of traditional culture remain; instead, everyone is a Christian.
One local I met, however, seemed more hopeful, claiming that the virgin was “totally syncretic”, which is to say, a blending of indigenous and Hispanic culture. It seemed to echo the statements of an archeologist I met whilst here – though the Spanish project of colonialism was racist and imperialist, in practice there was a huge mixing of cultures and people, particularly in Catamarca.
There is some evidence for this. The Calchaqui worship of the Virgin – in cave in Andean mountains surely infused with spiritual meaning – has not been excised from her legend and is indeed celebrated. While the virgin is now clothed in the Spanish style in the central Cathedral, a popular activity for religious tourists is visiting the original mountain grotto where the virgin was discovered; which is to say, her indigenous has been incorporated into her legend.
Whether this represents true syncretism or assimilation is perhaps a more complicated question. Until then, there’s the beguiling face of the virgin to ponder upon.