Not a great deal is known about Juan Diego prior to his conversion...
THE MIRACULOUS TILMA
With the tilma full of flowers in his arms, Juan Diego immediately set out and arrived at the bishop's residence, only to be denied access by the doorman who refused to let him enter. Undaunted, Juan Diego waited patiently by the door, and it wasn't long before the servants became curious about the contents of his tilma.
Eventually, the servants approached him and Juan gave them just a slight peak at the flowers wrapped in his tilma. When a couple of them reached out to touch the contents, the flowers suddenly appeared as if painted on the surface of the tilma. Astonished, they took him immediately to Friar Zumarraga where Juan Diego kneeled and related all that the Virgin had told him.
When he finished, Juan unfurled the tilma until the flowers spilled out onto the floor. Everyone looked in stunned silence at the tilma that had the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary on its rough surface. They all knelt, and the bishop broke out into tears, imploring the Virgin's forgiveness for not having accepted Juan Diego's story and for not acting on her wish.
Friar Zumarrago gently untied the tilma from around Juan Diego's neck and took it into his private chapel where he welcomed Juan Diego to spend the rest of the day. The next day, they set out under the guidance of Juan Diego to visit the site where Our Mother had requested the chapel to be built. It was a barren, inhospitable stretch of desert, but the neighboring people almost immediately set about construction on the chapel that was completed on December 26, 1531.
A SIGN FROM GOD DEFIES THE NATURAL LAWS TO THIS DAY
The miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe speaks to us as profoundly today as it did to the people of Juan Diego's time. A miracle in itself, the survival of the image has defied explanation from skeptics and the scientific community for nearly five centuries.
Enshrined in the Basilica of Guadalupe, the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego survives to this day with the vivid image of Our Mother still intact as it is shown at left. For nearly 500 years, this beautiful image of Our Mother has survived a bombing that destroyed its surroundings including the main altar, a direct acid spill that was sufficient to destroy the area being cleaned but did not, harmful conditions for 116 years with absolutely no covering, corrosive saltpeter from the nearby lake, the blackening effects of dust and incense in the Hermitage, hands-on devotion from throngs of pilgrims... all this and more in a constant assault on the simple tilma constructed of natural plant fibers that typically deteriorate in a comparatively short span of around 10 - 30 years.
Scientific examinations over the centuries have been incapable of answering any of the numerous mysteries surrounding its origin. Teams of some of the most skilled artists in the world have been repeatedly baffled as to how it was produced with such detail and clarity on a surface so rough. Even today's advances in science and technology have only been able to add to the mystery.
Numerous scientific studies of Our Lady's eyes from as early as 1929 have revealed the kind of natural reflections in the corneas of both eyes that reveal human figures in the precise locations one would expect, with the normal distortions created by the human eye. This represents scientific evidence that Our Lady's eyes on the tilma present the triple reflection (Samson-Purkinje effect) characteristic of all live human eyes. The resulting images are located precisely where they are supposed to be according to such effect with the distortion of the images in full agreement with the curvature of the cornea. Does it seem possible that all of this was concocted nearly 500 years ago?
Recent studies using today's advanced technology have revealed new aspects in Our Lady's eyes that provide important hidden messages in our day, such as the image of a family in the center of the Virgin's eye. It's an important revelation for our world in a time when families are suffering evil attacks on so many fronts.
AN ARTISTRY OF BEAUTY, MESSAGE AND ENDLESS COMPEXITIES
There is a seamless blending of two distinct styles in the image of the Virgin including colors and shading reminiscent of many European techniques as well as simple two-dimensional elements more characteristic of ancient Indian codices. We can at once recognize the woman 'clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet' as described in Revelation 12:1. Upon further examination, a wealth of symbols begin to unfold that would have had great significance for the indigenous people of Juan Diego's day. Examples include the ribbon around her waste that denotes Mary is with Child, her mantle adorned with the stars (positioned in agreement with the constellations of the very day that Juan Diego received the miracle), and various intricate floral designs and patterns rife with meaning to their culture.
Perhaps Mary's posture would have been the most significant for the people. In it they would recognize prayer expressed not only in thought and words, but in movement and solemn dance.
There are some very good sources illuminating the symbolism expressed in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from a wealth of experts who are certainly more knowledgeable than I am. For further information on that subject I recommend Our Lady of Guadalupe - Mother of the Civilization of Love (Carl Anderson & Msgr. Eduardo Chavez). You can ORDER IT HERE.
In the meantime, I would invite you to simply contemplate this beautiful work of God.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE TILMA
Thirteen people are reflected in the image of Mary's eyes including St. Juan Diego and Bishop Zumarraga.
To date, science has been unable to explain the painting method as it appears on the tilma. No brush strokes can be detected as the image appears to be 'captured' on the fabric, rather than actually painted. Further, careful analysis of the Virgin's shoe reveals that it doesn't actually contain any color, rather just the raw tilma. This simply defies any explanation.
The tilma is an indigenous cape of the time period consisting of agave popotule fiber from the ixtle plant. Several replicas were produced during scientific studies and decomposed within roughly a decade, while the original appears to be incorruptible.
Guadalupe, like many Spanish words, has its roots in Arabic that can be translated as: 'river of black gravel' or 'riverbed'. Applied to Mary, this could refer to the fact that she channels us to Jesus, 'The Living Water.'
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe portrays some scenes from the book of Revelation such as: "A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth."