Recently, much attention has been given to the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, where the outnumbered Christian alliance defeated the Muslim Turks, protecting Europe from the further spread of Islam. As I’ve discovered while researching a new book, this battle was certainly miraculous and should be a great sign of hope for us living in these uncertain times, but it is part of a much larger (and lesser-known) story that has a fascinating connection to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The story starts in AD 711. Islamic forces made their way into Spain from Africa, conquering much of the Iberian Peninsula up into France. The Muslims, known generally as Moors or Saracens, reigned over most of Spain for over five centuries while Christian crusaders had little to no traction in reclaiming their once Catholic land.
All that changed around the year 1212. It was then that Christian armies began to invoke Mary’s name and image on the battlefield. Many miraculous successes lead King Alfonso VIII to take Mary as his patroness, fighting under a standard bearing Mary’s image. After centuries of very little to show for their efforts, a Spanish army was finally victorious in taking back terrain. The Reconquista had begun!
Meanwhile, in 1208 in southern France, Our Lady gave the Rosary to the Spaniard St. Dominic. Though Marian devotion through the rosary did not long endure in France (it was picked up again with zeal in the 15th century), where the Dominicans were routing the Albigensians, it is easy to imagine Mary’s psalter, the Rosary, remaining on the lips of Spain’s crusaders. Without a doubt, Marian devotion was increasing as the battle for the peninsula continued.
Spain’s Christians emphasized Our Lady’s power in paintings, hymns, battle cries, military standards, and prayers. As they gained more and more of a foothold on the country, Spanish kings — starting with Ferdinand III (who was later proclaimed a saint) and, then, his son Alphonse X — made clear that they weren’t just followers of Mary, but Marian Kings under a Marian Monarchy. They knew well who was behind their successes, and they honored her wherever they could, particularly in the form of churches. Whenever they were victorious, the mosques of the conquered cities were turned into churches and named for Our Lady.
Beyond the battlefields, story after story of the era tells of Our Lady freeing shackled prisoners and saving those who saw no out from an imminent death at the hands of the Moors. One story even tells of a commander who, late in the day, saw that the sun would set before the battle could be won. Kneeling down, he prayed that Our Lady would “stop the day” so he and his men could be victorious. As with Joshua against the Amorites, the sun was halted.
“Christians all across Europe,” Amy Remensnyder explains in her book La Conquistadora, “knew that the Virgin’s maternal love shattered chains and defied prison walls, bringing solace and freedom to captives. Miracle after miracle demonstrates her compassionate presence in this traumatic arena of wartime experience.”
Finally, in 1492 under the military standard of Mary, Christianity retook Spain after 781 years of Islamic occupation. Riding on the wave of their successes, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabel expanded their evangelical zeal beyond their own borders by financing Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the new world as well as subsequent expeditions.
But before the Spaniards were victorious, something miraculous happened around 1326 in a newly liberated area of central Spain know as Extremadura. A shepherd had an apparition of the most beautiful woman in dazzling white. She told him that she wanted her image to be exhumed and a church built on the site. The humble shepherd told a priest, and the priest unearthed the strongbox containing the image of Our Lady along with a parchment containing details of its provenance and illustrious history. So what was this image? According to legend, it was another miraculous image painted by St. Luke (Our Lady of Czestochowa is also attributed to St. Luke). In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great gave it to the bishop of Seville, St. Leander. When the city came under Moorish attack in 711, Christians hastily buried her out of harm’s way up in the hills near what would come to be known as the Guadalupe River.
After the image was exhumed and honored in a church, more miracles abounded, including victory after victory against the Moors. Finally, in June 1492, Ferdinand and Isabel made a pilgrimage to venerate the holy image in thanksgiving for their victory in Granada, the last Saracen hold out in Spain.
Fast forward 40 years to 1531, when Our Lady appeared several times to St. Juan Diego and his sick uncle. It was to the uncle, who was miraculously healed, that she revealed her name: Santa Maria de Guadalupe, or St. Mary of Guadalupe. Many believe that what Mary said was mistranslated by the Spanish. Instead of Guadalupe, they claim, she really said “Coatlallope”, meaning “one who steps on snakes.” It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suspect that Mary — who was keenly aware of the double entendre the name would mean for the Spanish and Aztecs, respectively — meant for the overlap to happen. After all, Mary placed symbols in her image on Juan Diego’s tilma that spoke to the Aztecs, while others resonated with the Spaniards. Our Lady, through her image inspired possibly the largest mass conversion in history: four million souls come to the Catholic faith.
As for the meaning of the name Guadalupe, some have made the fascinating suggestion that it is actually Arabic for “hidden river.” Such a name suits well an image that was hidden for six centuries, but once unearthed, unleashed a steady and powerful force of grace.
Finally, to tie a bow in this historical thread, we return to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Holy League, formed by Pius V and Christian maritime states, was victorious under the leadership of Don John of Austria. Don John was the illegitimate brother of Spanish King Philip II, who gave him the naval appointment. After the battle was won, Philip II, knowing his debt to the Virgin, offered to Our Lady of Guadalupe (in Spain) a lantern captured from the Turk’s flagship. Certainly Philip knew the power unleashed by the “hidden river” that had been the font of so much success.