Virgin of Guadalupe, late 17th c.
Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, whose shrine sits on what was once the outskirts of Mexico City, was one of the most revered apparitions of the Virgin Mary in New Spain. Her image is believed to have miraculously appeared on the cloak of a 16th-century Nahua man, Juan Diego. And throughout the colonial period this image has been replicated in paintings, prints, and, more rarely, shell-encrusted reliefs such as this one. The Virgin of Guadalupe was (and is) a testament to how otherworldly beings can intervene in the lives of ordinary and humble humans. Even today her representation permeates daily life in Mexico, set on home altars and hanging from rear-view mirrors.

When viewed from afar, and especially in a candle-lit interior, the figure in this image seems to glow. The Virgin of Guadalupe would thus appear to hover before her devotees, bathed in sacred light. The work’s otherworldly appearance is created by a combination of painting and enconchada: the garments of the Virgin are created out of razor thin squares of mother-of-pearl, glued onto the background and covered with opaque washes of paint. The same technique is also used for the borders of the image and in the frame.

Enconchada paintings were first produced in Mexico in the 17th century in the workshop of brothers called González. Because the technique of mother-of-pearl inlay is originally an Asian one, the brothers might have come from Asia, or been the children of Asians, who adopted a common Hispanic surname. While much of the Asian influence in the art of Spanish America seems to have come from imported objects, in the case of enconchada, it may have been the direct result of immigration.


Avila Hernández, Julieta. 1997. El influjo de la pintura china en los enconchados de Nueva España. Mexico City: INAH.

Brading, D. A. Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dujovne, Marta. 1984. Las pinturas con incrustaciones de nácar. Mexico: UNAM.

Gruzinski, Serge. 2001. Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492-2019). Translated by Heather MacLean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tovar de Teresa, Guillermo. 1990. “Los artistas y las pinturas de incrustaciones de concha nácar en México.” La concha nácar en México. Mexico City: Grupo Gutsa.


Enconchada: (Spanish) Encrustation with mother-of-pearl. Often, mother-of-pearl was glued to a support and then painted with opaque pigments to create images. Enconchada paintings and screens (biombos in Spanish) were popular products of artisans in 17th and 18th century New Spain. back to text

  Nahua: (Nahuatl) An ethnic group from Central Mexico whose pre-Hispanic empire, the Aztec empire, was defeated by the Spanish in 1521. The language they spoke, Nahuatl, was the indigenous lingua franca in the colonial period in New Spain, and is still spoken today in Mexico. back to text

  New Spain: (English) The name that Spain gave to her northern Viceroyalty, which comprised the modern regions of Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. The capital city was Mexico City. back to text

Print (English). An image imprinted onto a piece of paper with a woodblock, or engraved metal plate. back to text

Spanish America: (English) The areas of the New World under Spanish control. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Spanish America comprised most of South America (except Portuguese-held Brazil), the Caribbean, Central America, and southern and western North America. back to text

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Copyright 2005, Dana Leibsohn and Barbara Mundy
Please credit as: Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara Mundy, Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820., 2005.