Amy G. Remensnyder. La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ix + 470 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-989298-3; $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-989300-3.
Reviewed by John F. Schwaller (University at Albany)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz
Tracing the Virgin Mary from Medieval and Early Modern Spain to Seventeenth-Century New Mexico
In this detailed and complex book, Amy G. Remensnyder traces the importance and influence of the image of the Virgin Mary, La Conquistadora, from the battles of the Spanish Reconquest, across the Atlantic to Mexico, and eventually to the isolated colony of New Mexico. Admittedly, the juxtaposition of the Virgin Mary, known for gentle compassion, and the term “conqueror” creates a jarring contradiction. Remensnyder seeks to better understand this seeming contradiction by tracing the image found in Chimayó and Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to its Iberian, and European, origins and to better understand the meaning of the image across time and space. On the one hand, the Virgin was envisioned as conquering the world through love and compassion, and thus could be seen as a conqueror. On the other hand, the Spanish conquistadores had also used her as their battle standard, a fact not lost on many of the Pueblo people in New Mexico today. In the book, Remensnyder considers all Marian manifestations and advocations, not just La Conquistadora. It becomes clear that her focus is on the Virgin Mary as war patron and instrument of conversion in the broadest possible context. In this regard, the title is a bit misleading. Those who come to the book looking to trace the specifics of Mary as La Conquistadora, as opposed to Remedios (Remedies), Merced (Mercy), Loreto, or Guadalupe, will be somewhat disappointed.
Remensnyder finds the origins of the cult of the Virgin in the battles of the Reconquest, the nearly eight-hundred-year war between the Muslims and Christians on the Iberian Peninsula, and in particular in the eleventh- and twelfth-century Christian advances, especially after the decisive battle in 1212 at Las Navas de Tolosa. Mary not only protected and guided the Christian warriors in battle but also assisted in the conversion and assimilation of the newly conquered territories and peoples. Beginning with Alfonso VIII, Castilian rulers embraced the cult of the Virgin; emblazoned her on their battle standards; erected churches, monasteries, and convents under her name; and embraced her as a symbol of their power. Indeed, medieval legends held that Mary was a descendent of King David, and thus allying themselves with her, monarchs could lay claim to an even longer royal heritage. King James I of Aragon and Alfonso X of Castile were particularly devoted to the Virgin, attributing to her their successes and offering themselves up in seeking mercy from the Godhead.
As the Reconquest proceeded, subsequent Castilian monarchs would pledge their loyalty to representations of the Virgin who had proved themselves useful in battle, such as the relationship between Alfonso XI and the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this shrine and relationship, Remensnyder sees a balance between a Muslim past and a Christian present. While other Marian shrines were frequently built on the foundations of Muslim places of worship, Guadalupe was built on top of the spot where the miraculous image had been buried during the Muslim occupation. The infante Ferdinand (brother of the ailing King Enrique III, and after his death the regent), on his way to battle Muslim Granada in the early fifteenth century, likewise was deeply embued with Marian fervor. He sought the protection of several manifestations of the Holy Mother to assist his adventure, including Santa María de Iniesta (Hiniesta), a Visigothic Virgin hidden outside the walls of Seville during the Muslim invasion of 711 along with the sword of the conqueror of Seville, his namesake, Ferdinand III. He consolidated Christian gains in Andalucía, took over Antequera, near Granada, and gained the throne of Aragón.
Of course, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a figure known to the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula as well. She appeared in their poetry, songs, and stories. For at least one poet she became known as the “Lady of the enemies” (p. 163). Yet above all she became closely associated with the Christian lords of northern Spain during the Reconquest. As a result, the images and idea of Mary became a point of contention as well between Muslims and Christians. Because of her participation in the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, it was clear that she would be useful as the Spanish began to expand their world beyond the Mediterranean and eventually conquer and settle the New World. Christopher Columbus was protected and supported by the Franciscan friars of La Rábida, a convent dedicated to Mary. Hernán Cortés, coming originally from Mérida in Extremadura, was deeply devoted to Mary. On his person he carried images of her as depicted in the monastery of Guadalupe, while his battle standard was an image of Our Lady of the Remedies (Nuestra Señora de los Remedios). Remensnyder takes the reader along with the expedition, through the works of eyewitnesses, to describe the presence of Mary with Cortés and his men.
For their part, the natives of New Spain were also taken with the image of the Virgin, and it appears in many of the pictographic works painted in the wake of the conquest, especially when native groups wanted to indicate their support of the Spanish Christianizing agenda, as a demonstration of their newly acquired faith. Mary became so closely identified with the missionary activity and the Spanish imposition of authority over the native peoples that a new Marian advocation emerged: La Conquistadora (The Female Conqueror). As the Spanish spread their influence, there also emerged a local cult to Mary wherein churches, chapels, and shrines to her in her various manifestations emerged. Remedios, Guadalupe, and other manifestations of the Immaculate Conception became almost commonplace on the landscape. It comes as no surprise then, that late in the sixteenth century, as expeditions were organized to penetrate into what is now the southwestern part of the United States, an important component was an image of Mary, now, more than ever, associated with La Conquistadora.
This is a dense, complex, and tightly woven book about Mary and her relationship with the Spanish over several centuries. While Mary is associated with love and devotion, that of a mother and her child, and with suffering and sorrow, that of a grieving mother, the image of Mary came to be that of a conqueror and patroness for Spanish domination. Remensnyder does an admirable job of tracing down hundreds of legends, stories, and histories about Mary, her images, and her various associations in the Iberian context. In particular, she deals well with literary sources, from such pieces as the Cantigas of Alfonso X, to plays about the different apparitions of the Virgin, to works from early colonial New Spain. But it is in tracing the image as a battle standard through time, from the Iberian Reconquest, to the Cortés expedition, to the Oñate entrada into New Mexico, that Mary as the conqueror, the leader in battle, the divine ally of the Spanish, that the book comes into its own. This is a fascinating work, quite unlikely any other. The scope is large, the side paths meander, but the central theme is powerful.
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John F. Schwaller. Review of Remensnyder, Amy G., La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds.
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