An Immaculate Deception
When Spanish forces under the command of Hernando Cortes first set foot on the eastern coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519, they christened the site of their landing Veracruz, “the true cross” (Cortes et al. 2001:4). Within five years of Cortes’ arrival, a group of Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico, tasked with converting the previously unknown indigenous people to Christianity. These missionaries brought with them a worldview forged in the apocalyptic and millenarian ideas that had become characteristic of Spanish Franciscanism.
Driving this project of missionization was what J. L. Phelan described as “the millennial kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World” (Phelan 1970). In this essay, I explore the millennialist roots of these early Franciscan missionaries and argue that their apocalyptic beliefs not only influenced the emergent Mexican identity but directly resulted in what is easily Mexico’s most recognizable national symbol: the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Legacy of Joachim of Fiore
“The beginning of the last preaching of the gospel on the eve of the end of the world.”
The millennialist worldview held by Franciscan missionaries to the New World were rooted in the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a Cistercian abbot who lived from 1130–1202 CE. Fiore led a controversial reform of his order and established a monastery in which a vow of poverty was required. Historian Delno West has called Fiore “the most important apocalyptic writer and exegete of prophecy in the Middle Ages” (West 1989:294). Fiore is best known for developing an outline of world history in which humanity would pass through three “ages,” (figure 1) ending in an age of the Holy Spirit (Whalen 2009:102–108).
Guided by Joachimist thought, Franciscan missionaries sought to create a “New Jerusalem” in Mexico, in which “The age of the Holy Spirit, the return to primitive Christianity, the millennial kingdom promised in revelation, and the restitution of Eden all coalesced to inspire a new Church worthy of its New World” (Graziano 2010:42–44). The conduit that introduced Joachimist thinking into Mexico was the ecclesiastical province of San Gabriel in…