Object: Book

Signal Book
Paper and Ink

This object is a United States Signal Book from the year 1916. The book contains information and instructions on how to communicate using different systems. This booklet has the Army Signal Corps symbol stamped in the front with the words “Signal Book, United States Army, 1916.” Some of the communication methods included in the book are, American and International Morse Code, and the Semaphore method. This signal book was published by the Military Publishing Company in New York City. This signal book shows a message from the War Department Chief of Staff H.L. Scott.

In today’s modern world there are many different types of communication. All of these forms of communication make in incredibly easy for people around the globe to get in contact with each other. Cell phones have made it possible for people to have a face to face conversation with someone 3,000 miles away, this can be achieved with the push of a button. However, 100 years ago communication was much more difficult. In a time when messages had to be written and could only travel at the speed of a horse, getting a message to someone could take days. This signal book gives an example of the many forms communication could take in 1916. At this time World War I was in its 2nd year and although the U.S. did not enter until April 1917 the military still needed to know these forms of communication.


US Army Signal Corps telephone operators or “Hello Girls,” Tours, France, WWI. Elizabeth Anne Browne Collection, Gift of L.C. Jones. Women’s Memorial Foundation Collection.

Signal books like the one here were used by members of the Signal Corps established in 1860 and responsible for all forms of communications and information systems. The father of the Signal Corps was Albert J. Myer a doctor stationed in Texas, he developed a military signaling system based on his dissertation. The Signal Corps played an important role during the Civil War when Myer’s invention named the “Wig Wag was used. The “Wig Wag” used one flag instead of the two that had previously been used. However, this form of communication was not reliable due to weather causing visibility problems at times. During WWI the Signal Corps were made up of carrier pigeons and the hello girls. The “hello girls” were part of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit 25. Because these women had to operate switch boards in both France and England, bilingual women were usually recruited. The Signal Corps is still an important part of the United States Army.

One form of communication featured in the signal book is “Morse Code which is a result of the telegraph. Although forms of telegraphy were used in Europe they were mostly made up of visual telegraphy. Samuel F.B. Morse and Alfred Vail invented the first long distance electric telegraph. This invention would go on and transform long distance communication. The telegraph worked by transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between stations. The code worked by assigning letters in the alphabet and numbers a set of dots (short marks) and dashes (long marks) based on the frequency of use; letters used often (such as “E”) got a simple code, while those used infrequently (such as “Q”) got a longer and more complex code. In 1844 Morse made a sucessful demonstration from Washington D.C. to Baltimore with the words What hath God wrought.  This demonstration helped to promote the use of the telegraph and by 1866 many American cities had telegraph posts.

DSC_0021Another form of communication technique featured in the signal book is the semaphore. The two arm semaphore can be used with stationary semaphore or two hand held flags. The first semaphore was invented by Claude Chapp and his brothers. The semaphore could be either a post or two signal flags. The signal flags are usually made up of two colors and are in a diagonal pattern. The flags are held in different positions and each represent a letter or number. Although using semaphore flags was not a primary form of communication during WWI it could still be used when troops were nearby and had visibility of each other. Knowing different forms of communication was important because troops had to be ready under any circumstance.

Although, the communication methods showed in the signal book have long been replaced with modern technologies such as phones and the internet. Inventions such as the telegraph and Morse Code have helped shape the way in which communication is conducted in the 21st century. [Joscelynn Garcia, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Reading:
Bates, David Homer. 1995. Lincoln in the telegraph office: recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Lincoln.

Hochfelder, David. 2012. The telegraph in America, 1832-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Raines, Rebecca Robbins. 2005. Getting the message through: a branch history of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.

Bingham, Jane. 2011. Women at War the Progressive Era, WWI and Women’s Suffrage, 1900-1920. New York: Infobase Pub. http://public.eblib.com/EBLPublic/PublicView.do?ptiID=741617.

Object: Painting

Santos Benavides and His Brothers
Bruce Marshall
Late 20th Century
United States
Paper, Paint

This is a watercolor painting depicting Santos Benavides with his brothers entitled, “Santos Benavides and His Brothers.” The watercolor is by Bruce Marshall who is an artist, writer, and historian. He has produced several paintings that depict events and people from Texas History. In the painting the Benavides brothers are depicted on horseback in Confederate uniforms. In the background the flag of the 33rd Texas Calvary is shown; a flag similar in design to the Texas Flag with a a gold star that has the number “33” in the center of it and around the star it reads, “Texas Calvary.”


Santos Benavides (1823-1891), image taken around the 1960’s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Santos Benavides was born in Laredo on November 1, 1823 to a prominent Laredo family. His great-great-grandfather founded Laredo and the family maintained a strong prominence and leading role in the area. Benavides was a successful rancher and merchant, who also distinguished himself politically and militarily. During the Federalist-Centralist wars in the 1830s and 1840s, Benavides fought for the Federalists. The Federalists supported local control for each area, whereas the Centralists wanted the power to be focused in Mexico City. This idea of area rights/state rights was something that Benavides would hold to and fight for throughout his life.

In 1856 Benavides was elected Mayor of Laredo and in 1859 he became the Chief Justice for Webb County. At the completion of the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced Mexico to recognize the annexation of Texas. When the United States was annexing the Laredo area as part of the treaty, Benavides fought it because he thought it would change the independent nature of the area. When Texas seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate States of America, Benavides and his brothers joined the Confederate Army and served in the 33rd Texas Calvary together during the United States Civil War. Benavides joined the Confederacy because the issue of states’ rights was something he had been fighting for most of his adult life. He enlisted as a Captain and was later promoted to Colonel, though he had turned down a Generalship from the Union. He and his unit put down several revolts against the Confederacy. They also defended Zapata county from an attack on the county seat by Juan Cortina, who was defeated and retreated to Mexico. On March 18, 1864 Benavides defended Laredo with only 42 troops against 200 soldiers of the Union First Texas Cavalry; this is considered his greatest military triumph. He also secured safe passage of cotton from Texas along the Rio Grande to Matamoros when Union forces occupied Brownsville in 1864. During the Civil War he was the highest ranking Mexican American to serve in the Confederacy.


Perspective Map of the City of Laredo, Texas. The Gateway to and From Mexico, 1892. Photo via: WikiMedia Commons

After the end of the Civil War and with the defeat of the Confederacy, Benavides and his brother, Cristobal, continued their lives as merchants and ranchers. Benavides also continued in politics and served in the Texas Legislature three times during 1879 to 1884. He also served as alderman of Laredo for two terms. He still maintained his belief in a non-central form of government and this reflected in all his political dealings. His final act in his political career was to serve as a Texas delegate to the World Cotton Exposition in 1884 in New Orleans. Santos Benavides died in Laredo on November 9, 1891. [Jennfer McPhail]

Additional Resources:

Bailey, Anne J., and Grady McWhiney. Texans in the Confederate Cavalry. Fort Worth: Ryan Place Publishers, 1995. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=34483>.

Hinojosa, Gilberto Miguel. A Borderlands Town in Transition Laredo, 1755-1870. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1983. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=18144>.

Meyer, Michael C. The Mexican Federalist-Centralist Struggle, 1824-1960. Thesis (M.A.)–University of New Mexico, 1960.

O’Connell, Kim A. The Mexican American War. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Pub, 2003.

Riley, John Denny. Santos Benavides: His Influence on the Lower Rio Grande, 1823-1891. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Texas Christian University, 1976.

Photo Quiz

The answer to last month’s quiz is…


© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

the Ifugao (or Ipugao or Igorot) culture of the Phillipines.

Can you guess what this month’s object is?

I-0647a detail

We’ll post the answer on August 20th. Good luck!


Object: Staff

2013_13_9 (3)
2013.13.9 a-f
Metal, Gold Plate, Gemstone

This object is a staff that was used by Bishop John (Kallos) of Amorion of the Greek Orthodox Church. This particular staff is called a crosier which is a stylized staff that represents the Orthodox Bishops and senior monastic officers and is a symbol of their jurisdiction and authority.  This particular staff is in five pieces, with four of them making up the actual staff and then the fifth is the staff head which is two intertwining snakes with a crown and cross above. The cross is made up of 9 crystals with 5 of them in a vertical line and 2 crystals on the left and 2 on the right forming the arms of the cross. There are also 8 red crystals on one side and 8 green crystals on the other side.


Orthodox crosier. Image from Orthodox Answers.

The two intertwining snakes on the staff head piece are generally associated with the story of Moses and the Bronze Serpent. In Numbers 21:4-9, Moses is told to put a bronze serpent on his staff and when those who are bitten by snakes look upon this symbol they will be healed. The serpents are to represent the duality of the serpent that it both can kill and heal. The serpents on the staff are also associated with Exodus 4, where God turns Moses’s staff into a serpent and when Moses grabs it, it becomes a staff again. Exodus 7:8-13 is also related, as it recounts how Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent and the Pharaohs’ Magicians do the same with their staffs, but Aaron’s staff/serpent devours the the Magicinans’ staffs/serpents. There are several more references to serpents in the Bible and this entry by Jonathan Pageau from the Orthodox Arts Journal gives a more in depth look at how serpent imagery is associated with the Orthodox crosier.

When a Bishop is consecrated, he is given his crosier by the chief concentrator following the dismissal at the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is the primary worship service that takes place in the Orthodox Church. Senior monastic officers are also given a crosier when they are consecrated, these positions are Archimandrite, Abbot, or Abbess. An Archimandrite is just below a bishop in authority and in the Orthodox tradition he is head of several monasteries. An Abbot is in charge of a single male monastery and an Abbess is the head of a single female monastery. For the Archimandrite, Abbot, and Abbess the crosier is conferred at the time they are invested with their position. When a Bishop is in his vestments of office he carries the crosier, except into the altar itself. When the Bishop enters the altar, he leaves the crosier placed against the iconostasis next to the icon of Christ to the right of the Royal Doors. When the Bishop is not wearing his vestments, he carries a smaller walking stick that is topped with a silver pommel.


Bishop John Kallos. Image from Obituary on The Orthodox Church News/OCP Media Network.

Bishop John of Amorion was the first American-born man to be selected and ordained bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1971. He was ordained as the Bishop of Thermon in Houston, Texas, and appointed to administer the Eighth Archdiocese District of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, but raised and educated in the greater Boston area. He attended several religious and theological universities and became a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1955. He served as the Auxiliary Bishop in Houston, TX from 1971-1973, but moved the the regional headquarters to Denver, CO in 1974 and served there till 1977. In 1978 he became the Diocesan Bishop in Charlotte, NC and served there till 1980, when he moved to Atlanta and remained the Bishop till 1988 when he retired due to ill health. Even though Bishop John of Amorion was retired he was still an active member in the church till his death on December 1, 2012. [Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Resources:

Callinicos, Constantine N. 1953. The Greek Orthodox catechism: a manual of instruction on faith, morals, and worship. New York: Published under the auspices of Greek Archidiocese of No. and So. America.

Carroll, Mike. 1996. Orthodox iconography: the icons of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte, NC: Herb Eaton Publishers, for Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Constantelos, Demetrios J. 1982. Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church: its faith, history, and practice. New York, N.Y.: Seabury Press.

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Gallup Organization, and Princeton Religious Research Center. 1980. Study of the Greek Orthodox population in the U.S. New Jersey: Princeton Religious Research Center.

Papastratou, D̲orē. 1990. Paper icons: Greek Orthodox religious engravings, 1665-1899. Athens: Papastratos.

Object: Painting

Prospero Bernardi at San Jacinto, 1836
Bruce Marshall
United States
20th Century
Paint, Paper

The watercolor painting is by Bruce Marshall and titled “Prospero Bernardi at San Jacinto, 1836.” Bruce Marshall has done several watercolor paintings that depict different events and people from Texas History. He is an award winning artist and writer that is well known for his work as a Texas historian and his attention to detail in his paintings. This particular painting depicts Prospero Bernardi, an Italian who fought in the Texas Revolution, and an unidentified African American at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Prospero Bernardi

Bust of Prospero Bernardi created by Italian artist Pompeo Coppini. Photo via: Waymarking.com

Prospero Bernardi was born in Italy in 1794 and arrived in Texas on January 28, 1836 as part of a volunteer group that had been raised in New Orleans. He joined the Texas Army on February 13, 1836 and fought bravely in the Battle of San Jacinto. During that battle he was seriously injured and was medically discharged in January or February of 1837. He received a bounty grant and a first-class headright grant for his military service, but he gave both of these land grants away. By 1838 it was unclear as to where Bernardi was, or if he was still alive. In February of that year two former fellow soldiers testified that they understood he had died. There is a bust of Bernardi at the Hall of State, located in Dallas’ Fair Park, commissioned for the Texas Centennial Exposition. The bust is to honor not just Bernardi, but all Italians who are a part of Texas History. Though we don’t know much about Bernardi before or after the Texas Revolution, he is still an important piece to Texas History.


Map via: Larry S. Bonura, http://lbonura.com/gi/

He was not the only Italian who fought in the Texas Revolution, he is just one of the few that we have record of. Italians are the 6th largest ethnic group to make up Texas. Though there were Italians in Texas before the Revolution, during and after, their major immigration came during the 1880’s. Many of these immigrants were farmers, and sought out farm lands in three main areas: the Brazos Valley, mainland Galveston County, and the Red River Valley. Italians immigrants to Texas eventually found work in a number of different fields. As farmers, some started vineyards, while others worked in the mines, on the railroads, or made bricks. Today Italian Texans are an intricate part of what makes Texas what it is culturally, their dances, food, and churches are all part of Texas culture. [Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Resources:
Belfiglio, Valentine J. 1983. The Italian experience in Texas. Austin, Tex: Eakin Press.

Parsons, Jim, and David Bush. 2012. Fair Park deco: art and architecture of the Texas Centennial Exposition. Fort Worth, Tex: TCU Press.

University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio. 1973. The Italian Texans.

Warneke, Jack, and Kenneth M. Holtzclaw. 2008. San Jacinto. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Pub.

Object: Drinking Bottle

Drinking Bottle
Unknown Origin
Materials: Glass

This object is a greenish-colored drinking bottle that most likely held wine or champagne. It is thought to date between 1850s and 1920s because of its lip. This particular lip has a sheared top with a tooled ring. The lip is the tip of the bottle where the liquid pours out. The tooled ring is a ring that goes around just below the lip. Since there were many variations of sheared tops and tooled rings throughout the years it can be difficult to narrow down specifically when this bottle was made. However, we know that this style became popular around the 1850s and was less common after 1920s. Around the time this type of bottle declined in production, the American alcohol industry went through a drastic change.


“Woman’s Holy War. Grand Charge on the Enemy’s Works.” An allegorical 1874 political cartoon print. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1800s people in the United States started speaking out against the drinking of alcohol, this was known as the Temperance Movement. At first, supporters of temperance hoped to slow down public consumption of alcohol. After the Revolutionary War the American economy experienced difficult times. Citizens went through an economic depression, the Civil War, and hard working conditions. Men who worked in manual labor jobs, where physical strength was required, were offered liqueur to help them work through the day. People began relieving stress by drinking in public. Alcohol also was considered safer to drink than water, since many water sources were contaminated with bacteria. All of these factors led to an increase in alcohol consumption, and a greater number of people suffering from alcohol addiction. Later Temperance advocates began to support the total banning of alcohol. Many people, often wives of alcoholic husbands, took a pledge to never drink an alcoholic beverage. This movement eventually led to the country’s ban on all alcohol sales and manufacture. This time period was called Prohibition and it lasted from January 1920 to February 1933.

The temperance/prohibition movement had been quite active in Texas even before it became a state in the Union. The movement gained in power and support in Texas in the 1840’s. In 1843 the Republic of Texas passed what may have been the first local option measure in North America. The “local option measure” allowed individual cities and counties to decide if they wanted to allow the sale and consumption of alcohol within their borders.  In 1845 the temperance movement helped pass a law which outlawed saloons, but was largely unenforced and finally repealed in 1856. In 1895, fifty-three of the 239 counties in Texas were dry, and another seventy-nine counties were partly dry under the local option measure. In 1919 Texas voters approved a state prohibition amendment, which had already been passed by the United States Congress and was being ratified in each state.

Supporters of Prohibition hoped that the ban would increase economic and social productivity. It was thought that without alcohol, there would be no more public intoxication, less crime, and a healthier public. However, the results they hoped for did not materialize after alcohol was banned, instead prohibition led to a boom in organized crime. Many people took to crimes of “moonshining” and “bootlegging” during the ban. Moonshining is the process of making illegally distilled alcohol. Bootlegging is the illegal transportation and distribution of alcohol, whether it is produced legally or not.


Al Capone while incarcerated at Alcatraz. Image taken by Federal Bureau of Prisons and found on Wikimedia Commons.

During Prohibition bootlegging was the only way people could buy alcoholic beverages. Since alcohol was in high demand by many citizens, more and more people went into bootlegging as a way to make money. This is how organized crime quickly spread across the country, contributing to the rise in the now infamous criminals known as gangsters or mobsters. One of the most famous gangsters was Al Capone, also known as Scarface. He was one of the many outlaws that illegally sold alcohol. The government tried on a number of occasions to put Capone in prison for his role in bootlegging and organized crime, but had trouble successfully prosecuting him. In 1931, two years before the end of Prohibition, Capone was charged with tax evasion and violations of Prohibition. Later the Prohibition charges were dropped because witnesses feared to face Capone in court. However, he was still convicted for tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined $50,000. Although Capone and several other gangsters were imprisoned, the illegal sale and transportation of alcohol continued. Bootleggers and mobsters continued bootlegging alcohol until 1933 when Prohibition was repealed with the 21st amendment. [McKayla McCarty, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Resources:
Fentress, James. 2010. Eminent gangsters : immigrants and the birth of organized crime in America. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.

Iorizzo, Luciano J. 2003. Al Capone a biography. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Jurkiewicz, Carole L., and Murphy J. Painter. 2008. Social and economic control of alcohol: the 21st amendment in the 21st century. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Kyvig, David E. 1985. Law alcohol and order: perspectives on national prohibition. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood press.

Rumbarger, John J. 1989. Profits, power, and prohibition: alcohol reform and the industrializing of America, 1800-1930. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Object: Guitar

I-0581e (2)

Late 21st Century
Materials: Wood, String


Photo via: San Jose Library, WikiMedia Commons

This unique 4 stringed instrument originated in China and is called a moon guitar, or yueqin, and is considered a Han Chinese lute. It gets its name from its large, hollow sound box and is believed to be a descendent of the ruan. Though it is called a guitar it is closer to a banjo in terms of how it is played. While it has fewer strings than a banjo it is plucked with a pick in the same way. Like almost all instruments from China it is not varnished, because varnish was believed to damage the sound. There are several other types of lute that are very similar to the yueqin and today it is almost exclusively used in Chinese operas, because it has many more frets than other types and a wider range of sound. Even today with “new” types of yueqin being introduced into the opera scene, the classical moon guitar is still a favorite among musicians.

Chinese opera was established during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and is attributed to Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) who was a patron of the arts throughout his reign. The Chinese opera of today evolved from folk songs, dances, antimasque, and especially distinctive dialectical music. Gradually it combined music, art and literature into one performance on the stage, which resulted in the many opera forms that are practiced today.

There are two instrumental sections of the orchestra within a Chinese opera. The Wu section, which is composed of percussion instruments and the Wen section, which is made up of string and wind instruments. The Wu section plays mostly when there is military action on stage such as combat or battle scenes. The Wen section is where the moon guitar resides and like all instruments within this section it is used when singing beauties, scholars and so on are on stage. [Carlise Ferguson, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

A talented Betty Zhang plays on a yueqin:

Additional Resources:
Benn, Charles D. 2002. Daily life in traditional China: the Tang dynasty. Westport, Conn [u.a.]: Greenwood Press.

Lewis, Mark Edward. 2012. China’s cosmopolitan empire: the Tang dynasty. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Siu, Wang-Ngai, and Peter Lovrick. 1997. Chinese opera images and stories. Vancouver [B.C.]: UBC Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10220739.

Tan Gudnason, Jessica, and Li Gong. 2001. Chinese opera. New York: Abbeville Press.

Photo Quiz

The answer to last month’s quiz is…

I-0558a detail 2

Human hair!

Can you guess which culture made this months object?

We’ll post the answer on July 16th. Good luck!

Object: Drinking Bottle

Drinking Bottle
Unknown Origin
Materials: Glass

This item is a drinking bottle that most likely held wine. This particular bottle is thought to date between the 1740s to the 1840s. By looking at the bottle’s lip and base we can estimate a date range. The lip is the tip of the bottle where you drink from while the base is the very bottom. Glass making is a form of art which has been practiced for thousands of years. It is hard to determine who first used glass or who discovered it, however, it was most likely by accident. Glass is formed when a combination of sand and soda ash (a chemical with sodium) is heated until it turns into a liquid. Soda ash is a natural chemical combination found in mineral water near lakes and springs. When the mix of sand and soda ash cools it solidifies into what we know as glass. The earliest traces of glass can be found in Asia, where scientists believe it was first made. Glass was created and used throughout the ancient world by many different cultures.


The Jamestown Glasshouse. Image from jamestownglasshouse.com.

The first glassware made in the United States was made in Jamestown, Virginia. The settlers used a technique called glass blowing. They used glass for everyday items like bottles, cups, and windows, but also made small beads to trade with Native Americans.  It wasn’t until the 19th century the glass industry began to thrive in the United States. After the Industrial Revolution, new factories, new advanced tools, and skilled workers helped to expand the glass industry.

The first glass factory in Texas was built at Three Rivers in 1922 as sand and the gas needed as fuel to melt it were plentiful. Powered by local natural gas, the plant used quartzose sand, mined in the area to make glass bottles for milk and other beverages, as well as jars for food and cosmetics. The company attained an annual gross sales of a million dollars. The Great Depression forced the sale of the factory to the Ball Glass Company in 1937, and the factory was permanently closed in 1938. Today there are several glass manufacturers/fabricators, glass blowers, and installers that operate in Texas. [McKayla McCarty, edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Here is a video of a demonstration of glass blowing.

Additional Resources
Carberry, Edward. 2003. Glassblowing: an introduction to artistic and scientific flameworking. Marshall, MN: MGLS Pub.

Douglas, R. W., and Susan Frank. 1972. A history of glassmaking. Henley-on-Thames: Foulis.

Fones-Wolf, Ken. 2007. Glass towns: industry, labor and political economy in Appalachia, 1890-1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Pappalardo, Umberto, Rosaria Ciardiello, and Luciano Pedicini. 2012. Greek and Roman mosaics.

Rogers, Frances, and Alice Beard. 1937. 5000 years of glass. New York: Frederick A. Stokes company.

Schuler, Frederic, and Lilli Schuler. 1970. Glassforming; glassmaking for the craftsman. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co.

Object: Retablo

Object Number: I-0083d
Object Name: Retablo
Material: Tin & paint
Date: Unknown

This object is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a tin surface. This type of painting is also called a retablo. A retablo also referred to as laminas in Mexico, are small paintings on tin, zinc, wood or copper which venerate a number of Catholic saints. Retablos are a type of folk art that was at the heart and soul of traditional religious beliefs in 17th 18th and 19th century Mexican culture. The retablo became popular after the conquest of Mexico and during the last quarter of the 19th century as a result of tin being so affordable. Retablos are usually displayed in people’s homes.


The Basilica of Guadalupe located in Mexico City. Image from sancta.org.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a major religious and cultural symbol in Mexico but is also celebrated in other parts of the world. Although, she is known by different titles she is most commonly recognized as the Virgin Mary. The name Virgin of Guadalupe is the title of Mary most commonly associated with the image of the Blessed Mother housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The Virgin is often called “la morenita” because she is depicted with brown skin.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is as follows. On December 9th 1531 an indigenous man was passing through the Typeyac Hill, now a suburb of Mexico City, when a woman appeared to him claiming to be the Virgin Mary, mother of the true God. The man’s name was Juan Diego and he was a recent convert to Christianity. The woman instructed him to have the Bishop build a shrine in the place where she had appeared. When Juan Diego told the Bishop he was unconvinced and demanded proof or a sign the Virgin Mary had in fact appeared. On his way to get a healer for his uncle, Juan Diego was visited by Mary again and this time was instructed to collect flowers from the hill, as this would be the proof the Bishop was looking for. Typically flowers did not grow on the rocky hill and Juan Diego was surprised when he found Castilian roses in winter. Taking the roses in his tilma or cloak, Juan Diego presented himself to the bishop and showed him the roses. As the roses fell they noticed an image of the Virgin Mary had imprinted on the tilma. It was then when the bishop recognized the appearance of the Virgin and was determine built a shrine for her. The same day the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego’s uncle and healed him. While with him she told him she would be known as Guadalupe.

Image of Virgin of Guadalupe, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.

Image of Virgin of Guadalupe, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico. Image shot in 2007. Image from dailymail.co.uk.

The tilma worn by Juan Diego with the image of the Virgin is displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  The tilma is made from a plant based fiber that typically disintegrates after about 20 years. The fact that the tilma has survived now for almost 500 years in an almost perfect condition has caught the attention of scientists. Many experiments have been done on the cloth to better understand how it has lasted throughout the years. The tilma has survived an acid spill leaving only a few stains that seem to be disappearing. Before being put in a case it was displayed unprotected being exposed to smoke and other particles from the candles. In 1921 a bomb placed under the altar exploded, causing damages to the windows around the area. The blast was so strong a bronze cross was bent. However, the tilma and the glass casing it was in remained intact. It has been said that Mary’s eyes on the tilma show the reflection of the people present during the appearance of the image. It is also said that the stars shown on her robe coincide with the constellations as they would have been seen on December 12, 1531.

The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe continues to shape Mexican culture today. After her appearance, word traveled through word-of-mouth as well as in documents about her appearance to Juan Diego. One of those documents was the Nican Mopohua, one of the first written accounts of Juan Diego’s story. The fact that she has dark skin and her story was told in indigenous languages helped convert the indigenous to Christianity. However, the Virgin of Guadalupe has also been used as symbol of patriotism. Miguel Hidalgo used her image in the banners when he revolted against Spain in 1810. Emiliano Zapata also used the image of the Virgin Guadalupe in 1914. In 2002 Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John II, making him the first indigenous American saint.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated on December 12 in Mexico and other parts of the world. In Mexico thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the place where she is said to have appeared. People wait hours to go inside the basilica and get a glimpse of the famous tilma. Some of the festivals include the singing the mañanitas to the Virgin and fireworks. The celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe is not only celebrated in Mexico but in other places as well. As a symbol the Virgin of Guadalupe is an important part of Hispanic culture in the United States. In San Antonio several of the churches pay tribute to her on December 12. (Joscelynn Garcia, Edited by Jennifer McPhail)

Video of the singing of the mananitas to the Virgin in 2013.

Additional Resources:
Andersson, Daniel. 2001. The Virgin and the dead: the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Day of the Dead in the construction of Mexican identities. Göteborg: Institutionen för religionsvetenskap, Göteborgs universitet.

Annerino, John. 2012. The Virgin of Guadalupe: art and legend. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Chávez, Eduardo. 2006. Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego: the historical evidence. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Peña, Elaine A. 2011. Performing piety: making space sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Institute of Texan Cultures Collections Blog

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Museum Anthropology

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Center for the Future of Museums

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Smithsonian Collections Blog

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

Exploring the digital humanities

ethnology @ snomnh

experimenting with social microexhibitions since 2007


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers

%d bloggers like this: