OUR LADY OF LIGHT, Leon, Guanajuato
Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. And more shoes! That’s what you’ll find in Leon in exuberant abundance. Leon, the fifth largest city in Mexico, in the central state of Guanajuato, is known as the shoe capital of the country. That is one of its two claims to fame. Leon has not just one mall devoted exclusively to shoes, nor even two or three. It has four malls which sell nothing but shoes. Hiking boots. Sandals. Golf shoes. Ballet shoes. Tennis shoes. Oxfords. And cowboy boots. Particularly cowboy boots. In every colour of the rainbow. From canary yellow to aquamarine. One display featured an assortment of different cowboy boots—all in Hunter green—of all colours. These malls are all grouped together in one location—conveniently (and cleverly!)—right beside the bus station. You can see them as soon as you get off the bus.
But as popular as they are, the shoe malls are not the main source of pride for the citizens of Leon. The real treasure of the city is a remarkable painting just a few blocks away: the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light which is displayed over the main altar of the city’s elegant cathedral, a church that was begun by the Jesuits in 1746.
Our Lady of Light (La Luz) was named the chief Patrona of the city of Leon in 1849. When Leon was declared a diocese in 1872 Our Lady of Light was named its Patrona as well. Approval of the authenticity of the painting’s origins came from the highest levels of the church: The painting was crowned in 1902 with the authorization of Pope Leo XIII.
She is known for her miraculous powers of intercession. One of these occurred in a spectacularly public manner on June 18, 1876. The cathedral was packed that Sunday morning for the 11 am Mass. Suddenly, without warning, a loud crack reverberated throughout the entire church. To everyone’s horror “the keystone of the main arch, a tremendous block of masonry, fell into the aisle.” It looked as if the entire ceiling would crash down killing everyone below. The congregants froze in terror.
At this terrible moment, Bishop de Sollano, with supreme presence of mind and faith, walked down from the altar and stood under the arch. The congregation held its collective breath. He prayed urgently to Our Lady of Light to support the arch so that all would be protected. His prayers were heard. Miraculously, not a single person in the church was injured. They are still talking about it in Leon to the present day!
The painting originated in Europe: It all began with a Jesuit priest, Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi, who was born in Sicily in 1684. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1703 and spent the next twenty years as a missionary priest, “traversing the length and breadth of Sicily.” He was becoming disheartened, however, because so few people were converting. Father Genovesi, who had a great love for the Blessed Mother, had an inspiration: “I need an image of Our Lady to carry with me,” he said, “one that will convert sinners and move hearts!” She will do it! He was sure of it! But what image? And where would he find such a one?
He had heard that a holy nun in Palermo was receiving visitations from Our Lady. “I will ask her!” he said. “And she can ask the Blessed Virgin what she herself would like!” Father Genovesi travelled to Palermo to meet with the nun. The year was 1722. The nun thought this was an excellent idea and proceeded to ask Our Lady this very question. Before long, Our Lady appeared to her in a splendour of light surrounded by a “courtege of angels.” She was holding the Infant Jesus in one arm and with the other arm, she was snatching a sinner from the jaws of a demon. An angel knelt before her holding a basket of human hearts; The Infant took them “one by one, sanctifying them with His hands.”
Our Lady then spoke, repeating the command twice: “I wish the painting to be as you have seen me,” she said. “The title of the painting should be known as the Most Holy Mother of Light.” The nun immediately passed on the message to Father Genovesi who commissioned an artist to carry out Our Lady’s wishes.
No matter how many times the artist tried, however, he was not able to match the nun’s description of the sacred scene. Time and time again this happened. “No, it was nothing like that!” said the nun. Apparently, not even the Blessed Mother was happy with the painting!
Our Lady appeared yet again to the nun: “What are you doing here, Lazybones?” she said to the nun who lived a fair distance from Palermo, “when I need you in Palermo for a matter which concerns my glory?”
Our Lady told the nun to meet her at the artist’s studio and that she, herself, would guide the artist’s brush-strokes! Our Lady would be visible only to the nun. “When the work is done,” said the Virgin, “all shall know by its more than human beauty that a greater mind and a higher art have arranged the composition and laid the colors.”
Our Lady was delighted with the finished painting; it became known as Our Most Holy Mother of Light. She raised her hand to the completed work and blessed it with the Sign of the Cross.
Father Genovesi carried the painting with him on his missionary journeys; wherever he went conversions multiplied exponentially. “Our Lady moved the hearts of all sinners!” he said. “The Virgin worked marvels through her image,” reported one historian. And devotion to Our Lady of Light spread throughout all of Sicily.
But how did the painting end up in Mexico?
It happened like this: Another Jesuit from Sicily, Father Jose maria Genovese (with almost the same surname as the original Father Genovesi), had arrived in Mexico in 1707. News spread about the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light and Father Genovese began erecting altars to her in Mexico. Devotion to her flourished just as it did in Sicily. The Jesuits decided that the painting should be sent to one of their many churches in New Spain (Mexico). But to which church? Where? In which city?
They agreed that the selection would be made by casting lots: The choice? The Jesuit church in Leon. A second, then a third drawing, confirmed the first. Leon it would be!
On July 2, 1732 the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light arrived in the city of Leon amid crowds, “triumph,” and “indescribable enthusiasm.” Every year on the second of July, to the present day, the people of Leon commemorate the event with a joy-filled lively fiesta.
A statement written on the back of the painting testifies to its authenticity: “This image is the original which came from Sicily and which was blessed by the same Virgin, who with her blessing, entrusted it with the power to do miracles.” It is dated August 19, 1729 and is signed by a number of Sicilian Jesuit priests.
Since then Our Lady of Light has become known for her outstanding powers of protection for the people of Leon: She has saved them from epidemics, storms, lightning, and plagues. Even revolutions! Leon is known as the “City of Refuge” because it enjoyed serene peace during the many revolutions and invasions that have beset the rest of Mexico for almost two centuries.
Although she is celebrated throughout the republic of Mexico (you can see her image in many churches in the country) she is especially revered in Leon. You will see her image everywhere in the city: in cars, churches, coffee shops, billboards, and city buildings. Taxi drivers and bus drivers erect tiny shrines to her on their dashboards, complete with flashing, sparkling lights. Parents name their daughters after her. The two most common girls’ names in Leon are Guadalupe and Luz (after Our Lady of Light).
It is said that Leon is the city of Mary. The sumptuous cathedral is the centre of the religious life of the city. And at its heart is the miraculous image of Our Lady of Light.
And the shoe malls? They run a distant second. A very distant second.