The Basilica of Guadalupe is the second most visited Roman Catholic shrine, following the Vatican. The grounds surrounding the Basilica of Guadalupe are complex since they are dotted with many buildings of varying ages, some dating back to the 16th century, others yet unfinished, with next to no signs or maps indicating where or how to get to the many sites making up the complex.
No matter how you get here – by public transportation, on foot or by car – the starting point is always the Atrium of the Americas – a brilliant idea conceived by Mexican Architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, mastermind of the project to renovate the Basilica Area, which was inaugurated in 1976. This expansive plaza is shared by both the Original Basilica and the New Basilica, and has proven to hold up to 50 thousand visitors at the same time. You may wonder why this is important. On December 12th – the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day, thousands upon thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims come from around the country to pay their respects to the Virgencita, as she is affectionately referred to in Spanish, and they need to be accommodated. Not all, but close to 50 thousand fit right on the plaza, aside from the lucky ones who get a seat inside the Basilica!
Standing in the Atrium is an ominous bell tower, reminiscent of a pre-Hispanic God, a modern day belfry of sorts, which shows the many ways people reckon time. There is a traditional analog clock, of course the standard fare of bells, a circular carillon, a sun dial, the Aztec calendar (actually a drawing of the Sun Stone currently in the Anthropology Museum), and an astronomic clock showing the Zodiac used by ancient navigators.
The Original Basilica remains standing, thanks to thousands of pesos invested to assure its safety. Construction was initiated shortly after the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego. It has suffered so many renovations that most of what is standing is from the 18th and 19th century, rather than the 16th and 17th. The big problem is that half the church is anchored onto Tepeyac Hill, while the other half is slowly sinking into the underground swamp land it is floating on, which is slowly pulling apart the building. The Blessed Sacrament (consecrated host) is permanently exposed in this church. For those unfamiliar with Catholic tradition, the permanent exposure of the holy Eucharist is referred to as Perpetual Adoration, which is why this Basilica is so frequented.
A stone’s throw from the Original Basilica is the New Basilica, another brilliant, functional solution of Ramirez Vazquez’s. It is absent of columns – a major architectural feat given that the dome measures 100 meters (330 feet) in diameter, thus allowing for maximum visibility of Cuauhtlatoatzin’s, better known as Juan Diego’s, cape which is emblazoned with the image of the Virgin dating back to 1531, and carefully protected behind bullet-proof glass. Viewed with equal ease from any spot in the church, church-goers don’t have to compete for a “good” seat since there is nothing to block anyone’s view inside. By the way, the new Basilica has the capacity to fit over 10,000 worshippers inside on a busy day (the 12th of December)! Plus, for more private moments, there are 9 chapels, numerous confessionals, and a moving walkway for people to view the shroud up close without stopping, thereby resolving the problem of unruly crowds – yet another ingenious solution of Ramirez Vazquez.
A bit more hidden is The Chapel of the Well, a remarkable baroque structure in the round, constructed by Architect Francisco Guerrero y Torres in the late 1700s to honor the well that sprung up during one of the Virgin’s appearances. Free-standing, it is in better structural condition than the old Basilica. The blue and white roof tiles are original, as are the pulpit and the paintings illustrating the 4 (actually 5) appearances of the Virgin. I, personally, find this the most beautiful, spiritual and intimate of all the sites at La Villa.
Requiring a bit more stamina to visit, Saint Michael’s Chapel (Michael was Mary’s protector) or the Chapel on the Hill is well worth the climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill. There is nothing left of the original chapel built in 1666, nor of the pre-Hispanic temple which topped the mount prior to the arrival of Hernan Cortes, in honor of the Indian Mexica Mother Goddess Tonantzin. But the top of the hill – where the Virgin left Saint Juan Diego proof of her existence for Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga – provides a magnificent bird’s eye view of the grounds, and the walls of this chapel are lined with well-known artist Fernando Leal’s mural-rendition of the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Many people walk right by the Indians’ Chapel, which is the oldest surviving structure at La Villa. This is where Juan Diego kept his shroud with the image of the Virgin while he was alive, awaiting completion of the church which was to house it. An effort has been made to shore up what remains of the the collapsing wall of his modest, adobe home. Much like the Original Basilica, the intrinsic value is not architectural, but rather historical and spiritual.
The newest addition to the complex is the Marian Plaza. Although it was inaugurated on Columbus Day (October 12th, 2011), this mammoth project remains partially unfinished. Underwritten by Mexican Magnate Carlos Slim, this sorely needed multi-purpose center, when completed, will boast a four segment building with an Evangelical Center, complete with a mega auditorium (seating 858 people) and numerous classrooms, a new interactive museum, a health center, adequate space for retreats, study, and religious meetings, a columbarium (niches for funeral urns), a market, a restaurant and more parking spots. Several street blocks were expropriated by the Mexico City government, which donated the land to make this project a reality, while Slim’s company, Grupo Carso, provided the funds for the design and construction. In numbers, the new annex covers 29,500 square meters, with construction coming in at a whopping 67.7 thousand square meters!
Then, there is a Capuchin Parish Temple which also remains standing, but has been gutted inside due to looting during wars, and devastation over the years.
There is also a small baptistery which was built just to cover the strong demand for baptisms on site. Curiously enough, this modern building is spiral-like inside.
And I haven’t even mentioned the many sculptures, gardens, museums, market site and historic cemetery, where General Lopez de Santa Anna and other famous figures are buried. In brief, there is a lot to see on the 17.7 hectare shrine grounds.
Whether you are a believer or not, the vitality of faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe remains palpable here at La Villa. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Patroness of Mexico City, Patroness of Mexico (country), Patroness of Latin America, and was deemed by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000, “the Queen of Mexico and Empress of America.” It is the sense of unity which the Brown Virgencita gives Mexico that is the greatest of all her miracles! Again, Happy Feast Day to Saint Mary (which was January 1st) and Happy New Year’s again to you!