On a cold December day, in the hill country of central Mexico, almost five hundred years ago, a fifty-seven year old man named Juan Diego underwent an experience that would change his life and those of his people forever. Appearing to him as a beautiful young woman, surrounded by a light as bright as the sun, the Virgin Mary announced her identity to Juan, one of the few Aztec converts to Catholicism in the region at the time. Her message was part consolation, part construction plan, as she ordered Juan to convey to the local bishop her wishes for a church to be built on the spot. The bishop, however, was less than convinced and so Mary appeared to Juan a second time and also provided him with a miracle. On the freezing hillside there had appeared a bloom of roses which she instructed Juan to gather and take to the bishop. He did so by removing his poncho (or cape) and gathering the flowers into it. Once again he came before the bishop, opening the poncho to let the flowers fall out. But it was not the flowers that proved to be the miracle.
Instead, imprinted on Juan’s poncho was an image of the Virgin Mary, just as Juan had described her. It is that image, preserved on that poncho (still in the church built on the site of the vision, in Mexico City) which has become the basis for this quintessentially Christian and Mexican tattoo design. In 1810, this very same image also became the symbol for Mexican independence when a patriot-priest used it on his banner. From vision, to imprint, to flag, to tattoo, the basic elements of this design have remained remarkably constant over time — the downward gazing Virgin, her hands in prayer, her blue mantle with stars, the crescent moon on which she stands, the angel who supports the moon, and the many-rayed halo which surrounds her entire body. Few tattoos are as easily recognizable and fewer yet that meld so much symbolism and history into one design.