The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1995, Volume 41, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

By Norman Neuerburg

Images from the article

The painting of the Most Holy Mother of Light from Mission San Diego, recently cleaned and restored and now on display in the Serra Museum, is one of the most interesting works in the California missions.1 The central part of the canvas replicates a painting done in Palermo, Sicily, in the early 18th century but now venerated in the cathedral of León in the state of Guanajuato in Mexico.2 The piece in San Diego appears to be one of two paintings that survived the 1775 revolt and destruction of the fledgling mission. It is first mentioned in the report of 17763 and appears in an inventory of 17774 and one of 17835 as well as that of 1834.6 A second small painting of the same subject is mentioned in the 1783 inventory,7 but it has since disappeared. The surviving painting was in the adobe chapel of the Immaculate Conception8 where it would have been brought when that chapel was dedicated in 1858. The chapel remained in use until 1916 when the new parish church was built. The Franciscans were in charge there until 1945 when it was turned over to secular clergy, and the art works were removed to San Luis Rey.9

The official version of the story of the creation of the original painting was first published in Italian in Palermo in 1733 and a Spanish translation was printed in Mexico in 1737.10 We offer a brief summary of the account taken from the Spanish version. In the first quarter of the 18th century Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi, a Jesuit priest in Palermo, wished to have a special representation of the Virgin Mary painted to take with him and display as he preached missions throughout the island of Sicily. He turned to a devout lady11 in a neighboring village who had the reputation of having frequent visitations from the Virgin Mary and asked her to request guidance. The request was granted, and the Virgin described exactly how she wished to be represented. She appeared in a glorious light, surrounded by a troop of seraphims and was extremely beautiful. She wore an imperial crown and had a girdle adorned with jewels that surpassed the beauty of the stars. On her shoulders was a blue mantle. On her left arm she carried her Divine Son in the form of a child. With her right hand she lifted a sinful soul from the horrible throat of Hell, keeping him from falling back in. On the other side a kneeling angel held up a basket filled with hearts which he presented to the Divine Child in His mother’s arms. He took the hearts one at a time and enflamed them with his love. She then said she wished to be called by the name of Most Holy Mother of Light and repeated it three times and said not to forget that.

The devout woman returned to the priest and recounted all that the Virgin had said, and he quickly found a painter and gave him instructions. Out of modesty the lady did not go to the painter’s studio, and the priest did not supervise the work, and the result was not satisfactory. The choir of angels was lacking, there was a crescent moon beneath her feet, and her robe was red rather than white. As a result the Virgin did not give a promised sign of approval.

The priest asked the woman to go to the painter, but she was extremely busy at some distance from Palermo and couldn’t get away. The Virgin, however, appeared to her again and said she needed her in Palermo. The woman, in turn, protested that since the Virgin had all the resources of Paradise how could such a vile worm as she carry out such an important task, and, anyway, there was no way she could get away. The Virgin responded that whether or not she felt she could go to Palermo she would, in no uncertain terms. As a result the woman was hit with a terrible pain in her chest and lost her voice. There seemed to be no cure, and she was taken to Palermo where the air was more temperate and healthy. In fact, after she arrived she was soon healed.

Once the woman was in Palermo, and healed, she was visited again by the Virgin. The lady said that both she and the priest were very disappointed that the painting didn’t turn out right and asked if a new one should be made. The Virgin responded in the affirmative, and this notice was taken to the priest who arranged for a new painting to be done. It was the custom of the Virgin to send a guardian angel to her “servant” the evening before to warn that she would appear after the woman had received communion. The woman, following instructions, then went to the painter’s studio where she found him ready to begin work. The Virgin had said that she would meet her there, but only she would have the vision. The woman was to instruct the painter, but the Virgin would guide his brush. This in fact, happened, and the work was completed to the Virgin’s satisfaction. Although numerous copies12 were subsequently made, none approached the perfection of the original. An anonymous 18th century painting13 in the museum at Tepotzotlán charmingly represents the scene in the painter’s studio.

The Italian version of this story of which we have presented only a brief summary, was written by another Jesuit priest, Giuseppe Maria Genovesi (1681-1757), perhaps a relative, in 1733; it was translated by the Jesuit Father Lucas Rincón and published in Mexico City in 1737. This volume contained the origin and explanation of the new title in the first part, while the second part recounts the various miracles resulting from the devotion. A second volume by the same author14 was published the following year and contains prayers and meditations.

The canvas, which had been painted in 1722,15 was brought to Mexico in 1732, possibly by the Sicilian author of the volumes and found a permanent home in the Jesuit church in León, a church which is now the cathedral. The devotion soon became extremely popular, being spread first by the Jesuits but then going well beyond their circle. In fact, the Franciscan mission at Tancoyol in the Sierra Gorda, founded in 1744, was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Luz16 La Castrense, the military chapel in Santa Fé, New Mexico, was dedicated to her.17 Images are known in Ecuador18 and Venezuela,19 perhaps as the result of Jesuit missionaries who had been in Mexico traveling to South America. Besides reproductions of the painting on canvas in all sizes, there were engravings,20 sculptures,21 both in relief and in the round, and medals. A sermon on the advocation, preached in Mérida in 1749, merited publication in the Holy Year of 1750.22 Confraternities in her honor was organized throughout Mexico.23 The cult reached great popularity in the 1750s and early 1760s, 1761 being the date of the chapel in Santa Fe.24

By this time, however, objections to the spread of the devotion arose and there were attempts to suppress it and even prohibit use of the title. The objection was that it appeared to indicate that one could receive salvation directly from the Virgin rather than she being a mediator with Christ. In fact, in the painting — especially in certain copies — she appears to pull the soul out of Hell into which he had actually fallen. A reading of the original text in Spanish could support this interpretation.25 There was a heated discussion during the Fourth Mexican Provincial Council in 1771.26 There were those who rejected the published story while others felt the painting merited its title and the noble idea of the most beautiful image. A Franciscan friar at the Council, however, answered that the Virgin was only holding the soul from falling into Hell, not pulling him out. That appears to have ended the matter, and this discussion was not even printed in the report of the Council.

Nonetheless, there was a brief period when the disagreement had its impact on the copies and we find various attempts to compromise while still keeping the basic image of the Virgin and Child. In some, the mouth of Hell was painted over or simply left out as in the San Diego copy. In one example in a private collection in southern California both the mouth of Hell and the soul were painted out, and in place we find an angel receiving a rosary from the hand of the Virgin, a true mixed metaphor. In a Venezuelan version we see only a scepter in Mary’s right hand and an empty space below.27 In a painting by Aguilar in the Franz Meyer Collection in Mexico City28 the Virgin holds a flaming heart, rather larger than those in the basket being presented to the Baby Jesus. The sculpture on one of the nave altars in the Jesuit church at Tepotzotlán29 lacks the mouth of Hell, but that simply appears to have been removed.

This brings up an interesting question. Were the objections brought up because the devotion had been introduced by the Jesuits and this was their patron? Could it be a manifestion of the hatred toward the Jesuits which resulted in their expulsion? Is it only a coincidence that the trouble about the image heats up in the same decade as the expulsion?

At any rate, there is a particular irony in the fact that the image was defended by a Franciscan. Once the matter is closed the devotion goes on as before.30 It is probable that in most places the argument was ignored. For example, in Puebla a church with this dedication was begun in 1767,31 the very year of the expulsion of the Jesuits, though it was not completed until 1805 as the original patron had died. The great Theatine church of San Cayetano, la Valenciana, in Guanajuato has a full image on the summit of the main altar that was constructed in the late 1770s or early 1780s.32 The builder, the Conde de Valenciana, had the jurisdiction of León where the original is kept.

Most copies now follow the model reasonably closely, though many lack the inscription, especially the tin retablos of the 19th century.33 Also a few minor changes occur. For example, an oil in the church of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles in Toluca,34 dated 1813 and signed Agapito Zamora, adds a small half figure behind the rescued soul who awaits his turn! Although there was a confraternity of Our Lady of Light in Santa Fé35 the image is very rare in New Mexico santero art. A gesso relief now in the museum in Colorado Springs is orthodox in its composition,36 but a panel by Rafael Aragon on a side altar reredos in the church of San Antonio de Padua in Cordova includes the soul and the Mouth of Hell, but omits the angel with the basket of hearts.37 A curious ornament in the lower right corner has been interpreted as the voice of God. Some of the later images do omit the mouth of Hell. A woodcut in a little prayer book printed in 1782 may simply be using an older woodblock as was often the case.38

The church of Our Lady of Light in Puebla has tile panels of the end of the 18th century on the facade in the characteristic local style.39 On the lower level to the left of the entrance is La Madre Santísima de la Luz with all the typical details of the original.40 To the right however, is a panel of Señor San José de la Luz with a similar iconography, though with the placement of the figures reversed.41 Is this a unique representation or are there others elsewhere? A painting of El Señor de la Luz is mentioned as having been in the church of Santiago in Jalpan.42 Was this another variation of the scheme or a totally different composition? There is an interesting parallel to this in another advocation of the Virgin Mary in Hispanic countries. This is the Virgin as la Divina Pastora, the Divine Shepherdesss which derives from a vision received by a Capuchin friar in Spain.43 In this the seated Virgin is surrounded by sheep, while Saint Michael, in the background, rescues a lost sheep from Satan, sometimes in the form of a wolf. On occasion the Christ Child sits on Mary’s lap.44 Obviously, the concept derives from the Good Shepherd, going back to scriptural times. Traditionally, He is shown standing, often with a sheep on His shoulders, but in certain Mexican versions he is seated in a pose like that of the Virgin, and these always make a pair, though of course the Christ Child is omitted in the painting of the Virgin.45 I do not know how many other such pairings one might find with other Mexican Madonnas, nor whether the theological implications of such pairings has been investigated, but the results of such a study could be quite interesting.

The San Diego painting, as we noted above lacks the mouth of Hell and it does not seem to have been painted out. On this basis a date in the 1760s is probably the period of its execution. The uniqueness of the painting does not lie in this but, rather, in other details. First of all the soul is represented as an Indian, and, then, there are the additional figures in the corners. These includes at the top, Saint Joseph and a redeemed soul to the left, two persons of the Trinity in the center, and Saint Francis of Assisi and a redeemed soul to the right, while kneeling Indian chiefs are in the lower corners with the artist’s signature very prominently displayed between rather than down in a corner. Only one other such painting of Our Lady of Light with accessory figures has been identified so far. It is the painting by Aguilar 46 in the Franz Mayer Museum where we find Saint Joseph, the Archangel Michael, Saint Anthony of Padua, and Saint John Nepomuk. Thus the California example is not unique in having additional images. The artist, Luis de Mena, who signed the piece so prominently was no more than a journeyman painter in 18th century Mexico. In his monumental study of Mexican Colonial painting47 Manuel Toussaint only mentions him in regard to a pair of portraits in the Franciscan monastery of San Bernardino in Tasco. Could the model for the California painting be found in this church?

At this point we have seen some of the vicissitudes of the original painting and its iconography, but we know nothing about how or exactly when the copies came to San Diego. It is not listed among the “gifts of the King” at the founding of the mission, but it was there before the revolt at the mission in 1775; it is mentioned as one of the two paintings that survived the fire in the report of 1776. Could it have escaped destruction because of the inclusion of the Indians? The 1783 inventory lists two paintings of the subject, one being small and the other being very old. Perhaps smoke damage caused our painting to appear very old to someone not understanding the iconographical problem.

Although the Baja California missions could well have had numerous paintings of this subject because of its Jesuit associations the inclusion of Saint Francis would argue against its having been brought up from there. Unfortunately, we do not have all the invoices from the period, so that question may remain unanswered.

The most tantalizing question is who conceived the total composition, including the Indians. It seems unlikely that it was the brain child of an undistinguished painter, though he may have been instructed by a missionary, but who might that be? So we end with many questions unanswered, and, really, this article is only a first step in a fascinating investigation which takes us into an era so unlike our own.



1. The painting was first published by James L. Nolan, Discovery of the Lost Treasures of California’s First Mission (San Diego: Copley Books, 1978) 14, 25, 41-42, 43, 47, 76, 90, 111 (72), photos 3, 13, 36. He incorrectly interpreted the title as “La Madress de la Luz.” He apparently was unaware of the correct title or its origin. In my review article “The Angel on the Cloud or ‘Anglo-American Myopia’ Revisited: A Discussion of the Writings of James L. Nolan,” Southern California Quarterly 62 (Spring 1980): 6-7, figs. 9, 10. I pointed out the correct title and referred to the important article by Pál Kelemen, “The Significance of the Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” El Palacio, 61 (1954): 243-272.

2. Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” 255-268, figs. 5a-8b; Breve noticia de la milagrosa imagen de la Madre Santísima de la Luz, León, 1929.

3. San Diego Mission, Informe, 1776, Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library.


4. Libro de Patentes, San Diego Mission, Jul. 28, 1777, Un Lienzo grande de Nra Señora de la Luz, Bancroft Library, Cowan Collection 237, p. 2 obv.

5. Mission San Diego, Informe, 1783 Inventory, lienzo muy viejo de Nra Sra de la Luz, SBMAL.

6. Mission San Diego, Inventory, 1834, p. 4, 1 Birgen de nuestra Sra de la Luz a 5 ps., SBMAL.

7. Ibid., n. 5, …pequeños…y otro de Nra. Sra de la Luz.

8. Nolan, Discovery of the Lost Treasures, 32, photo 3.

9. Ibid., 64, photo 36. The repainting was apparently done after the move to San Luis Rey mission.

10. La Devocion de Maria Madre Santissima de la Luz, distribuida en tres partes por un Sacerdote de la Compañia de Jesus. Tomo Primero parte primera, y segunda. Se contienen en la primera el origen, y explicacion de este nuevo titulo. En la segunda, las gracias en honra suya, impetradas de Dios. Traducido de el italiano a nuestro vulgar por el P. Lucas Rincon, de la misma Compañia, Maestro que fue, de Prima de Theologia en el Colegio Maximo de S. Pedro y S. Pablo, y Calificador del Santo Oficio. Dedicado a la Sra. Da. Josepha Teresa de Bustos, y Moya. Con Licencia. En Mexico, en la Imprenta Real del superior Gobierno, y del Nuevo Rezado, de Doña Maria de Rivera, en el Empedradillo. Año de 1737.

11. The statement that the lady was a nun that appears in some publications is incorrect; In the cited volume on page 8 she is identified as una persona muy devota de virtud experimentada, “a very devout person of proven virtue.”

12. La Devocion de Maria Madre Santissima de la Luz, 23.

13. Gonzalo Obregón, Francisco de la Maza, Carlos Flores Marini, Eugenio Noriega Robles, Tepotzotlán, Artes de México, 1960, p. 146.

14. La devocion de Maria Madre Santissima de la Luz. Tomo Segundo. Parte Tercera. Varias Practicas de Meditaciones, y Oraciones, en Honra de este nuevo Titulo. Por un Sacerdote de la Sagrada Compañia de Jesus. Traducido de el Toscano a nuestro vulgar Castellano por el P. Lucas Rincon de la misma Compañia, y Calificador del Santo Oficio. Dedicada a Don Joseph Sardeneta, Legaspi, Munoz y Castillo, Alguazil mayor del Santo Oficio, y Regidor perpetuo e la muy Noble Villa de Santa Fé, Real, y Minas de Guanajuato, &c. Con Licencia: En Mexico, en la Imprenta Real del Superior Govierno, y del Nuevo Rezado, de Doña Maria de Rivera, en el Empedradillo. Año de 1738.

15. Breve noticia, 5. The date of 1707, given by Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” 255, and others, seems to be incorrect.

16. Monique Gustin, El Barroco en la Sierra Gorda (México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1969), 179-182, 255-256. The main altar had a sculptured group; there were two large paintings at the sides of the reredos of the Guadalupe and Our Lady of Light, and another large painting of the image was in the sacristy. The statue of the Virgin over the door on the facade is now missing. A figure now on the main altar may be the original.

17. Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” 255.; Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, The Missions of New Mexico, 1776 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1956), 32-37; John L. Kessell, The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980), 44-48.

18. Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” figs. 7a, 7b.

19. Juan Calzadilla, Una Colección de Pintura en Venezuela, Obras de Arte en la Colección Arnold Zingg, Editorial la Gran Enciclopdia, Bilbao, 1981, p. 157.

20. Manuel Romero de Terreros, Grabados y Grabadores en la Nueva España (Mexico: Ediciones Arte Mexicano, 1948), 448, 470, 502, 511, 516, 529, 537, 541, 543; fig. 347.

21. Sculptures were the preferred images on altarpieces in Spain and its colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, favorite holy images which first appeared in two-dimensional form are often rendered in wood or stone sculpture in the round or in relief. Our Lady of Light occasionally appears in sculpture as a side altar in the Jesuit church of Tepotzotlán (María del Consuelo Maquívar, Los Retablos de Tepotzotlan (INAH, Mexico, 1976), 68, 71,72, 85, 98-99, and on the main altar of the Theatine church of San Cayetano at La Valenciana in Guanajuato (Victor Manuel Villegas, Valenciana y el Churrigueresco (Universidad de Guanajuato, 1989), 54-57). There is a similar image in the Sagrario of the Cathedral of Mexico City (Catedral de México, Patrimonio Artistico Cultural (Banamex, México, 1986), 555. A statue of Our Lady of Light is in the mission at Tancoyol (see note 16); There is a dressed image in the church of Santo Domingo in Zacatecas (Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” fig. 8a). The relief from the facade of the Castrense Chapel in Santa Fe (Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” fig. 5b) is a rare exterior representation, but it is doubtful that it is unique. In passing, it might be noted that sculptural images, particularly if they are considered miraculous, are often represented in painting where the image of the holy person, rather than the holy person himself or herself, is represented.

22. Luz de la Luz. Sermon de la Madre Santissma, que en la Iglesia De la Compañia de Jesus de la Ciudad de Merida Dia 21 de Mayo de 1749 Predico el P. M. Joseph de Paredes Professor de la Compañia de Jesus, Cathedratico de Prima de Theologia en su Rl. Pontificia Universidad, y Examinador Synodal del Obispado de Yucatán. Dedicalo Al Dr. D. Philiberto de Ongay, Beneficiado de la Villa de Ychhmul por su Magestad. Con Licencia de los Superiores: En Mexico en la Imprenta del Nuevo Rezado; de Doña Maria de Ribera; en el Empedradillo; Año Santo de 1750.

23. Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” 260, fig. 5a; Kessell, Missions of New Mexico, fig. 43.

24. Kelemen, “Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” 246.

25. Devocion…Tomo Primero, p. 11, en accion de sacar con su diestra, una Alma pecadora, de la horrenda garganta del Infierno y de tenerla por la mano estrechament suspeosa, porque no tornara à precipitarse. Without checking the Italian version one cannot be sure that it is a faithful translation.

26. Ibid., 180.

27. See note 19.

28. Guía Museo Franz Mayer, Artes de México (México: n.d.), 54-55.

29. Maquívar, Los Retablos de Tepotzotlan, fig. p. 85.

30. Breve Noticia, pp. 6-10.

31. Manuel Toussaint, La Catedral y las Iglesias de Puebla (México: Editorial Porrua, 1954), 187-188, ills. 190-193.

32. Villegas, Valenciana y el Churrigueresco.

33. Gloria K. Giffords, Mexican Folk Retablos (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974), 54; Giffords, et al., The Art of Private Devotion, Retablo Painting of Mexico (Dallas: InterCultura Fort Worth, and the Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, 1991), 96.

34. Ma. Eugenia Rodriguez Parra & Mario Rios Villegas, Catalogo de Pintura Colonial en Edificios Religiosos de Municipio de Toluca, Universidad Autonoma del Estado de México, 1984, p. 160.

35. Ibid., n. 17.

36. William Wroth, Christian Images in Hispanic New Mexico (Colorado Springs, CO: The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Fine Arts Center, 1982), 85, plate 43.

37. Larry Frank, New Kingdom of the Saints, Religious Art of New Mexico 1780-1907 (Santa Fe, NM: 1992), 179.

38. Siete Sabados, que preceden a la Fiesta de la Madre Santisima de la luz, Que su Ilustre Congregacion hace en este Imperial Congregacion de N.P. Santo Domingo, donde esta fundad con Autoridad Apostolica. Dispuestos Por el R.P. Mrô. Fr. Diego Rodriguez fr Guzman, Religiosos de dicho Orden, para que crezca, y se augmente el culto, y devocion à esta Soberana Princesa. Cuya Congregacion rendida las ofrece, y humilde los consagra. Reimpresos en México, en la Imprenta de los Herederos del Lic. D. Joseph de Jauregui. Calle de San Bernardo, año de 1782. Frontis.


39. Enrique A. Cervantes, Loza Blanca y Azulejo de Puebla (México: 1939), II, 130-131.

40. Ibid., 132-133.

41. Ibid., 134-135.

42. Gustin, p. 244.

43. F. J. Sánchez Cantón, Ars Hispaniae, Historia Universal del Arte Español, Vol. XVII, p. 79, fig. 63.

44. Bartomeu Font Obrador & Norman Neuerburg, Fr. Junípero Serra – Mallorca – México – Sierra Gorda – Californias (Palma: Comissió de Cultura, Consell Insular de Mallorca, 1992), 113, 114, 116. 45. Abelardo Carrillo y Gariel, El Pintor Miguel Cabrera (México: INAH, 1966), Fotos 59, 60.

46. See note 28.

47. Pintura Colonial en México (México: Imprenta Universitaria, 1965), 193.

Norman Neuerburg is a native Californian and is Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a Fellow of American Academy in Rome and has his Ph.D from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His involvement with the California missions began more than half of century ago. Dr. Neuerburg has published extensively on related topics and he has been involved in restoration work at several of the missions. Three of his articles have been published in the Journal of San Diego History.