Jan 31--For generations, the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe has fueled a debate: Is it truth or fiction? Jeanette Favrot Peterson has dedicated most of her life to researching Latin American art prior to European settlement. However, for the past decade the University of California, Santa Barbara, art history professor has been actively researching the Virgin of Guadalupe and the history of her image. "I'm amazed that a sacred image can have such a social and political force," Peterson said. "She is not only a religious symbol. She has become so much more."

Peterson's idea is that the dark-skinned Indian virgin did not miraculously appear before Juan Diego more than 500 years ago. Rather, she said the image dates back earlier to Spain where a cult started around it in the 1300s. Believers maintain the image appeared miraculously on Diego's cloak when the Virgin appeared before the man on a hilltop near Mexico City in 1539.

Today, the image on the cloak hangs over the altar in the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City and is widely visited. In 2001, about 20 million people visited the Catholic shrine "I would have to say as a scholar that I don't think the image was miraculously imposed," she said. "It's quite clear the image has suffered damage and you can see the brush strokes that were placed on the cloth. I believe it's a human creation."

Peterson also has doubts about Diego, who was canonized as Mexico's first indigenous saint last year. Peterson said the church should have held off on its decision to make Diego a saint. "From everything I have read, I am not sure he existed," she said.

Although Peterson has reservations about the story and Diego, she said that should not take away from the Virgin of Guadalupe's meaning and influence.

At an early age Peterson learned about the image; she was born in Mexico and visited the country often after her family moved to Houston. Peterson earned a bachelor's degree in art history from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1961. She then earned a master's degree in 1964 from Columbia University and a doctorate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1985.

Since 1992, Peterson has focused on the Virgin of Guadalupe and has written a number of books on the topic. In her research, Peterson has been able to study at the Guadalupe Basilica's archive. "The archive is open to the public," she said. "But there is a small window of opportunity to use the facility."

Peterson said the Virgin of Guadalupe's history started in the 1300s with a cult. Diego's story follows the tale of the "Shepherd Cycle," which was told widely in Europe during medieval times about a humble, uneducated farmer who comes across an image, she explained. "The apparition legend was modeled from Europe and adapted," she said. "The format was simply tweaked."

Peterson said versions of the image have been found in South America. "It does not resemble Mexico's Guadalupe," she said.

Numerous Santa Fe residents and Catholic church officials were offended in 2001 by an exhibit at the Museum of New Mexico's International Museum of Folk Art. In the museum's Cyber Arte exhibit, Alma Lopez's image of the Virgin of Guadalupe created an uproar. In Lopez's digital image, the Virgin was sparsely dressed in flower garlands and held aloft by a bare-breasted angel.

Peterson said she was aware of the controversy and was not surprised the image created an uproar. "Believers do not want the image to be tampered with in any way," she said. "But I was surprised that more people weren't offended by the bare-breasted angel."

Through the years, Peterson said the image has remained popular with artists and has been given a number of different looks. "These artists are not defaming the image," she said. "They are giving it more relevance."

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