Keeping watch on her eyes

The eyes of of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image have captured interest over the past century

This image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was held by an attendee at Pope Francis’ general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2021. It shows a close-up replica of the face of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the image’s eyes. (CNS photo | Paul Haring)

You can tell a lot about someone by their eyes. Or, in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from her eyes.

People are familiar with Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, whose feast is Dec. 12.

(This year, Dec. 12 falls on the Third Sunday of Advent, which takes precedence on the calendar. However, as the Divine Worship Office of the Green Bay Diocese has noted, the Vatican is permitting the celebration of the feast to be transferred to a weekday, or even celebrated later that same day, as some of our parishes will do.)

It was 490 years ago, in early December, that a native convert to Catholicism — now St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin — met a young Indian woman on Tepeyac Hill near modern-day Mexico City. The woman identified herself “the ever Virgin, Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains it.” She asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church on the spot.

Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego, repeating her message for his unconvinced bishop. Finally, she sent Juan Diego with an armload of roses — not a December-blooming flower. As he dropped the roses before Bishop Zumárraga, an image of the woman appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (tilma), in which he had carried the flowers.

This same image of Our Lady of Guadalupe still hangs in her shrine in Mexico City, preserved on that cloak of agave fiber which should have disintegrated long ago.

Mary’s image has become familiar to millions of people. Also familiar are some of the important parts of that image on the tilma:

  • Mary is pregnant, symbolized by her black girdle. Among the native people of that time, only pregnant women wore this type of cincture.
  • She is “clothed in the sun” and standing on the moon, which serves to remind us of the vision in the Book of Revelation (12:1).
  • She is carried by an angel. Not only is an angel a heavenly image, but being carried on another’s shoulders, which was a sign of nobility, if not royalty, to the native people of the time.
  • The blue-green color of her cloak, a color reserved for things of heaven in ancient Mexico.

But amidst all these familiar images, not everyone notices Mary’s eyes, which are downcast.

And many more may not know that those eyes have been reported to have images of people reflected in them, just as a human eye caught in a photograph would show what was near it.

Since the early part of the 20th century, reports have surfaced about images seen in the eyes of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Various sources say the first report was from Alfonso Marcue, who, in 1929, served as official photographer of the old Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Reports say that he had found an image of a man in the right eye of the apparition’s image. However, not much is recorded of what Marcue said or saw.

In 1951, another photographer, Jose Carlos Salinas Chavez, also reported the image of a bearded man in the Virgin’s right eye. Since then, several photographers and then ophthalmologists have examined photos of the image of the tilma, at enlarged sizes, and have also reported images of people.

The best known of those who claim that the Virgin of Guadalupe’s eyes reflect images, just as a normal human eye would, is Peruvian engineer José Aste Tonsmann, a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who later worked for IBM. Since 1979, Tonsmann has studied the image of the Virgin’s eyes. He has even published his findings in “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (“The Secret of Her Eyes”), complete with photographs of his studies and of the image’s eyes. Tonsmann said that he has recorded several people, shown in two scenes reflected in both eyes, with the help of computer digitalization. In early 2001, Tonsmann, then with the Mexican Center of Guadalupan Studies, presented at a conference at Pontifical Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum in Rome.

At the time,, a Catholic news agency now linked with EWTN, reported Tonsmann’s talk and his telling the audience that, while microscopic, the iris and pupils of the image contain a picture of 13 people, both male and female, of various ages and wearing traditional ethnic attire. The same people appear in both eyes, Tonsmann said but at different sizes, as they would in the image of any living human eye.

Tonsmann, and others who have seen the images, have said that they believe they may be something similar to a photographic image of the people who were present when Juan Diego opened his tilma and revealed the December roses.

Tonsmann said he was able to magnify the image of Mary to 2,500 times normal size. In doing so, he also said he found another scene deeper in the eyes’ image: that of a possible family grouping of a man, a woman, two children and an older man and woman behind them. Tonsmann has stated several times that he believes this to be an extended family.

Whether or not the eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe reveal people present in 1531, and/or a family of that time, these stories serve to remind us of the words Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to Juan Diego 490 years ago: “I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me; listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows.”

To this day, millions of people invoke the Virgin of Guadalupe and find comfort in her.

For a Rome Reports video of Dr. Tonsmann explaining his work, visit


Sources: The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Modern Catholic Dictionary; Dictionary of Mary; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; The Catholic Encyclopedia;;;;;;;;;;; and