Virgin As Spin-Mistress (artist Colette Crutcher)

Colette Crutcher’s mixed media mural, “Tonantsin Renance”is located at 16th and Sanchez in San Francisco, CA.

When theologian Mary Daly published Beyond God, the Father in 1973, the book sent shock waves around Boston College, the Jesuit school where Daly taught.   Daly’s goal was to explain how men had shaped Western religion to the exclusion and detriment of women.  Women’s sense of the divine –  with its emphasis on nature and nurturing – needed to be put back in the picture, she said.  She challenged women to re-claim their “primal powers” as creators and “spin” a new world.      

 In retrospect, it is difficult to understand the importance of Daly’s views.  They came at a time when many women still accepted  that they needed to sacrifice their interests and talents to those of their fathers, brothers,  husbands.  Daly and other radical feminists called on women to say “Goodbye to All That”   

 In an interview with The Washington Post,   feminist author Robin Morgan called Daly: “the first feminist philosopher”:   

“She really pushed the boundaries, and that drove some people bananas…But that kind of intellectual courage is, in fact, what usually moves the species forward…”  

For budding feminists who felt alientated from heavily male-dominated relgious institutions, Daly helped make religion interesting, even meaningful.   

The women’s movment  went on to make mistakes: with simplistic analysis, at times, and more importantly, a failure to adequately address issues of race and class.  But the world is a better place for “uppity”  feminists like Mary Daly who  helped us see that women have power, talent and rights. 

Mary Daily died on January 3, 2010.  Drawing on her words,  this article is in part a tribute to her.  It is also a tribute to the creative talents of  San Francisco artist Colette Crutcher, a  “Spin-Mistress” in her own right.     


See also:  Susan Brooks Thistlewaite’s remembrance of Daly in the Washington Post’s blog “On Faith.”  

Crutcher painted her original mural in 1991. She replaced it with this mixed-media mural in 1998.

-by Lydia Breen    (quotes in bold italics by Mary Daly)     

Colette Crutcher had just given birth to her second son in 1991 when she started work on a mixed media mural of  Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of Mother Earth.  As she painted Crutcher’s thoughts were about creativity, particularly the creative power of women to bring new life into the world.      

“God empowers women in their humanity to uncover their primordial power and make this world rich…It is a time of reverie in the limitless life now felt and made unfolding. ”  – Mary Daly     

Detail of birds, water, fire

Crutcher says that her image for Tonantzin came largely from her imagination:  “I didn’t do research for the piece-except for the symbols [directly on] her body – the idea came from my head.  

Detail of serpents


 She is surrounded by the four elements:  the snakes  represent the earth, the birds symbolize the air. Water is under one arm, fire above it. Later, I did do some research and found that a lot of the symbols I put in the mural were all correct.”       

“Women themselves must create new spaces, new galaxies and new times… To be a  Spinmaster is to create new landscapes of being and meaning.”     

 “Tonantzin” is thought by some to be a generic term for any Aztec goddesses.  Others think the word refers to one goddess who has many aspects, each with a different name.  (For example, the goddess of childbirth, of war, of corn, etc.)     

The image of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is thought to be a synchronized version of Tonantzin and the Virgin Mary, used by early 16th century missionaries to convert  the indigenous people to Catholicism.  There is some debate about the missionaries’ motivation:  did they want to destroy the notion of the female diety or were they willing  to co-exist with it?       

In this 16th century image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she is appears without her child, a being in her own right.

 While we may not know their intention, we can see that the image they used of the Virgin of Guadalupe ( Catholic teaching say it was revealed by God) is one of a gentle, compassionate, self-sacrificing woman.   

Artist Lalo Garcia  (link to article) says it is significant that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico without her infant son. Unlike European depictions of the Virgin Mary, she appears as a being in her own right. 

“When you look at the scripture,” Garcia says,  “Mary vanished until the crucifixion. Mary of Nazareth is a nobody. In the Americas, she is the boss.  Anyting related to Christianity you’ll wind up with her.” 

 Yet there is still considerable difference in imagery between the Mexican Virgin and Aztec goddeses.  See for example,  the stone statue of  Cihuacoatl, seen encompassed by the mouth of a serpent and holding an ear of maize:   

Cihuacoatl the Aztec goddess of motherhood and fertility, her head encompassed by a snake. Photo credit: Museo Nacional Antropologia, Mexico

In this Aztec stone statue of Tonantzin, she looks up to the heavens

 By contrast, renditions of the Virgin Mary by European artists portray her as an almost-characterless figure (“an empty vessel”) who bows in submision to her own son.      

Adoration. Eyes cast down, Mary bows in reverence to her son

 Crutcher turns that notion on its head.  Her Tonantzin stands front and center, a powerful diety making no apologies for who she is.  She looks like she woke up from a 500-year nap and, disliking what she saw, is ready to set things straight:     

Crutcher dedicated her mural to "all those who work to preserve the cultural heritage of Latin America"

   “There is no possibility of redemption within a system which is founded upon the degradation of the human species and its environment.”      

A watchful third eye

Crutcher puts  the Virgin of Guadalupe in the middle of Tonantzin’s forehead.  The Virgin stands like a watchful third eye in the spiritual center of the goddesses’ body.  

One might see this as an analogy:   just as Jesus is God – or an apsect of Him in Christian theology – the Virgin is the Goddess, or an aspect of Her.  One icon sits at God’s right hand, and another  in the Goddess’  forehead.     

 “Women themselves must become the incarnation of God.”      

Crutcher says her inspiration for the mural came from a favorite song.  She sings it with Choro Hispano, a choral group she has been associated with for more than 30 years. Dios Itlaçonantzine  was composed in the early 16th century by Don Hernando Franco, an Aztec Christian convert.       

Sung in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl (Nahua), the song is a prayer to the Virgin to intercede on behalf of  indigenous people. Crutcher says the lyrics refers to the Virgin as “Dios Itlaçonantzine,” one of the names for Tonantzin.     

At a time when  indigenous people of Mexico were suffering from brutal treatment by Spanish occupiers,  the song to the Virgin by a native might have been a prayer of intercession for a more caring, compassionate world.


"Quetzalcoatl" Colette Crutcher and Mark Roller made this mosaic tile structure at a playground on 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District.

For other examples of Colette Crutcher’s work, see this link to the 16th Ave. Tiled Steps Project.  See also pictures of the exquisite serpent Quetzalcoatl  that Crutcher and Mark Roller, Crutcher’s husband, made in a public playground on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.     


Lydia Breen  in a freelance writer and filmmaker who began her career in the 1970’s, while a member of a feminist media collective  in Tucson, Arizona.  In 1989 she worked with Irene Kahn  (recently retired as Secretary General of Amnesty International) and others at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland to formulate a policy, then make a film about how rape is used as a weapon of war.    

UNHCR’s groundbreaking work in this area helped motivate other international organizations – the International Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, UNICEF and many others- to take a stand.  

 Ten years later,  the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda  declared that rape, when used as a weapon of war, is an act of “genocide”.  In 2007, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other female world leaders pushed the U.N. Security Council  to resolve that the systematic  use of rape is a “weapon of war.” 

  In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered $17 million in funds as well as technical assitance to address the terrible cost of  rape in  Africa.   

…Baby steps.  Twenty years of them.  But each one required an uphill battle.   How much more time would it have taken without “uppity women” like Mary Daly as role models?  

See Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.

The systematic use of rape of as a weapon of war has been used throughout history against women and girls (and sometimes men) in all regions of the world.


One response to “Virgin As Spin-Mistress (artist Colette Crutcher)

  1. Lydia, thanks for writing this and showing this goddess. It is literally down the street from a place I used to live many years ago. I’m just amazed at the power of this Aztec goddess, and the connection to Mary Daly.

    Making religion finally interesting to intellectual women was one of Daly’s great contributions to the world I think.

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