See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. - James 5:7

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz



I once knew a little bit about this Mexican nun - but I forgot...
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I didn't really read much more about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz after I happened across something that suggested that her spirituality was controversial and that she was something of an early academic/feminist, that coupled with the fact she wasn't venerable or beatified or canonized, I decided to mortify my intellectual curiosity in her life and writings and just admire her figure in art.
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Loving Spanish Colonial art as I do, Sor Juana's portraits intriqued me, since they relate somewhat to a genre of painting which might be termed memorial portraits - images of nuns from wealthy and prestigious families - the portraits of this genre are known as 'crowned nuns'.  I'm not sure this was the case with the Sor Juana portraits however.  Sor Juana is shown (above) uncrowned, but with a rather large escudo de mojas, or relicarios containg a painting depicting her particular patrons and religious title. 
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As noted, my understanding has been that such portraits were intended for the families to decorate their home in a sort of homage to their daughters who left the world and enclosed themselves in monasteries.  However, historians believe the portraits were done for the monasteries themselves - which strikes me as a rather vain indulgence even for lax houses.  (If I have this wrong, anyone who knows more about the practice is most welcome to correct me.  I don't pretend to be an authority on the subject.)
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However, I tend to relate these customs to many of the details Teresa of Avila discussed concerning the relative decadence/laxity and vanities she encountered at the monastery of the Incarnation at Avila, which contributed to her desire to launch her reform of Carmel.  Perhaps such laxity, and or freedoms, not to mention vanities and concern to retain one's former status even in conventual life, crossed the Atlantic from Spain?  Again - I may be wrong, the elaborate costumes and portraits may simply be  part of the solemnity of religious profession, similar to the practice more traditional orders continue today - dressing as brides, wearing a crown of roses over the veil, and so on.  Obviously I am not a historian, nor have I done a careful study on the curious life of nuns in Spanish Colonial times, or in our own day, so I'm simply speculating from a cursory knowledge of the subject.
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That said, I was pleased to find a beautiful prayer composed by Sor Juana in honor of the Queenship of Our Lady, the feast we celebrate this day.  I took the prayer from the Meditation of the Day for this feast in the August Magnificat.
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"O Queen of Wisdom, more learned and wise than the queen of Sheba, since you enjoyed the instruction of the true Solomon, from his Majesty acquire for us true wisdom, which is virtue, and the intelligence of heavenly things in order to inflame us with love of you and your Son.  Illumine our souls, most gracious teacher, and liberate us from all error, the deceptions of the devil, and the cunning of his sophistical arguments.  Grant us knowledge of your Son, our Lord, and of your merits, so that we may become truly devoted to you, serving you here on earth as we ought, and hoping through divine mercy and your intercession to enjoy your presence in heaven..."
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Happy feast day!
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Art: Top: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
        Middle: Monja coronada
        Lower: Indigenous crowned Clarissa nun

8 comments:

  1. Terry, This is such an interesting post. It is one of the reasons I love your blog. The paintings of the nuns are terrific.

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  2. Who was that masked man?

    Terry (not Terry): I noticed Sor Juana's reflection in Magnificat as well. I'd never heard of her but was intrigued. Thanks for posting this.

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  3. A Random Friar9:35 PM

    I will try the role of Devil's Advocate here:

    One thing that occurs to me is that to have such an extensive private library, and so many instruments (musical, scientific) would normally not be in keeping with a life of poverty or simplicity. There were many other nuns in New Spain that were rich inside their convents, with servants and even slaves sometimes. I have a hard time recalling one of them being raised to the altars if she maintained that kind of life.

    Also, a great mind and an artistic streak a mile long (and I believe she had both) would not qualify one to be a saint. A scholar, yes, but scholar and saint do not coincide. She would have to demonstrate some kind of heroic virtue in her life. There are many Catholic authors and theologians I read, but to look at their lives just does not shout "holiness," although who knows what has not been brought to the light of day?

    If it were just a matter of sexual politics, we would lose St. Catherine of Siena and various other women (perhaps we would have had their public veneration halted).

    And anyone who thinks women were totally subjugated in viceregal New Spain is mistaken. Each gender had its own general sphere, yes, but women could wield an extremely important power "behind the scenes/throne." I think we tend to think a little too narrowly in our gender politics today.

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  4. Cathy and Terry - glad you liked it.

    Friar - great comment - it is surprising they power they had. I agree with the scholar vs. saint thing.

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  5. A Random Friar10:32 PM

    I wrote "but scholar and saint do not coincide." What I meant to say was "but scholar and saint do not necessarily coincide."

    Just like "friar" and "grammatician" do not necessarily coincide. Yeesh!

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  6. The crowns were worn at professions, and those portraits are meant to memorialize that occasion.

    I understand that the escudo Sor Juana wears in her portrait was actually part of the habit of her order at the time.

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  7. Oh, and as far as the laxity of some houses, it's worth remembering that many people, especially daughters, entered convents and monasteries not because they had a vocation to the religious life, but because convents and monasteries were where you put offspring who would be too expensive to marry off (daughters) or who would make trouble in the inheritance line (younger sons). Not everybody, of course, but a lot of people became monks and nuns under familial duress.

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