The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico

The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico: Crowned-Nun Portraits and Reform in the Convent

JAMES M. CÓRDOVA
Copyright Date: 2014
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/753150
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  • Book Info
    The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico
    Book Description:

    In the eighteenth century, New Spaniards (colonial Mexicans) so lauded their nuns that they developed a local tradition of visually opulent portraits, called monjas coronadas or “crowned nuns,” that picture their subjects in regal trappings at the moment of their religious profession and in death. This study identifies these portraits as markers of a vibrant and changing society that fused together indigenous and Euro-Christian traditions and ritual practices to construct a new and complex religious identity that was unique to New Spain.To discover why crowned-nun portraits, and especially the profession portrait, were in such demand in New Spain, this book offers a pioneering interpretation of these works as significant visual contributions to a local counter-colonial discourse. James M. Córdova demonstrates that the portraits were a response to the Spanish crown’s project to modify and modernize colonial society—a series of reforms instituted by the Bourbon monarchs that threatened many nuns’ religious identities in New Spain. His analysis of the portraits’ rhetorical devices, which visually combined Euro-Christian and Mesoamerican notions of the sacred, shows how they promoted local religious and cultural values as well as client-patron relations, all of which were under scrutiny by the colonial Church. Combining visual evidence from images of the “crowned nun” with a discussion of the nuns’ actual roles in society, Córdova reveals that nuns found their greatest agency as Christ’s brides, a title through which they could, and did, challenge the Church’s authority when they found it intolerable.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-75316-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xv-xx)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-13)

    In Bishop Palafox y mendoza’s jubilant statement, he elevates nuns, whom he calls “the Lord’s Brides,” above the angels of heaven. His accolade, which appears in theRules and Constitutionsof Puebla’s convents of Santa Catarina and Santa Inés, would have delighted its readers. After all, at the moment a woman took the solemn vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure, she immediately elevated her spiritual and social rank by symbolically marrying Christ and thereby becoming a kind of queen.

    In New Spain, the “bride of Christ” designation endowed nuns with a degree of prestige and agency that laywomen generally...

  7. Chapter 1 WOMEN’S RELIGIOUS PATHWAYS IN NEW SPAIN
    (pp. 14-34)

    Just two years after the conquest of mexico tenochtitlan, the Franciscan lay brother Fray Pedro de Gante (1490–1572) began to indoctrinate Mexico City’s native youths in Christianity and provide them with a humanist education. His undertaking was adopted by the first wave of friars to arrive in New Spain the following year in their broader campaign to extirpate idolatry and establish New World Christian communities. One of the brothers, Fray Toribio de Benavente, whom the natives called Motolinía (ca. 1490–1569), initiated schools for girls (colegios de niñas) in Texcoco and Huejotzingo, two important native polities in pre-Hispanic and...

  8. Chapter 2 NEW SPANISH PORTRAITURE AND PORTRAITS OF NUNS
    (pp. 35-68)

    Because of the extreme asceticism and mystical raptures that brought her into contact with Christ and the Devil, many residents of Puebla considered Sor Isabel de la Encarnación a local saint. When she died in 1633 the nuns of San José (later renamed Santa Teresa) convent summoned a local artist to record her image as she lay on her funeral bier in the convent’s lower choir. In an indisputable sign of her sanctity, her disfigured face miraculously recovered its former youthful beauty when the nuns adorned her corpse with a flowery crown and palm frond.¹ The portrait, intended as a...

  9. Chapter 3 EURO–CHRISTIAN PRECEDENTS IN THE CROWNED–NUN IMAGE
    (pp. 69-92)

    New Spain’s hagiographers wrote that exceptionally virtuous nuns who underwent a holy death had an “odor of sanctity” (olor de santidad) about them.¹ These writers sometimes claimed that nuns’ dead bodies actually gave off a pleasing scent, a phenomenon that they considered to be an indisputable sign of holiness. For example, in 1683 Fray Diego de Lemus stated that before Sor María de Jesús Tomelín was interred, her corpse broke out in a fragrant sweat.

    The effect of the dead human body is decomposition; and it is ill fortune that a foul odor accompanies it: but [the body of] God’s...

  10. Chapter 4 INDIGENOUS CONTRIBUTIONS TO CONVENT ARTS AND CULTURE
    (pp. 93-121)

    As the first convent for indigenous nuns in the Americas, Mexico City’s Corpus Christi convent was the inspiration for the establishment of a handful of other such institutions in New Spain.¹ However, when it received its first indigenous women in 1724, a small group of Creole nuns, appointed as the convent’s administrators, entered with them. In an anonymous letter written by a native nun, a number of the convent’s Creole women are negatively portrayed.

    They were constantly watching us for even the smallest thing that we did, so [as to] accuse us of wrongdoing before Father Navarrete. When we were...

  11. Chapter 5 THE PROFESSION PORTRAIT IN A TIME OF CRISIS
    (pp. 122-147)

    In 1723 don Luís de la Peña, a Mexico City rector and Inquisition official, stated matter-of-factly that many more women than men experienced God’s mysteries through visions and revelations.¹ This was a direct result of their rich interior, or contemplative, lives, especially as religious. In the monastic realm, nuns and priests were to partake in the active life (vita activa), which stressed human relations and physical mortification, as well as the contemplative life (vita contemplativa), which stressed an interior spirituality that, especially for women, opened one up to mystical experiences and communication with the spirit world.² As priests, men experienced...

  12. Chapter 6 COLONIAL IDENTITY RHETORICS
    (pp. 148-172)

    From shortly after the time of European contact, the discourse on America’s ontological makeup emboldened and legitimated Europe’s colonial enterprise. By the eighteenth century, Spanish American intellectuals and artists had entered the debate, complicating the monolithic image of America and its inhabitants that had crystallized in the European mindset over two centuries.

    An illuminating Peruvian painting dated to the turn of the nineteenth century (fig. 6.1) projects an American perspective regarding the nature of America and its relation to its diverse inhabitants. In the compositional center, an allegorical image of America appears as an enthroned queen, suckling smartly dressed Spanish...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 173-178)

    Production of crowned-nun portraits continued well into the nineteenth century, long after Mexican independence in 1821. For example, consider the profession portrait of Sor Manuela de Mesa (see fig. 4.3), an indigenous nun of the Company of Mary, who is pictured in the simple black-and-white habit of her order and wearing a magnificently decorated floral crown. Despite the painting’s postindependence production date (1827), Sor Manuela appears in much the same manner as her viceregal predecessors in their portraits. Even her biographical inscription conforms to the viceregal formula of sitter’s name, lineage, date of profession, and convent.

    But there is one...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 179-214)
  16. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 215-218)
  17. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 219-238)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 239-252)