Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima

Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima

by Nancy E. van Deusen


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In seventeenth-century Lima, pious Catholic women gained profound theological understanding and enacted expressions of spiritual devotion by engaging with a wide range of sacred texts and objects, as well as with one another, their families, and ecclesiastical authorities. In Embodying the Sacred, Nancy E. van Deusen considers how women created and navigated a spiritual existence within the colonial city's complex social milieu. Through close readings of diverse primary sources, van Deusen shows that these women recognized the divine—or were objectified as conduits of holiness—in innovative and powerful ways: dressing a religious statue, performing charitable acts, sharing interiorized spiritual visions, constructing autobiographical texts, or offering their hair or fingernails to disciples as living relics. In these manifestations of piety, each of these women transcended the limited outlets available to them for expressing and enacting their faith in colonial Lima, and each transformed early modern Catholicism in meaningful ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369950
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/22/2017
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 849,508
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Nancy E. van Deusen is Professor of History at Queen’s University; author of Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain, also published by Duke University Press, and Between the Sacred and the Worldly: The Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima; and editor of The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús.

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Iridescent butterflies circling around her; fragrant flowers, plants, and trees blooming and bowing in her presence: this was Santa Rosa in God's garden, as depicted in visual portrayals and narrative accounts of her life. In this particular painting, Rosa walks in the garden of her parents' home; beside her is a finely dressed lady who gestures toward the trees, which are inclining their branches toward Rosa in a sign of reverence. The lady wants to see firsthand how Rosa encouraged the plants, trees, and birds in her garden to praise God. She is not disappointed.

In an insert at the top-left corner of the same painting, a less bucolic but equally important scene is portrayed in a more muted, enclosed balcony in a tall structure. In Rosa's case, the tower is meant to signify, albeit allegorically, a small cell that Rosa had built in the corner of the garden depicted in the main section of the painting. Rosa is seated with three modestly dressed young women; Rosa and one of her companions have embroidery pillows on their laps. Rosa gesticulates with one hand, her mouth open as though she is speaking. The woman to her left imitates the gesture. Behind them sit two young women, also engaged with what Rosa is saying. In the two scenes of garden and room, we see evidence of Rosa and her female companions engaged in the art of imitatio morum — learning from and imitating a wise elder's behavior. We see female communion, learning that takes place through speech and action, and a sharing of the wonders of God.

According to medievalist Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker, the instructional method of imitatio morum was an essential component of knowledge transmission in the late Middle Ages. Learning involved a pupil focusing on the example being shown or explained and then attempting to imitate it through action or speech. The didactic process was considered complete once the student had internalized the knowledge. Well into the early modern period, novices in monasteries and apprentices in workshops learned by emulating the physical actions of their teachers and the ideas these teachers articulated. In different, gendered spaces, boys and girls listened, watched, and appropriated knowledge of crafts or theology, which was stored in the heart, the seat of memory. The insert of the painting shows Rosa speaking to her protégées about spiritual matters while the handwork on her lap awaits her attention.

During her brief life, Rosa de Santa María (Isabel Flores de Oliva, 1586 – 1617, canonized in 1671) was central to the education of a select group of protégées living in the viceregal capital. For more than a decade, from 1606 to 1617, Rosa set the primus inter pares example for a number of women, both poor and wealthy, to emulate. Her guidance and personal tutelage persuaded some to abandon their licentious or ostentatious ways and draw closer to God. For those girls and women who called Rosa "mother," she was a living book, a model of ascetic piety. Her spiritual trajectory — living as a beata in the secular world — followed the pattern of devout medieval mystics, including Angela of Foligno and Margaret of Cortona, both women who lived lives of charity, penitence, and contemplation outside of a monastic setting. But for Rosa and her disciples, Catherine of Siena (1347 – 80) was their most esteemed model. They called Rosa "mother" based on what Catherine's followers had done centuries before. The medieval Italian tertiary had joined a small group of pious women (mantellate) in Siena, and her closest companions called her mother (mamma). Catherine's writings also refer to a broader circle of female and male devotees as her famiglia, or family.

We know from recent scholarship that pious women gained theological literacy by reading and discussing the contents of sacred texts, a topic that will be considered in more detail in Chapter 2. Some of this knowledge was passed down orally from woman to woman. According to beatification records and vidas, Rosa's devotees listened to her give spiritual talks and discussed the contents of books that Rosa had read. From these works, they learned how to save souls in purgatory and engage in practices of mental prayer. They also gained practical skills. According to Rosa's hagiographer, Leonard Hansen, Rosa organized her weekly prayer regimen around the advice given in the works of the mystic theologian Luis de Granada.

By any measure, Rosa had gained a deep knowledge of theology over the course of her short life. Her confessors note her prodigious memory: she could recall the contents of books she had read or sermons she had heard and discussed with her confessors long before. No doubt Rosa shared this knowledge with her female companions, even if there is no direct evidence to support that claim.

We do know that Rosa afforded a spiritual education to her devotees by other means. Pious girls and women gained a nonliterate, somatic knowledge of how to discern what was holy and unholy by engaging their senses and interacting with material objects. This process of imitatio morum involved a three-way dialogue between the pupil, the teacher (in this case, Rosa), and the items that the pupils and Rosa touched, smelled, tasted, and heard.

In this opening chapter, I argue that an understanding of abstract theological precepts, including discerning what was divine and what was corrupt, gaining a sense of the ever-expanding relationship between self and God, and coming to understand that matter was alive, could be obtained through a sensorial engagement with material objects. Items such as sculptures, cloth, and relics were loci of profound spiritual exploration, since they were believed to be containers of both material and immaterial matter. Pious Catholic women invested these items with meaning, and, in turn, the objects informed them how they could and should respond sensorially. Women then shared with others, by means of speech or by touching, holding, gazing, smelling, sensing them, the knowledge they had gained through their interactions with objects.

To understand "Rosa" as she was constructed by the women who surrounded her, I consider the somewhat challenging testimonies given by Rosa's hermanas (sisters) and disciples in the diocesan (1617 – 18) and apostolic (1630 – 32) beatification hearings. They are challenging for scholars in the sense that the depositions, taken months after her death, were already in memory form and were circumscribed by the need to frame the events in Rosa's life in ways that would increase her chances for sainthood. Moreover, Rosa's disciples who testified in the second beatification hearing in 1630 – 32 had other reasons to be concerned about how they portrayed their beloved "saint." The Inquisition had tried several beatas and nuns, some of whom had been part of Rosa's inner circle, for false mysticism. These trials, as scholars have argued, complicated but ultimately did not undermine efforts to canonize Rosa.

Furthermore, the language that witnesses used to describe Rosa's activities, whether mundane or grand, often elides the materially, emotionally, and sensorially oriented experiences embedded in such descriptions. So, from a brief statement by Catalina de Santa María about the need to find flowers "to adorn the platform [carrying] the Glorious Saint Catherine," we have to imagine how Rosa and her disciples engaged their senses as they dug, cut, and arranged the carnations. There are ways, however, to access some of the teachable moments reflected in these depositions. For instance, we learn that on one occasion Rosa had shared her sense of unease with the beata Catalina de Santa María and Catalina's sister. Rosa had misplaced a valuable item and believed that the devil was testing her resolve by playing a trick on her. To mitigate the inner turmoil she felt, she had asked her brother to paint the ugliest version possible of the patón tiñoso (club-footed one), as she liked to call the devil. Catalina watched as Rosa threw the image on the ground, stamping and spitting on it. Rosa then instructed Catalina and her sister to do the same. Here a deeply experiential moment of the imitatio morum — learning from Rosa how to cast off what was unholy and corrupt — was captured in a deposition. Rosa was teaching Catalina and her sister that the physical object — in this case, a rendering of the devil — was more than a symbol. The stamped-on drawing embodied the qualities of evil and could be acted on by teacher and student with destructive physical force. Such actions could help to cleanse the mind of sinful thoughts, often attributed to darker forces. Catalina's deposition recounts a moment when bodily responses and interiorized notions worked in tandem to comprehend fortaleza (spiritual forbearance).

From Rosa, women learned that objects like cloth contained virtus (a term they used to refer to divine energy) and that the relationship between immateriality and materiality was fluid and interchangeable. Even mundane activities like sewing could serve as pathways to a deeper relationship with God. While doing embroidery and other handwork together, Rosa and her devotees engaged the senses of touch, sight, taste, and hearing. They prayed that their stitches would please God or Mary. But they also engaged with cloth in other ways. As they donned garb made of coarse fabric and mortified their flesh, they learned about the textured sensations of spiritual-corporeal pain and sorrow and the fragility of human nature. They learned viscerally through their senses, not intellectually, that mortification helped fight "the wars that the enemy [the devil] conducts, interiorly and exteriorly." The counterpoint to their own tactile engagement with drab and bristly apparel was to fashion lush, soft robes and mantles for religious statues of the Virgin or Saint Catherine of Siena and then dress the statues. As they rendered these "statue-persons" into objects of great beauty, Rosa and her disciples listened to them "speak" and give council. Through their sense of touch, they learned to feel the sacred energy in the decorated cloth that adorned these beloved statues.

Accessing holiness was, however, not limited to so-called inanimate objects. The relationship between Rosa and her disciples was also extremely tactile. Her hermanas kissed her feet and garments; they held her hand; they fingered the same scissors and thread as she. Sitting near their friend, Rosa's disciples could sense the virtus of the threadbare garments and mortification devices that touched the flesh of someone they deemed to be holy. They could hear her labored breath as she suffered pain. Later, as they handled the linen sheets that covered Rosa's dying body, they came to understand the fine line that separated flesh from spirit.

Rosa's spiritual biographers like to emphasize her hermeticism and solitary engagement with God. She shunned the world by retreating to the tiny cell in her parents' garden to achieve inner stillness. But these accounts tend to minimize Rosa's engagement with people and objects in the world. Theologians and confessors advised women, and especially beatas, to remain recogida, enclosed and sheltered, as much as possible to avoid carnal temptations. But the realities of life did not always match those expectations. Accompanied by her devotees, Rosa served God, the Virgin, and the saints in public places. Through her actions Rosa taught her disciples that the active and the contemplative aspects of communion with God were inseparable. This made sense: like other women living in early seventeenth-century Lima, Rosa labored intensively for hours each day doing handwork that she could sell to help support her parents and siblings. Remunerated labor meant having food in the larder and curtains on the windows. Moreover, such toil could easily resonate with the heroic virtues of charity, poverty, and devotion to God. Rosa did not perform these activities alone; she often labored and prayed in the company of other women. Together, she and her hermanas would go to the homes of wealthy women to beg for alms or request that they donate their gems to decorate a statue of the Virgin. She and the other beatas would adorn church altars and kneel before images in private chapels. As they engaged tenderly with objects they considered to be sacred, Rosa and her disciples formed a female epistemological community around a body of spiritual knowledge they had gained through their senses.

That many of these women were living in the world (as opposed to a monastic setting) and expressing their devotion to God in public was not without controversy, and their depositions must be read with this in mind. Beatas had to be careful not to display arrogance or pride, nor to demonstrate too much theological learning. Moreover, they needed to craft a humble, extremely modest "Rosa" who assiduously avoided any display of her mortification practices, however esteemed they might be. Aware of the gendered strictures that informed her testimony, the Dominican beata Luisa de Santa María stated that she had had a tremendous desire to "engage and communicate with [Rosa]" during the last year of Rosa's life. But Luisa claimed full responsibility for pressuring Rosa to reveal details about her fasting, abstinence, and penitence. Everyone knew that Rosa was reticent to reveal such intimate habits. According to Luisa, Rosa relented when she realized that Luisa was a serious student. Rosa also quietly shared her mortification "tricks" with others. The beata Feliciana de Jesús had learned from the sleep-deprived Rosa how to stave off the "enemy of sleepiness" by "attaching her [pulled-up] hair to a nail and then hanging from it." Such severe pain, she had learned, only intensified her vigilance (and alert state) while she endeavored to continue saying her prayers.

Scholars who work on religious vidas (spiritual biographies or autobiographies) like to remind us that the life stories of female mystics are multivalent in their fashioning. They are created by many "I's," many voices, many perspectives. Rosa's afterlife, which began at her death (some might argue that it began while she was alive), was thus constituted by how others thought they should represent her mystical and devotional practices. Her devotees, her confessors, and her subsequent hagiographers managed her holiness to fit prescriptive norms. It was these self-conscious observers who created the prospective saint, bringing the world of the text (that of the mystic herself) into contact with the reader (for whom the narrator is a proxy). If we pay attention to the observer (the female disciple; here, the reader might recall Catalina de Santa María watching Rosa stomp on the image of the devil) observing Rosa do something with something (cloth or a statue), we can "see" the narrator recounting an event in which learning and the creation of scripted meaning were occurring simultaneously. We may also note that, in the process of creating these narrative truths, material objects were often the tutorial "intermediaries" between Rosa and her intended audience.

I consider cloth, clothing, and dressing as a way to understand how these sensorial learning processes transpired and how "Rosa" was constituted by means of these moments of imitatio morum. Cloth, as cultural anthropologist Jane Schneider argues, was a "transformative medium." It could do so many things. It had depth and texture; it touched and penetrated the epidermis; it was seen as an extension of the body. Cloth could vibrate with color. It shielded and disguised. It kept the lascivious male eye from seeing wisps of hair that were trying to escape the veil, or glimpsing the curve of an ankle or the marble-like surface of the neck. Cloth fashioned into clothing was a visual representation of what was contained within. The design, shape, and color of the raiment were cultural codes that triggered in observers associations with wealth, religion, and status. They were meant to be read by the public eye. Cloth interacted with the skin and with the tactile sensations of the body. A rough texture or binding shape could scrape the flesh or restrict the diaphragm — aiding in the mortification of the flesh, a practice considered essential to expressions of early modern Catholic devotion. Cloth could swathe a wound or still the throbbing blood, something Rosa's hermanas who attended to the sick in hospitals or infirmaries knew firsthand.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction  1
Part I. Material and Immaterial Embodiment
1. Rosa de Lima and the Imitatio Morum  23
2. Reading the Body: Mystical Theology and Spiritual Actualization in Early Seventeenth-Century Lima  47
3. Living in an (Im)Material World: Ángla de Carranza as a Reliquary  71
Part II. The Relational Self
4. Carrying the Cross of Christ: Donadas in Seventeenth-Century Lima  95
5. María Jacinta Montoya, Nicolás de Ayllón, and the Unmaking of an Indian Saint in Late Seventeenth-Century Peru  117
6. Amparada de mi libertad: Josefa Portocarrero Laso de la Vega and the Meaning of Free Will  143
Conclusion  167
Notes  175
Bibliography  231
Index  259

What People are Saying About This

The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire - Bianca Premo

“No one makes colonial Spanish American spirituality as material—in all senses of the word— as does Nancy E. van Deusen. The book reanimates Lima's religiously devoted female inhabitants from spiritual autobiographies, fragmentary petitions, and beatification records: women who transmitted a gendered, colonial Catholic theology. The result is a critical intervention in the history of gender and religion, and a master class on how to read things in the past.”

Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation - Antoinette Burton

“Nancy E. van Deusen conjures the vibrant confessional world of Lima while conveying an extremely textured sense of women’s lives, down to the feeling of cloth and the frisson of hair and bone and blood. Beautifully written, Embodying the Sacred models a women’s history that does not make, or require, a false choice between representation and the lived experience of early modern women. This is an important book for anyone in women, gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, regardless of time and place. A fabulous read.”

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