A Spanish Mystic’s Enduring Presence:
St. Teresa of Ávila in the Chapel of San Miguel, Santa Fe
by Christopher C. Wilson

Contained within the main altar screen of the Chapel of San Miguel in Santa Fe are four oval canvases, eighteenth-century paintings by an unidentified artist, most likely created in Mexico City and then sent to Santa Fe (Figure 1). These were installed in the altar screen attributed to the Laguna Santero, which bears the inscribed date of 1798.1 Clockwise, from upper right, the four paintings show half-length figures of St. Gertrude, St. Louis of France, St. Francis of Assisi, and, in the upper left, the saint upon whom I will focus in this article: St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), the extraordinary Spanish nun, reformer of the Carmelite Order, and author of books on prayer and mystical experience (Figure 2). Throughout the colonial period, images of Teresa adorned many New World churches, convents, and monasteries, especially those associated with her reformed order, the Discalced (or “barefoot”) Carmelites. Beyond the Virgin Mary, few other female subjects were so often depicted in Spanish colonial art as St. Teresa of Ávila. The painting at San Miguel is of particular significance since it is one of the earliest known images of Teresa to have been brought to what is now the United States.

Colonial artists often represented scenes of Teresa’s mystical experiences, for which she, like St. Gertrude, was famous. Especially celebrated was her vision of an angel piercing her heart with a fiery arrow, the subject of Bernini’s mid-seventeenth-century sculpture in the Cornaro Chapel of Rome’s Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria. But, the most frequently depicted image of Teresa in Baroque art is that showing her as author.2 At San Miguel, Teresa is portrayed wearing the black veil, white cape, and dark brown tunic of the Discalced Carmelite Order. She holds a quill pen and an open book. Teresa must have often found herself posed this way, with pen in hand, since she was a prolific author. In addition to writing various minor works, poetry, and over four hundred surviving letters, she composed four major prose works: the autobiographical Book of Her Life, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and The Book of Her Foundations.

The iconography seen at San Miguel evolved from Spanish and Flemish prints, such as an image printed in Saragossa in 1615 (Figure 3). As the half-length figure of Teresa looks toward the Holy Spirit, represented in the form of dove hovering in the upper left, she uses her right hand to inscribe words in a manuscript. In a 1613 engraving created in Antwerp, Teresa sits in a cell-like interior, at work on a book (Figure 4). The Holy Spirit directs a beam of illumination into the top of her head. Variations on the image of Teresa as divinely-inspired author were widely circulated in Catholic Europe; from the end of the sixteenth century through the time of her canonization (1622), this type of representation nearly monopolized Teresian iconography. Why was this image given such preference?

The answer may be found by considering attitudes toward Teresa, specifically to her achievements as writer, in the years following her death. While her books were best-sellers, enthusiastically received by many, their publication alarmed some in Spain’s male-dominated society. At the center of the controversy was gender. Teresa engaged in theological discourse at a time when women — long regarded as intellectually inferior and susceptible to delusion — were prohibited from such activity. In 1589, one year after the publication of the first edition of Teresa’s works in Madrid, the Dominican Alonso de la Fuente urged the Inquisition to ban her writings, suggesting that they had a diabolical origin, since “they exceeded the capacity of women.”3 Theologian Francisco de Pisa, writing in 1598, also warned that her books should be withdrawn from public consumption, since there are many other spiritually edifying texts (by male authors) available “without having a woman come along and teach, for women are not given this office but should wait in silence, as the apostle Saint Paul said.”4

Teresa’s devotees faced the problem of defending her books from those who insisted that women shouldn’t write or teach. It was against the backdrop of this controversy that the image of Teresa as divinely-inspired author ascended to prominence. While her critics suggested that Tereas was inspired by a “bad angel” when she wrote her works, her supporters responded by propagating an image that echoed the words of Augustinian friar Luis de León, who, in an introductory letter to the 1588 edition of Teresa’s works, wrote, “I do not doubt that in many places it was the Holy Spirit who spoke through her and who guided her pen and hand.”5 The iconography was intended to reassure the viewer of Teresa’s image and the reader of her words that the Holy Spirit abundantly compensated for what was lacking in her otherwise weak female nature. Because the Spirit was the true author of her works, Teresa’s writings do indeed “exceed the capacity of women.”

Teresa’s supporters evidently succeeded in dissolving the controversy since, by the time of her beatification in 1614, opposition to publication of her books had died away, and printing presses across Europe were churning them out in numerous languages. The Jesuit Cipriano de Aguayo, writing in that year, sums up an attitude that might well have been shaped by contemporary images of Teresa as author: “How was it possible, except by divine inspiration, for an ignorant woman to write what she did…with such remarkable words, so pregnant with divine mysteries!”6 Acclaim for her writings culminated in 1970, when Teresa was declared the first woman Doctor of the Church.

Within a few decades of her death, devotion to Teresa took hold in the New World, where the image of her as author became firmly embedded in colonial visual culture. Many factors contributed to the popularity of her image there: her four major prose works were widely circulated in printed editions and manuscript copies in the colonies; Spanish colonial nuns (not only of the Discalced Carmelite Order) viewed her as the ideal model for the female religious; and her canonization, in 1622, brought her cult to a peak at a moment when many churches were being erected and decorated in the colonies.

Complementing these factors is another reason for her popularity in colonial art which, to date, has been overlooked: she was regarded as a patron of the Church's missionary effort. As her books make clear, Teresa dedicated her convents to the conversion of those she regarded as heretics and infidels – including Native Americans, about whose salvation she was deeply concerned. Through unceasing prayer, she asserted, the cloistered nuns of her order could assist the Church’s work of evangelization. Because of her missionary zeal while living on earth, Teresa was presented in early biographies as a heavenly patron of this missionary effort. From her place in heaven, it was believed, the saint would persevere in her work of winning souls to God.7 In a land where Christianity was still being established, the identification of Teresa as a missionary saint endowed her image with particular value and contributed to its successful dissemination. Through paintings and statues, she could be acknowledged as a champion of the colonial Church's past and current success and as a patron of what remained to be accomplished. Certainly the painting of her at San Miguel must have carried this association when it was sent to the northern frontier of New Spain.

Major masters of Mexican Baroque art such as Juan Correa (ca. 1646-1716) and Cristóbal de Villalpando (ca. 1649-1714) painted the image of Teresa as author, often using European prints as models. Perhaps drawing upon the 1613 Flemish engraving, Villalpando showed her seated at a desk, open manuscript in front of her, holding her pen as she looks up toward the white dove of the Holy Spirit (Figure 5). This brings us to a peculiarity of the painting in Santa Fe: there is no dove shown in the composition. It is not impossible that the artist simply decided to eliminate the dove, though such a choice would have been an aberration from traditional Teresian iconography. I suggest that the dove may have indeed been present in or near the picture at some point – either in a section of the canvas that might have been cut away to fit the painting within the Laguna Santero’s altar screen, or in another, now-missing, part of the pictorial program.

As an illustration of the second possibility, consider a Mexican painting by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz (1713-1772) (Figure 6). In the center of the composition floats the heart of the Virgin Mary; stacked along the left and right edges of the canvas are oval-shaped frames, each containing the half-length figure of a female saint, dressed in the habit of her Order and holding some identifying attribute. Teresa is shown at the bottom left as author, holding a pen and open book. She looks up toward the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove hovering near the top of the composition, above Mary’s heart. Just as in this painting the dove floats outside the framed image of Teresa, so the image of a dove might have originally accompanied the set of oval-shaped canvases brought to Santa Fe. In her landmark 1974 study Popular Arts of New Mexico, E. Boyd suggested that the four canvases once belonged to a larger set of pictures.8 The white dove might have been portrayed either in a small canvas, or in a piece of sculpture, intended to be placed near the top of the altar screen, sending its divine rays of light towards the other saints shown in the oval-shaped paintings.

Given the saint’s popularity in Mexican Colonial painting, it is surprising that Teresa does not appear more frequently in New Mexican art, where images of her are relatively scarce. Yet Teresian iconography faced obstacles in New Mexico, where santeros depicted male saints with far greater frequency than female ones. Surveys of New Mexican bultos and retablos, conducted by Father Thomas Steele, Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts, and Marie Romero Cash, confirm that images of Teresa are outnumbered by those of other female saints, such as St. Barbara and St. Rosalie of Palermo.9 Teresa was a saint especially popular within urban cultures; in cities with a proliferation of convents and monasteries, such as Mexico City and Puebla, her image is ubiquitous. In isolated New Mexico, however, other groups of saints, invoked for specific personal and household needs, enjoyed greater prominence. Unlike St. Rita of Cascia, for example, who was supplicated by girls in need of a husband or wives in bad marriages, Teresa was not widely credited with qualities that encouraged domestic use of her image. Had Discalced Carmelite nuns and friars founded religious houses in the region, the story might have been different. As it was, without strong advocacy for Teresa’s image in New Mexico, it never gained a foothold.

Yet, importantly, Teresa remains present at San Miguel, reminding today’s viewers of the saint’s posthumous, though not unlimited, glorification in European and American cultures. How remarkable that a nun who, during life, was dismissed by critics as an uneducated mujercilla (little woman), became one of the most widely-read authors in Christian history, her image among the most favored in New Spain.

1. In addition to the four oval images of saints, Mexican paintings of St. Michael the Archangel and of Christ Taken Prisoner (Jesús Nazareno) also adorn the altar screen at San Miguel. E. Boyd attributed the painted wooden altar screen to the Laguna Santero in Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1974), 59-60.
Another eighteenth-century Mexican canvas, showing a full-length image of Teresa accompanied by the white dove of the Holy Spirit, is contained within the main altar screen of the Church of Santa Fe de la Cañada. It, too, is an early example of Teresian iconography in New Mexico.
2. For investigations of the iconography of St. Teresa of Ávila in Spanish colonial art, see Christopher C. Wilson, Mother, Missionary, Martyr: St. Teresa of Ávila in Mexican Colonial Art, Ph.D. dissertation (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, 1998); Elisa Vargas Lugo and José Guadalupe Victoria, “Theresia Magna,” in Elisa Vargas Lugo et al, Juan Correa: su vida y su obra, 4 vols. (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1985-1994), vol. 4, 417-52; Héctor Schenone, Iconografía del arte colonial, 2 vols. (Argentina: Fundación Tarea, 1992), vol. 2, 731-47; and Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts, Our Saints Among Us: 400 Years of New Mexican Devotional Art (Albuquerque: LPD Press, 1998), 91.
3. Quoted in translation in Alison Weber, Teresa of Ávila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 160.
4. Quoted in translation in Weber, 161-62.
5. For an analysis of this letter, see Joseph F. Chorpenning, “Fray Luís de León’s Writings on St. Teresa of Jesus: A Defense of Mysticism and Religious Reform,” Teresianum 43 (1992): 133-74; passage quoted in translation on 149-50.
6. Quoted in translation in Weber, 163-64.
7. For a discussion of the perception of Teresa as heavenly missionary, see Wilson, 117-35.
8. Boyd, 55-57.
9. Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Santos and Saints: The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1982), 169-98; Rhetts and Awalt, 49-114; Cash, 233-49.

Christopher Wilson is a specialist in art of Colonial Latin America and Early Modern Europe who teaches art history at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 6, No. 2, Summer 2000.
Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.