Santa Teresa in New Mexico
by Paul Rhetts

Santa Teresa de Jesús (or de Ávila) is not a frequent image in the historic santos of New Mexico (from 1700-1900). According to ongoing research on the frequency and iconography of images by the author and funded by the Kriete Family Foundation, although Teresa appeared infrequently in the santos of New Mexico, she had a rather high degree of importance, evidenced by the fact that she may appear on five different altarscreens in New Mexico; only two other females appear more often on altarscreens — Santa Bárbara (12 times) and Santa Gertrudis (6 times). Santa Rosalía also appears five times on altarscreens in New Mexico. Teresa is the sixth most frequently found female saint (not including the Virgin Mary) in New Mexico. She makes up almost 5% of all the female images (not including the Virgin Mary) in New Mexico.

Memorial or Feast Day
October 15

One of the major patrons of Spain, she is also a patron of faith; protector from “the ditch of perdition”; for special suffering (the gravely ill, the loss of father or mother, the opposition of church authorities to one’s hopes and dreams, those ridiculed for their piety [other than martyrs]). Patron of writers and lacemakers and those suffering from headaches; to be invoked by those in need of grace.

Some of the most important images of Teresa in the New World are:
Cristóbal de Villalpando, 17th century, Iglesia de San Felipe Neri, La Profesa, Mexico City, Mexico
Baltasar de Echave y Rioja, attributed, 17th century, Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City, Mexico
Juan Correa, late-17th/early-18th century, Churubusco, Museo Naciónal de las Intervenciones, Mexico City, Mexico (thought to have been displayed in the high altar of the first convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns founded in Mexico City, called Santa Teresa la Antigua, now defunct)
Juan Correa, 17th century, parish house at San Miguel Nonoalco in Mexico
José Nava, 18th century, Puebla, Mexico
Anonymous, 18th century, Monastery de Carmen Alto, Quito, Eucador
Anonymous, 18th century, Monastery de Santa Teresa, Cuzco, Peru
Anonymous, 18th century, Monastery de San Bernardo, Salta, Argentina

There are fourteen (14) known images of Teresa in New Mexico prior to 1900 by the following santeros: José Rafael Aragon (4), Arroyo Hondo Painter (2), José Aragon (2), Provincial Academic (1), Pedro Antonio Fresquis (1), Laguna Santero (1), and 3 by unknown artists. Five of the images are on altarscreens (Santa Cruz de la Cañada, San Miguel, el Santuario de Chimayó, Córdova, and the Upper Morada at Arroyo Hondo). Of the remaining nine images of Teresa, one is a bulto (by José Rafael Aragon), and eight are retablos.

A Spanish Carmelite in the 16th century, she was the leader of the reform of the order and the Counter Reformation. Born in Ávila, she lived from 1515-1582. She was a mystic writer and a Doctor of the Church. She was canonized just 40 years after her death.

She is seen wearing a nun’s garb usually of white and black (originally chestnut or maroon in color as an indication of the discalced order), often with a cloak; holding a crucifix, a crozier with a banner reading “IHS” and having the same emblem on her breast, and sometimes holding a palm. The final stage of her life, between 1555 and 1582, included many mystical experiences including a vision of Christ in his passion from which she advocated a life of retreat and piety.

Occasionally depicted in Spain with a doctoral biretta or mortarboard (she was proclaimed a doctor at the University of Salamanca). In the New World frequently seen with a book and pen. Pilgrim’s staff which ends with a double transverse cross as the founder of the reformed order. A dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, is often seen above her as an indication of the sublimity of her writings. Sometimes with an angel who wounds her heart with an arrow, sometimes flaming at the tip, a symbol of ecstasy. Enamored with the suffering of Christ, she is said to have proclaimed “either suffer or die” (Aut Pati, Aut Mori) and “I shall sing about the mercies of the Lord forever” (Misericordias Domini in Aeternum Cantabo). She is often associated in the beloved souls in Purgatory, another possible connection with the Penitential Brotherhood.

Teresa founded the convent of Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph at Ávila (1562); four years later she received the visit of the General of the Carmelites, John-Baptist Rubeo, who not only approved of what she had done but granted leave for the foundation of other convents of friars as well as nuns. In rapid succession she established her nuns at Medina del Campo (1567), Malagon and Valladolid (1568), Toledo and Pastrana (1569), Salamanca (1570), Alba de Tormes (1571), Segovia (1574), Beas and Seville (1575), Caravaca (1576), Villanueva de la Jara and Palencia (1580), Soria (1581), and Burgos (1582). In the “Book of Foundations” she tells the story of these convents, nearly all of which were established in spite of violent opposition but with manifest assistance from above. Everywhere she found souls generous enough to embrace the austerities of the primitive rule of Carmel. Having made the acquaintance of Antonio de Heredia, prior of Medina, and of St. John of the Cross, she established her reform among the friars (1568), the first convents being those of Duruelo (1568), Pastrana (1569), Mancera, and Alcalá de Henares (1570). In 1970, Pope Paul VI named Santa Teresa a Doctor of the Church, the first woman so honored.

There are as many as forty-two different scenes used to depict Teresa in the art of the New World — from her conversion and entrance to the Monastery of the Incarnation, through her visit with San Francisco de Borgia and receiving the communion from San Pedro de Alcántara, and to visions of Christ at the Column, the Holy Trinity, San José, Mary, and the Holy Spirit. In New Mexico all the scenes are of Santa Teresa as the mystic writer.

Paul Rhetts is the co-publisher of Tradición Revista.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 7, No. 1, Spring 2002.

Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

See also
A Spanish Mystic's Enduring Presence