South American Art

An Instant Becomes Eternity: Nuns’ Profession Portraits in the 18th Century New Spain

Wen Gu 3 March 2022 min Read

At the beginning of the 18th century in New Spain (colonial Mexico), portraits of local elites became an essential genre. In a society with a strong religious environment, many portraits reflect the sitter’s spiritual holiness and purity, so did nun’s profession portraits. Entrusted to manifest a family’s elite status, artists depicted idealized female portraits with feminine symbols and  thus indicating a nun’s holiness and piety. An outstanding example is Sor María Ignacia de la Sangre de Cristo

Nun’s profession portraits in Mexico constituted the largest category of crowned-nun images. Exclusive to colonial Mexico, they feature young, elite women recently professed or on the verge of taking their religious vows as novices or nuns. 

Sor María’s family commissioned Sor María Ignacia de la Sangre de Cristo as a memento of their soon-to-be cloistered daughter. It also represents social class and financial status when portraying the nun’s ceremonial crown, embroidered robe, and jewelry. In this nun’s portrait, Sor María is central to the composition. Her candle, adorned with a cross, and ceremonial crown are inlaid with gorgeous jewels, and she wears a ring on her left hand. It is worth noting that Sor María’s veil is also decorated with pearls to fit the side of her face. In New Spain, lower-class people were prohibited from wearing certain jewelry. Hence, one can infer that the jewelry implies that Sor María was born into a wealthy and elite family.

José de Alcíbar, Sor María Ignacia De La Sangre De Cristo, 1777 nun portraits mexico

José de Alcíbar, Sor María Ignacia De La Sangre De Cristo, 1777, National Museum of History, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico City, Mexico.

Furthermore, Sor María is dressed in a long, dark blue cloak with exquisite embroidery and lace. The dark blue cloak contrasts sharply with the silver lace and embroidery. The high cost of indigo dyeing made it a luxurious color at that time, thus the plentiful blue demonstrates the background of the nun’s family. Not all traditional profession portraits of nuns are pictured with such gorgeous textiles. When observing another profession portrait, Sister María Clara Josefa by José del Castillo, it is evident that María Clara Josefa’s cloak is quite plain and simple. It has neither rich blue accents nor are there any exquisite embroidery or lace on her garments.

José del Castillo, Sister María Clara Josefa, 1769 nun portraits mexico

José del Castillo, Sister María Clara Josefa, 1769, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, Mexico.

The jewelry and attire in Sor María Ignacia de la Sangre de Cristo reveals that she came from a wealthy family of high status. It also shows a significant genre – portrait painting of local elites, which began in the late 17th century. Moreover, the indigo cloak not only tells us about the nun’s social class and her family’s background, it also indicates Sor María’s moral virtues and piety related to religion. The Council of Ephesus recognized people’s worship of the Virgin Mary and her icon’s use in 431 CE. Subsequently, the image of the Virgin Mary became very popular.

The Virgin Mary in portraits usually wears a blue robe to symbolize heaven, purity, virtue, and truth. Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book and Bellini’s Madonna and Child are two typical examples of this blue robe. Blue is thus a sacred color as well as signifying sumptuousness. José de Alcíbar demonstrates a sense of religious reverence by stringing the nun and the Virgin Mary together. He also illustrates the family’s intimacy with the Catholic Church through this sacred blue cloak. 

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, 1480 nun portraits mexico

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, 1480, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, Italy.

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, 1488 nun portraits mexico

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, 1488, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy.

Not all young ladies who entered the convent were pleased to do so in New Spain, some preferred to get married. For that reason, if an older daughter refused to become a nun, her younger sister would then be obligated to. A large number of girls were essentially forced to enter the convent against their will as their families would be publicly shamed if all daughters stayed at home living secular lives. Gazing at Sor María’s face, she looks tranquil and appears to be somewhat melancholy and doleful. Sumptuous jewels and exquisite attire surround her. She has become the glory of the whole family. What was she meditating on when she swore to God that she had died symbolically in the outside world? Only a moment after she took the oath would her soul forever find eternity in a new pious and pure world. 

In today’s society however, young ladies forced into the convent for their family honor are rare. Also portrait photography has gradually replaced oil portraiture when recording a nun’s profession. Portraits of nuns have thus become a unique artistic heritage of New Spain. Nuns sighed quietly across the centuries. When a nun came to the end of her live, would she recall the instant that heralds eternity? The answer is no longer known.

Bibliography

1.

Abel, A. “The History of Dyes and Pigments: from Natural Dyes to High Performance Pigments”, Colour Design, 2012, pp. 433–70. 

2.

Campo, Alejandra, “Las Monjas Coronadas: The Crowned Nuns”, The Playa Times, 10 Aug 2017. Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

3.

Córdova, James M. “New Spanish Portraiture and Portraits of Nuns” in The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico: Crowned-Nun Portraits and Reform in the Convent, 35–68, University of Texas Press, 2014. 

4.

Holmes, Rachel, ed. “Why Blue Is the Costliest ColourThe Guardian, 17 Apr 2015. Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

5.

McIntyre, Kellen Kee, and Phillips, Richard, “Chapter Thirteen – Convents, Art, and Creole Identity in Late Viceregal New Spain” in Woman and Art in Early Modern Latin America, 321–41, Leiden: Brill., 2007. 

6.

Middleton, James “Reading Dress in New Spanish Portraiture: Clothing the Mexican Elite, 1695-1805Academia.edu. Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

7.

Wilson, Jason “A Brief History and Iconology of Madonna and Child PaintingsMadonna and child; A digital art gallery, 13 Apr 2010. Accessed 28 Feb 2022.

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