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  • Gender and the Writing of Piety in New Spain
  • Stephanie Kirk (bio)

A painting attributed to the famous Mexican Baroque artist, Cristóbal Villalpando, depicts a striking scene from the life of St. Rose of Lima—the first canonized saint of the Americas.1 The image is in fact one of 12 oil paintings on panels which constitute the famous reredos of Santa Rosa that hangs above the altar in the ornate Chapel of San Felipe de Jesús within the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.2 The reredos’s panels depict well-known and oft-represented scenes from the life of the saint, including her birth and the famous image of her face transformed into a rose from where the girl born Isabel Flores de Oliva took her name.3 In this particular reredos, however, the artist departed from the more typically represented scenes from Rosa’s life (she was the subject of hundreds of paintings and other works of art) to offer one scene unique to iconography produced on the saint’s life in colonial times (Mujica Pinilla 107). The painting, which occupies one of the two oval panels at the reredos’s summit, shows Rose of Lima, dressed in the habit of a Dominican lay tertiary, locked in a physical struggle with a large, hirsute, and dark-skinned demon. Santa Rosa is disproportionately dainty in comparison to the immense figure of the scantily clad demon whose loincloth slips suggestively down to reveal his powerful haunches. His enormous frame monopolizes the physical space at the front of the painting, his lower leg reaching up to the saint’s waist as he grasps her just above it with his giant hand. The disparity in size notwithstanding, the saint responds to his assault with a steely, yet unperturbed expression her pale but luminous face upturned, her gaze directed to the heavens, her small white hand lies on his swarthy arm as a sign of both self-defense and warning.4 [End Page 6]

In Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in American 1492–1830 (2006), John Elliott alludes to this painting in support of his assertion of the Americas as a supremely sacred space. For him, the painting epitomizes how the Spaniards perceived of their intervention in the New World, referencing the “cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness throughout Spain’s dominions in the Indies” in which the Spaniards were aided by a battery of saints first transported from Spain and then produced locally as the effort to “Christianize” space continued (196, 84). Elliott’s comments indicate the importance of the saints and other holy figures in the battle to impose orthodoxy that persisted in New Spain well into the seventeenth century. I would like to add what I believe is the crucial element of gender to Elliott’s analysis of the painting’s depiction of the American struggle between good and evil, and thus shed light upon the conflictive nature of the role of women in the promotion of seventeenth-century New Spanish piety. I aim to elucidate the gendered construction of piety in New Spain, seeing it as a particular New World phenomenon that responded to the demands placed upon Christianity in its transatlantic transfer. My focus here is on official representations of gendered piety principally through the medium of hagiography. My analysis, therefore, concerns itself necessarily with texts that fall within the rubric of dominant discourse and are thus male-authored. Much interesting work has been done on how women—principally nuns—worked to subvert these dominant discourses through less-official textual routes. Studies, including my own, have also focused on the anomalous Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who succeeded in writing herself into a series of male-dominated literary and intellectual domains. Less work has been done, however, on official male discourses (sermons, convent conduct manuals, proclamations, and spiritual biographies or hagiographies), its role in the promotion of clerical masculinity as a dominant force, and its depiction of female piety as part of the larger project of the promotion of a specific—and superior—New World Christianity.

I believe we can see the tensions attending women as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 6-27
Launched on MUSE
2014-02-05
Open Access
No
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