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  • Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima by Nancy E. Van Deusen
  • Megan Gargiulo

Nancy E. Van Deusen, Megan Gargiulo, Religious History, Materiality Studies, Colonial Peru, Gender, Authorship, Relationality, Embodiment, Mysticism

van deusen, nancy e. Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima. Duke UP, 2018. 280 pp.

In Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima, Nancy Van Deusen takes up the question of female spirituality and interrelationality, a topic of central importance to her earlier work on both recogimientos de mujeres in colonial Lima and the Afro-Peruvian donada Úrsula de Jesús. In her most recent book, Van Deusen aims to explore “how the sacred became ‘real’ to women,” particularly through female mystics’ engagement with sacred objects and with other women (3). The author frames her work as countering the limiting binary of either resistance against or capitulation to patriarchal discourse, instead opting to examine women’s “sensorial, linguistic, and relational resonances with the sacred” (9). One notable intervention the project makes is Van Deusen’s attempt to move away from what she deems an overreliance on Inquisitorial documents to theorize female piety in seventeenth-century Peru. She argues convincingly that Inquisitorial trials dealt with a relatively limited number of religious women compared to the actual number of practicing Catholic women in Lima at the time, and as such, they cannot fully represent the ways in which women engaged with orthodox and unorthodox spiritual practices. Van Deusen also works to complicate the contradistinction sometimes made between the practices of “nuns” and “sorceresses,” asserting that these practices both involved magicality, “the belief that divinity was ubiquitous and readily accessible in material form” (10). In order to make these [End Page 251] arguments, the author engages the theories of Michel de Certeau in his discussion of religiosity and the mundane.

Van Deusen’s work is divided into two parts. Part 1, titled “Material and Immaterial Embodiment,” examines the manifestation of magicality in the practices of several female mystics from Lima, including Rosa de Lima and Ángela de Carranza. The author discusses “how individual women created sororial dialogues with others about knowledge of the body and ways to experience God in sacred objects” (97). In Chapter 1, Van Deusen focuses on Rosa de Lima’s use of the practice of imitatio morum, whereby religious women would learn by repeating the example they received from their spiritual instructors. By considering how Rosa and her followers experienced the sacred via their sense of touch while carrying out such seemingly mundane actions as mending clothes or dressing religious statues for processions, the author argues that “sensory transfers with and between bodies and objects” were a fundamental part of female spirituality in colonial Lima (44).

In Chapter 2, Van Deusen further investigates the relationship between materiality and female spirituality, demonstrating that, because women’s reading practices were frequently controlled or viewed with suspicion by male religious authorities, female mystics used their bodies as readable texts that could communicate meaning to others sensorially. She uses a framework of reading as a social practice that could include not only “aural or visual appropriation of the divine,” but also recollection of a previously read text or even contemplation of the “somatic signs” of a body in rapture (56, 61). In this way, Van Deusen indicates the importance of the female body as a text when considering “the interconnectedness among reading, writing, and speaking divine knowledge” (68).

Her third chapter is dedicated to the physicality of a much less conventional religious figure from seventeenth-century Lima: Ángela de Carranza. Carranza peddled in relics of herself—her nail clippings, blood, and even urine—during her own lifetime. Her visions were dictated and then painted or transcribed onto paper, and she kept extensive notebooks detailing her religious experiences, which she had copied and disseminated. Limeños who contended for bits of Carranza’s nails, petticoats, and other objects that had come into contact with her employed what Van Deusen calls “somatic literacy” so as to engage with and interpret Carranza’s relics (92). In this way, Carranza’s body became a living reliquary and text—that is, until she was condemned by...


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