This portrait depicts the famous poet, scholar, and nun,
Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz. She looks directly at us
and holds a small book of prayers in her left hand. She rests
her right hand on a larger book, identified as a volume of
her own poetry. Juana’s clothing and headpiece convey that
she is a Catholic nun, someone who has dedicated her life to
religious observance. Under her chin is a devotional badge
with a Biblical scene of the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she
will give birth to Jesus. A pyx (piks), a round box that holds
the wafers for the ritual of communion, is attached to Juana’s
left shoulder. She also wears a rosary, a string of beads that
guides Catholics in prayer.
Juana was born in 1648 in a part of New Spain that is now Mexico. This Spanish colony extended from what is now the southwestern United States into Central America. She was an extremely bright child, reading at age 3 and writing poetry by 8. At the time, women were excluded from academic studies, especially if they were married. In hopes of continuing her education, she joined the Convent of San Jerónimo in 1669. While there, she amassed a personal library of over 4,000 books and studied a wide range of subjects. She wrote plays, poems, and essays, publishing books that brought her fame in Europe and Spanish America. Some of her writings criticized the Catholic church for keeping women uneducated. This angered some church leaders, who eventually forced her to abandon her non-religious studies. She gave away her books, musical instruments, and scientific equipment. She died in 1695 while caring for her fellow nuns during an epidemic.
This painting was made by Nicolás Enríquez de Vargas after Juana died. The inscription at the bottom describes her as the “phoenix of America,” and the “honor of the nation of the New World and the subject of admiration and praises of the Old.” Today she is remembered as a gifted writer, scholar, and brave advocate for women’s education.
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