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Gallery Exhibit, Catalog Nos. 21a & 21b & 21c & 21d

Portraits of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz


Two of the following portraits were orginally displayed on the PLAYERS page, where they were layered, along with their accompanying captions, as rollovers. This meant that caption text (because formatted as images) was not searchable, and that the portraits of Sor Juana were limited to a single size and resolution.

Because of growing visitor interest in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, I have decided to move the layered images here, where they can be broken apart, supplemented by additional portraits, and captioned in HTML.

At the moment, this makes for a rather short, and somewhat strangely themed Gallery Exhibit, with its shift in focus from what was originally cast as “a brief look at global scientific networks in Baroque Mexico” to portraiture.

And the content of this exhibit will continue to evolve, as related

  • GALLERY exhibits on Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Sciendi
  • IN BRIEF topics on: “philosophies of the kitchen”; the influence of magic lantern technology on baroque self-fashioning
  • and a LIBRARY transcription of Sor Juana’s metaphysical dreamscape, Primero Sueño

are added as planned to

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)
By an unknown artist.

View an enlarged 790 x 1039 pixel JPG image (340KB)

Sor Juana in her book-lined closet, reading
from Ingrid Rowland’s
The Ecstatic Journey (2000):

Kircher’s “tiny book on magnetism, Nature’s Magnetic Kingdom [Magneticum naturae regnum], is dedicated to Alejandro Fabiani, a Mexican priest of Genoese ancestry. Its small size may have been designed for easy shipment to the Americas, but it is worth noting that Kircher’s large books also made their way to the New World. For example, portraits of the brilliant and talented Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, show her in her library, posed before a collection in which Kircher’s works enjoy pride of place.”

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), by Miguel Cabrera.
Shown in her library, with its multiple Kircher titles.
It is estimated that Sor Juana’s library, one of the finest in the Americas, held between 2,000 and 3,000 titles.

View an enlarged 830 x 1171 pixel JPG image (339KB)

Detail from portrait by Miguel Cabrera.

Shows a few of the book titles in Sor Juana’s extensive library. None of the titles shown here are by Kircher.

Detail from portrait by Miguel Cabrera.
Sor Juana in her book-lined closet, writing
As Octavio Paz notes, “intelectuales y eruditos como ... sor Juana” were not the only ones influenced by Kircher in the Baroque Americas. “En la obra de Kircher confluyen tres corrientes opuestas: el catolicismo sincretista tal como lo representaba en el siglo XVII la Compañía de Jesús, el hermetismo neoplatonico ‘egipcio’ heredado del Renacimiento y las nuevas concepciones y descubrimientos astronómicos y físicos. Kircher ofrecía a sus lectores, más que una síntesis de estos elementos contradictorios, una superposición de hechos, ideas y fantasías. Extraordinaria amalgama de saber y delirio razonante, su obra fascinó al siglo XVII. En Nueva España su influencia no se limitó a sor Juana. El testamento de Sigüenza y Góngora atestigua su popularidad.”

Furthermore, “El caso de Kircher es extremo pero no único. La mezcla entre las creencias e ideas del neoplatonismo hermético, la alquimia, la Cabala y las nociones de la nueva ciencia fue una característica general del siglo XVII. Pocos espíritus fueron inmunes a la fascinación de Mercurio Trismegisto y los jeroglíficos egipcios.” (Octavio Paz, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, o, las trampas de la fe 238)

The concept of la mezcla was central to the Baroque mindset around the globe. Throughout the 17th century, Kircherian-style philosophical hybrids dominated the arts & sciences of Old and New worlds alike.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), shown writing while seated.
The scope and variety of Sor Juana’s writing was unparalleled in the colonial Americas. In addition to original works of philosophy, she wrote plays, poetry, essays, religious treatises, country dances, villancicos [Christmas carols], and learned disputations. Her writings mixed Spanish, Latin, and native Nahuatl, or Latin and Negro dialect. Ranked among the greatest of the Metaphysical poets, Sor Juana wrote some of the finest sonnets in the Spanish language: “when she writes about love and sensuality, Sor Juana soars above her age, and becomes our true contemporary — not just because of her gender-bending and transgressive sexuality, but because her love poems are expressions of a complex and ambivalent modern psyche, and because they are so passionate and ferocious that when we read them we feel consumed by the naked intensity she achieves.” (Jaime Manrique, Foreword, Sor Juana’s Love Poems)

View an enlarged 630 x 789 pixel JPG image (159KB)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)
By Juan de Miranda.
Another view of Sor Juana and her closet (or cell), with its extensive library. Here, Sor Juana writes while standing.

View an enlarged 720 x 1188 pixel JPG image (289KB)

AS INDICATED IN THE ABOVE PORTRAITS, Sor Juana’s convent cell was expansive and comfortably appointed, with its own kitchen, bath, sleeping quarters, and parlor:

During this period there were at least sixteen convents in Mexico City. San Jerómino had about fifty nuns, each with approximately five “maids,” who might be girls sent to the convent by their families for education, or Indian slaves. The building itself was imposing: two stories, roughly 120 yards on each side, with a central garden and courtyard. Thus, each “cell” had two floors, and many were very nicely equipped. Sor Juana had frequent visitors from the Court and elsewhere, for her reputation was widespread. And these guests brought gifts: scientific devices, musical scores and instruments, works of art, jewels, and books ... Indeed, her “cell” had almost become a laboratory and workshop; it was certainly a fabulous study and library and an important salon in the intellectual and cultural life of New Spain.

(Beggs 1996, p. 111)

And like the other nuns of San Jerómino, Sor Juana had her own personal servant — a mulatto slave-girl, given to her by her mother, whom Juana brought with her to the convent of Santa Paula. (Trueblood 1988, p. 5)

     About portraiture in general, Sor Juana displayed the usual double consciousness we associate with a baroque mentality. She and her contemporaries were fascinated by the new theories of vision, optical technologies, and by ongoing scientific inquiry into the means by which thinking in pictures held sway over the human mind.
     Abraham Cowley expressed his age’s belief in a reciprocal relation between ideas and images — “From Words, which are but Pictures of the Thought, / (Though we our Thoughts from them perversely drew)” — quite well in his verses To the Royal Society, published with Sprat’s History of the Royal Society in 1667:

Who to the life an exact Piece would make,
Must not from others Work a Copy take;
     No, not from Rubens or Vandike;
Much less content himself to make it like
Th’ Idæas and the Images which ly
In his own Fancy, or his Memory.
    No, he before his sight must place
     The Natural and Living Face;
     The real Object must command
Each Judgment of his Eye, and Motion of his Hand.

While Cowley raised the usual hard questions about truth, life, and artificial memory, another poet, Richard Flecknoe, emphasized the interplay between visual and verbal imagination

Betwixt Poetry & Painting there is neer relation, Poetry being but a speaking Picture, as Painting a silent Poem....

in the preface to his 1656 The Diarium, or Journall Divided into 12 Jornadas in Burlesque Rhime, or Drolling Verse.
Indeed, throughout the early modern period, picture and poetry were thought of as intimately related. The celebrated sieur de Chambray, Roland Fréart, was merely stating a commonplace when he described the picture as mute Poesie and the poem as vocal Painting. In fact, the roots of baroque visual rhetoric trace back to Horace (Ars poetica) via Erasmus, who reinterpreted ancient commonplaces with his statement

The picture speaks though it is mute.

For Sor Juana, also known as the Tenth Muse,

Portraiture takes a graver, more disquieting turn — one congenial to the baroque sensibility — when the illusion of life which it creates is seen as emblematic of the deceitful hollowness of the actual world. From the pulpit and in the confessional Sor Juana must have been frequently exposed to reminders of the Dies irae, and for all her fascination with the phenomena of the human and material world there were surely moments when such admonitions touched a sensitive spot. So, at least, one may account for the chilling power of poem 27, in which she passes the lesson on to the beholder of a portrait of herself. The sonnet strikes one today as providing a grim hint of the vulnerability that will lead to her ultimate capitulation [i.e., the silence to which the last 2 years of her life belong].

(Trueblood 1988, p. 14)

I give the full text of Sor Juana’s poem 27 (as numbered in Trueblood’s A Sor Juana Anthology, p. 95) below.

Procura desmentir los elogios que
a un retrato de la poetisa inscribió
la verdad, que llama pasión

Este, que ves, engaño colorido,

que del arte ostentando los primores,

con falsos silogismos de colores

es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

     éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido

excusar de los años los horrores,

y venciendo del tiempo los rigores

triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

     es un vano artificio del cuidado,

es una flor al viento delicada,

es un resguardo inútil para el hado:

     es una necia diligencia errada,

es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,

es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

She disavows the flattery visible
in a portrait of herself, which
she calls bias

     These lying pigments facing you,

with every charm brush can supply

set up false premises of color

to lead astray the unwary eye.

     Here, against ghastly tolls of time,

bland flattery has staked a claim,

defying the power of passing years

to wipe out memory and name.

     And here, in this hollow artifice —

frail blossom hanging on the wind,

vain pleading in a foolish cause,

     poor shield against what fate has wrought —

all efforts fall and in the end

a body goes to dust, to shade, to nought.

Open a second window with an alternate English translation by Frank Warnke,
pub. 1987

Related Links

• a summary biography of Sor Juana in the Editor’s Introduction for LIB. CAT. NO. JUA1691

• a bilingual transcription of Sor Juana’s “filosofías de cocina” [philosophies of the kitchen], excerpted from Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in the LIBRARY

• further discussion of Sor Juana’s book-lined closet, compared with the portraiture and famous closet of the duchess of Newcastle, in the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy

• the introductory webessay on Margaret Cavendish in the PLAYERS section, which again pairs Sor Juana and Mad Madge on the subject of writing and philosophizing as an honorable “disease of wit”

• an IN BRIEF topic on baroque-era “Philosophies of the Kitchen”

• a transcription of Abraham Cowley’s poem To the Royal Society (1667) in the LIBRARY and an IN BRIEF topic on Cowley’s he-philosophy

• a GALLERY exhibit on female symbolism in Kircher’s Ars Magna Sciendi, with discussion of Sor Juana’s fashioning as the Tenth Muse

• a GALLERY exhibit on Kircher’s ars combinatoria (in Ars Magna Sciendi), with discussion of Sor Juana’s own epistemological model



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