Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2015
James M. Córdova The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico: Crowned-Nun Portraits and Reform in the Convent Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014. 288 pp.; 16 color ills.; 53 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780292753150)

In The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico: Crowned-Nun Portraits and Reform in the Convent, James M. Córdova contributes to the current scholarly discourse about gender and identity formation in late-colonial Mexico through a multifaceted examination of monjas coronadas (crowned-nun) paintings, portraits of women at the time of their profession into the religious life. Expanding on previous research, Córdova investigates these images in the shifting world of viceregal Mexico and offers thorough analyses and new insights. Explaining their increased popularization in eighteenth-century New Spain, he asserts that these paintings became part of a broad effort to claim a distinct American identity.

After a brief introduction, the opening chapter provides a broad overview of New Spanish institutions that managed the bodies of girls and women and promoted specific social and gender ideals. Colegios de niñas were intended originally to instruct and acculturate indigenous girls but by the end of the sixteenth century also served girls of Spanish, Creole, and mestizo origins; recogimientos provided asylum, spiritual support, and basic education for women who lacked financial resources or male protection; and, beaterios sheltered diverse pious laywomen. Distinct from these institutions, convents offered cloistered shelters for elite women, many of whom came from the lower aristocracy or merchant classes, with the understanding that the religious life would transform females, who were considered physically, intellectually, and morally weak, into mujeres varoniles (manly women) of courageous virtue. By the eighteenth century, convents became integral to New Spain’s highly gendered cultural and religious fabric as centers of notable spiritual and economic wealth.

Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive study of the evolving nature of female monasticism. Initially, nuns in New Spain practiced the vida común (communal life), where, in order to hone and strengthen their spirituality, the nuns led lives of significant austerity that required shared living spaces and strict separation from the outside the world. The nuns’ dowries provided revenue sources to support convent life. Proving insufficient, however, the financial struggles of these convents increased and the nuns were allowed individual expense accounts, often provided by their families or benefactors. At this time, certain convents transitioned to the vida particular (private life) arrangement. Here, nuns had access to additional, even substantial, personal resources and autonomy, as well as expanded living quarters, which could include a sitting room, kitchen, servant’s room, private bath, and bedrooms that accommodated servants, family members, and students.

The rituals of convent life formed around the practices and events that marked the spiritual transition of a woman, including her entrance as a novice, profession as a nun, and death. Sumptuous clothing and associated accouterments were sometimes associated with profession and death ceremonies. In New Spain, the European tradition of using floral head wreaths and decorated palm fronds as part of deceased-nun imagery was adapted to shape a new subgenre of portraiture: crowned-nun portraits of living sitters who wore sumptuous garments and floral accessories marking their profession, that is, the moment they became brides of Christ.

In Chapter 2, Córdova situates the monjas coronadas works in the wider transatlantic traditions of portraiture. In Spain, imperial portraiture emphasized a balance between the formal gravitas of the royal personage and attributions of rulership, such as military prowess. This visual balancing of distinguishing with attributed characteristics appeared in Spanish images of other male nobles and individuals of high rank and would spread to New Spain through portraits of viceroys, archbishops, and other notable individuals. By the eighteenth century, portraiture became more inclusive of females of high rank as well, with emphasis on the characteristics of their gendered identity. The sitters adopted a similarly restrained posture, while associated imagery and text were integrated to annotate social rank, lineage, titles, and moral attitudes. Córdova continues with an examination of the various types of images of nuns including profession, anniversary, and funerary portraits, as well as posthumous paintings of exemplary nuns and images of nuns who held high office.

Crowned-nun portraits followed a formulaic approach that, like the portraiture of elites, sought a nuanced balance on a number of levels, such as institutional identity (over that of the sitter’s unique persona) and the uniformity of religious life with acknowledgment of the differences among monastic orders. Distinct from Spanish images of religious women, which emphasized founders, administrators, and distinguished nuns, New Spanish works promoted the expression of unique monastic and institutional affiliation within the construct of the nun as a bride of Christ. Profession images, usually paid for by the nun’s family, were indicative of high social rank, wealth, and ecclesiastic affiliation.

Chapter 3 moves on to a rapid but informative examination of the intricate web of pictorial and literary religious sources within which crowned-nun images were embedded. Within these portraits, flowers referenced notions of heavenly gardens of virtue and mystical marriage as well as Marian and crowned-saint iconography. Floral imagery is also traced to ways of describing the virtues of nuns through biblical associations that highlighted their status as brides of Christ. For example, the visual and olfactory association of flowers in depictions of very virtuous nuns, who were supposed to have emanated a fragrant olor de santidad (odor of sanctity) at the time of their death, reference heavenly gardens as well as Christ’s flowery nuptial bed that awaited his brides. Córdova painstakingly untangles these complex linkages to reveal the reiterative visual practices that were used to validate a nun’s virtuous qualities and certify her exceptional status as a bride of Christ—one who was thus raised above ordinary and “weak” women.

The next chapter places this imagery into the colonial context of Mexico and assesses the integration of indigenous cultures into convent development. Describing the early history of indigenous convents, Córdova examines colonial assertions about the diminished capacity of indigenous women for the monastic life as well as the syncretism of indigenous and creole visual cultures. For indigenous women, entry into a convent required unsullied bloodlines and high social status, along with other certifiable indicators such as legitimate birth and physical stamina. Very few crowned-nun images of indigenous women are known of, and Cordova uses the extant works to discuss how Mesoamerican concepts of social position, religious orthodoxy, and spiritual exceptionalism were aligned with Christian imagery. He convincingly explains the parallelisms between indigenous symbolism of flowers, birds, and butterflies, and the Christian imagery associated in crowned-nun portraits of indigenous women. Córdova broadly concludes that to better understand this visual dynamic in specific context, the dichotomy of survival/extinction of indigenous material culture as part of a colonial paradigm must be reassessed.

In Chapter 5, Córdova extends his discussion from the historical and symbolic context and content of monjas coronadas paintings to their political framing by evaluating the impact of Bourbon reforms, which altered political, ecclesiastic, and economic aspects of life in eighteenth-century New Spain. In the mid-1770s, the king of Spain and church authorities attempted to address the ‘relaxed’ life and spaces of vida particular convents by compelling entering nuns into the more austere vida común. In reaction to this tightened management, the nuns of some private-life convents appealed in writing to the king, claiming that this requirement made them unable to meet their religious obligations or actualize their full spiritual potential. Córdova determines that at this same time there was also an increase in the production of crowned-nun portraits—especially those from the vida particular convents. He argues that this expansion demonstrates agency and resistance to Bourbon reforms by using well-accepted concepts of the spirituality and mystical marriage to argue for the preservation of convent autonomy and institutional practices. Córdova proposes that these portraits may also be read as a practice of indirect negotiation to redefine the Bourbon reform parameters through the use of a visual vocabulary—based in history and symbolism—that validated institutional and personal identity.

In the final chapter, Córdova examines the broader impact of crowned-nun portraits, focusing on them as a rhetorical intervention to address the European perception of the Americas as a place of inferiority and degeneracy. Creole and indigenous cultures attempted to counter these concepts, and Córdova contends that the portraits of nuns were part of such efforts, as they emphasize morality, incorruptibility, and dignity as a counter to the claim of American dissoluteness. Lastly, in a brief epilogue, Córdova looks at the legacy of monjas coronadas imagery in the nineteenth century, as it appeared in photographs of nuns, and into the twenty-first century, showing how this imagery has been conflated with Chicano art imagery. Here, he initiates a broadened discourse on the persistence of visual culture.

Córdova’s book offers multiple frames through which to examine monja coronada paintings, allowing the reader to situate these images across several topic areas such as the interchange and adaptation of ideas and information across the Atlantic, the history of viceregal art, female monasticism, gender negotiations, and indigenous intersections with colonial institutions. Cumulatively, this framing provides a foundation for Córdova to use a local example of the lived impact of political and economic realignment in eighteenth-century New Spain to examine critically traditional notions of “colonial resistance” and “Bourbon reforms.” His analysis of how nuns and convents in New Spain negotiated identity and agency through texts and visual art is particularly thought provoking and prompts the reader to reconsider the practices of institutions and elite individuals within the colonial situation.

The Art of Professing in Bourbon Mexico is clearly written and carefully illustrated to support Córdova’s analyses and arguments. This work makes a valuable contribution to research literature on colonial Mexico’s visual culture that undergraduate students will find enlightening. For researchers and graduate students, Córdova’s scholarship provides a deeper understanding of female religious life, and his analyses integrate multiple levels of the conceptual, social, and political infrastructure that girded the visual cultures of the Spanish Americas.

Magali Carrera
Department of Art History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth