About an Unknown Artist prior to the nineteenth century's

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

This is a digitized image. Some small details are not visible in the digital reproduction. The original painting is 41 1/2 inches by 32 1/2 inches in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is an oil painting on canvas.

CONDITION: What can I determine about the condition of the artwork?

The canvas is in fair condition. In 1968, the surface of the painting was cleaned and a protective coating of new varnish was applied over the old varnish. In 1990, the painting was examined under ultraviolet light. The conservators discovered that the new coat of varnish was reacting with the old varnish that produced blanching (whitening). The conservators succeeded in removing the old varnish, cleaning the surface and applied a new coat of varnish.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

The painting shows a three-quarter height figure of a woman dressed in a nun's habit. This is a portrait of Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz. She wears a large rosary with a cross and medallion over her left shoulder. Under her chin she wears an oval framed painting (escudo) depicting a woman, an angel, and a dove. Escudos were traditionally worn by nuns in several Mexican orders. Sor Juana's right hand rests on a book inscribed with her name. With the index of her left hand she marks her place in a closed Bible. The painting bears this inscription in 17th century Spanish (transcribed letter for letter with the addition of accent marks where they are appropriate in contemporary Spanish) at the bottom:

" FIEL Copia de otra que de sí hizo, y de su mano pintó la R.M. Juana Ynés de la Cruz, Fénix de America. Gloriosa desempeño de su Sexo. Honrra de la Nación de este Nuevo Mundo y argumento de las admiracionez y elogios de el Antiguo. Nació el día 12 de Nov. de el año de 1651 a las onse de la Noche. Recivió El Sagrado Hábito de el Máximo D.S.S Gerónimo en su convento de esta Cuidad de México. de edad de 17 años y murió Domingo 17 de Abril de el de 1699 de edad 40 y 4 años cinco mezes, cinco días y cinco horas. Requieseat in pace. Amen"

A FAITHFUL copy of another (portrait) of herself, painted by the hand of the R.M. (Reverend Mother) Juana Inés de la Cruz, Phoenix of America, Glorious fullfillment of her Sex, Honor of the Nation, in this the New World, Subject of Admiration and Praise in the Old. Born the 12th of November in the year1651 at eleven at Night. She received the Sacred Habit of the Order of St. Jerome in the convent of the city of Mexico at the age of 17 years and died Sunday the 17th of April in 1699 at the age of 40 and 4 years and five months, five days, and five hours. Rest in peace. Amen"

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

This is an oil painting. The painter used very fine brushstrokes to execute minute details.

Sensory Lesson Index

SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

The illusion of solid form is created by the interplay of lights and shadow, as light moves across the surfaces of her habit, face, and hands. Arching horizontal lines give form to the bulbous mass of her sleeves. Colors are defined by candle-like light such as warm sepias (browns), yellows, and whites. Dark colors engulf all other areas.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

The triangular composition of the painting in enhanced by the painted dark oval which frames the image. Rhythm is created by the folds in her sleeves and by the repetitous use of ovals in forms such as her face, the medallion and the oval which frames the entire image. Luminosity is achieved by the interplay of lights and shadow unifies the composition.


The artist is unknown. This painting is a copy of an earlier painting, now lost. Some scholars believe it is a copy of a self-portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz herself. Others debate whether Sor Juana painted at all.

Sor Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje was born in the small town of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. She was a precocious child who desired to learn everything possible despite the general consensus that women should not be educated or allowed intellectual pursuits. In her youth, she was sent to Mexico City to live with relatives. Because of her intellect she was appointed to the household of a Vicereine as a protegé and lived at the palace. During this period Sor Juana lived a courtly life writing Baroque poetry and plays.

At the age of 20 she entered a convent and changed her name to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross). She did not live an isolated, reclusive life. She continued her intellectual investigations, had her own small library, and collected scientific instruments for her research. She also played musical instruments, probably painted (according to Mexican philosopher and writer Octavio Paz) and wrote poetry and plays. She had several volumes of her work published. Octavio Paz, Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1988, 231.

Then at the age of 45 she sold her library, all her possessions and swore only to devote the rest of her life to helping the poor. It is speculated that these actions were prompted by the Archbishop of Mexico City, who disagreed with Sor Juana and her writing on behalf of the rights of women and their right to pursue intellectual endeavors. The last two years of Sor Juana's life were filled with aiding the victims of a plague that would soon claim her life as well. She died at the age of forty-seven in 1695.


FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

In general, painted portraits serve to record the appearance of an individual, a function often achieved with photography today. In addition to providing an image of the woman, the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz portrait also clearly presents her position as a learned nun.

This painting belongs to the Philedelphia Museum of Art. A collector in 1883 bought the painting in the state of Puebla, south of Mexico City. How the painting functioned prior to the nineteenth century when it was new or how the original self portrait (if there was one) functioned in the seventeenth century is a matter for speculation.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

The painting was made in Mexico City when it was the capital of a colony named New Spain. According to one visitor of the time, Mexico City in the17th century, having been built atop the ruined Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, was characterized by numerous "churches and chapels, cloisters and nunneries and parish churches. . .[which are] among the fairest that ever my eyes beheld, the roofs and beams in many of them all daubed with gold, and many altars with sundry marble pillars. . ." Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos, 4th edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Mexico City was governed by a viceroy. On the one hand, the viceroy and other native-born Spaniards of the nobility or elite, known as peninsulares attempted to replicate a very hierarchical system of government reflecting traditional Spanish social structures. However, this attempt proved impossible because of the liberating influence on Mexican culture that the assimilated Native American culture exercised, the relative opening of Mexican society that reflected factors such as the intermixture of races (white, native-American, black), and the emergent sense of class consciousness and antagonism toward the peninsulares among criollos (persons of Spanish stock but born in the New World) and mestizos (persons of mixed heritage). In 1810 Mexico and the rest of what would become Latin America won its independence from Spain and from the peninsulares.

The climate of the 16th and 17th centuries of the colonial period, evolving toward the Revolution of 1810 and a total break with Spain, proved a hospitable one for the energetic critique that Sor Juana made of the traditional, heretofore privileges of the Church patriarchy.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Court life was an integral component in Sor Juana's daily activities. Many of the poems and plays she wrote specifically at the request of people of the palace. Because of her connections to the elite, she was also knowledgeable of the art concepts and art theories of Baroque Europe.


MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

If, indeed, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz did paint a self portrait, which was the source of the painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we can only wonder what she may have hoped to achieve. Some scholars say that she wrote the poem below as a statement about a painting of her own likeness. In the poem she seems to have found art to be a deceptive artiface and a vain illusion.

This that you gaze on, colorful deceit,
that so immediately displays art's favors,
with its fallacious arguments of colors
is to the senses cunning counterfeit;
this on which kindness practiced to delete
from cruel years accumulated horrors,
constraining time to mitigate its rigors,
and thus oblivion and age defeat,
is but an artifice, a sop to vanity,
is but a flower by the breezes bowed,
is but a play to counter destiny,
is but a foolish labor, ill-employed,
is but a fancy, and as all may see,
is but cadaver, ashes, shadow, void.

As quoted in Marcus Burke's "A Mexican Artistic Consciousness" in Mexico: Spendors of Thirty Centuries (1990) edited by John P. O'Neill, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art:, 354-355.

Viewer Lesson Index

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

Viewers of the time would have recognized the escudo (a framed vellum painting) under Sor Juana's chin as an image of the Catholic Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce her call to serve the Divine. Gabriel's call to the Virgin parallels Sor Juana's own call to religious life.

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

Portraits of Sor Juana testify to her importance as a respected literary figure. Both early and later portraits confirm her status as an energetic critic of the partriarchism of the Church, as well as her continuing status as an intellectual role model for women in her own time and beyond.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

The seventeeth century in European art is defined by the Baroque style. Baroque paintings were realistic and often characterized by dark interior spaces with single figures, such as those painted by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Judith Leyster. An abundance of Catholic imagery was created in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is reminiscent of Baroque religious painting and portraiture. The realistic style is enhanced by de-emphasizing the dark background and by the use of high contrast to form a convincing illusion of space.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

If, indeed, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz painted, surely her ideas about art would have been influenced by the Baroque concepts of her time. Since we have no knowledge about the subsequent artist who copied some earlier portrait of Sor Juana, there is no way to ascertain what the influences on that artist were.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

The themes of the portrait are twofold. On the one hand, she is presented as serene and confident, surrounded by books and other symbols of learning, including the Bible, and dressed in an authoritative way. The image of the archangel Gabriel and Mary, representing the annunciuation on her escudo, evokes the critical role of women in the Church and aludes to her own calling to religious and intellectual life. Thus, in the portrait there is an air of her actual life as an advocate for women and challenger of the restrictions of traditional gender roles. This theme invites comparison of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz painting with other images that confront traditional expectations for women, such as Yolanda López Self Portrait as the Virgin of Guadalupe and Judith Baca's Olympic Champions. On the other hand, as an example of portraiture of women of status in colonial Mexico, this painting is similar to the 18th century Portrait of a Lady.

© 2001 Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University. All Rights Reserved.