Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Spanish Minerva: Imagining Teresa of Avila as Patron Saint in Seventeenth-Century Spain

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Spanish Minerva: Imagining Teresa of Avila as Patron Saint in Seventeenth-Century Spain

Article excerpt

In the early seventeenth-century, a movement began to elevate Teresa of Avila to co-patron saint of Spain (alongside the traditional patron, Santiago); this movement changed the ways in which the saint was imagined in both visual images and metaphors. Through a close reading of treatises and sermons, this article examines how Teresa's elevation to national patron saint required a distinctive symbolism that reflected national, rather than ecclesiastical, concerns. She was therefore transformed from author and founder into the "Spanish Minerva." By exploring this transformation, the article investigates the continual process of construction that saints' cults underwent and the roles played by conflict and gender in this process.

In 1617, the Castillan parliament (the Cortes) ratified a petition put forth by the Discalced Carmelites suggesting that the newly beatified Teresa of Avila be elevated to the status of co-patron saint of Spain. Teresa's patronage became official in 1627 when Pope Urban VIII confirmed the Cortes' decision. While historians have long known of Teresa's elevation to patron saint, we know little about the iconographic, theological, and popular images of the saint that were created in order accommodate her new status. This gap in our understanding of Teresa's cult is partially a result of the circumstances surrounding her elevation to co-patron. Resistance to her election spearheaded by the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela led, in 1629, to a papal revocation of her status and a subsequent decree that all representations of the saint as patron be destroyed. While the decree led to a virtual disappearance of visual images of Teresa-as-patron, it nevertheless highlights the power of visual imagery in cultic devotion. The struggle over whether or not Teresa should be patron, as we will see, was largely fought out in imagery, both through visual representations and metaphor. A brief examination of these images may startle those familiar with Teresa's conventional iconography (the saint holding a pen or falling back in the ecstatic state of transverberation).1 In contrast, patronage images portrayed Teresa as a warrior, the Spanish Minerva who would defend Spain and battle her enemies. Such a dramatic alteration in Teresian symbology inevitably leads to questions regarding why such images were developed and what purposes they served.

At the same time, changes in how Teresa was represented provide an important lesson in iconographic fluidity and flexibility, as well as a warning against some approaches to saints' cults that emphasize coherence and stability. This is not to suggest that the topic of iconographic mutability has gone unstudied by historians. Historians of sanctity since Pierre Delooz have increasingly assessed such various issues as: iconographic changes implemented to produce a potentially more successful canonization bid2; the wide diversity in a saint's iconography over time for centuries-old cults3; and how iconography could change emphasis in different places.4 Yet our understanding of each saint's iconography remains generally static and monolithic, in part because of the Church's interest in "fixing" each saint with a set of easily-recognizable symbols, such as Lucy holding her eyes, Catherine and her wheel, or Francis with his stigmata. Some historians have argued that iconographic diversity ground to an abrupt halt with the saint's official entry as canonized, particularly once the early modern Church succeeded in centralizing canonization processes. After canonization, the saint belonged to the Church, rather than to the people.5

But a saint cannot be fixed, not even by the Church. It would perhaps be appropriate to expand Delooz's astute observation that saints are in a continual process of construction, one that can never be seen as "complete," even after canonization; the dialogue bet-ween society and saint is never finished, but evolves over time.6 In addition, it is important to point out that the saint does not have only one meaning for each society. …

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