Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje was the youngest of three illegitimate children born to Isabel Ramírez and an elusive Pedro de Asbaje in San Miguel Nepantla. She spent her early years on her maternal grandfather’s hacienda, some ten miles from Mexico City. Her thirst for knowledge began shaping her life at an early age. Though her mother was illiterate, her grandfather had a library, which the girl absorbed voraciously after being taught the rudiments of reading by an amiga, a local teacher of girls. At eight or nine, she went to the capital to live with her aunt María Ramírez, who had married the wealthy merchant Juan de Mata. Sor (Sister) Juana’s beauty, precocious intellect, and her gift for writing verses soon made her the favorite of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor Carreto, and she received more education at the viceregal court. In 1669, after a brief stay with the Carmelites, she became a professed nun in the convent of Santa Paula of the order of St. Jerome, where she remained until her death in an epidemic in 1695.
Although women rarely wrote in the seventeenth century, Sor Juana was widely published during her own lifetime. She initially published individual works in her native Mexico, and two volumes of her collected works were later printed in Spain in multiple editions (Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona). The four-volume critical edition, Obras Completas (OC), edited by Méndez Plancarte and Salceda and completed in the 1950s, includes hundreds of secular and religious poems; five full-length plays; a nine-hundred-line philosophical poem, First Dream; two devotional writings, Exercises for the Incarnation and Offerings for the Sorrows of Our Lady; a theological critique, Athenagoric Letter; a political treatise, Allegorical Neptune; and her intellectual autobiography, Response to Sor Philotea.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Sor Juana was very familiar with the Bible. Her song cycles (villancicos) for feast days, for example, contain many biblical references, one poem of sixty-two lines having more than twenty references (OC 2:203–5, 451). Of her three autos sacramentales, or religious dramas, two have biblical settings. Joseph’s Scepter is a recasting of Gen. 37; 39–50. Her christological play, Divine Narcissus, which has as a major focus the temptation of Jesus, includes many quotations or allusions to Scripture, including extensive paraphrases of the Song of Songs, such as this on 1:1–5:
Following your fragrance, I run quickly. Oh, how right that all adore you! But you are not expecting Me colored by the sun’s hot rays. See, though I am black, I am beautiful, Since your marvelous image I resemble. (Selected Writings [SW], 121; OC 3:51)
When Sor Juana does quote Scripture directly, she uses St. Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, followed by her Spanish translation or paraphrase, in her own way continuing St. Jerome’s activity of translating. She refers to Jerome as “my father” six times in her Response to Sor Philotea and refers to a decision he had made when translating the Psalms: “Knowing the elegance of Hebrew cannot be pressed into Latin meter; the holy translator [Jerome], more attentive to the importance of the meaning of the text, omitted the meter of the Psalms but retained the number and division into verses” (SW 286; OC 4:470).
Though the secular nature of much of Sor Juana’s poetry (love poems and an epistemological study, First Dream) and drama (a comedy and a mythological tragedy) are obviously atypical for a cloistered nun, her religious writings themselves are unusual from their inception. Whereas most nuns wrote for their convent sisters with the encouragement of their confessor, nearly all of Sor Juana’s works were commissioned by the ecclesiastical establishment or by noble patrons. Her villancicos, or song cycles for church feasts, were commissioned by the cathedral chapters of Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca. Her political treatise Allegorical Neptune, commissioned by the chapter in Mexico City for the arrival of the new viceroy in 1680, also received the encouragement of Archbishop Payo Enrique de Rivera. A song cycle of over twenty poems was commissioned by a wealthy nobleman for the dedication of the convent church in 1690. Her dramas, both secular and religious, were commissioned by noble patrons.
If Sor Juana had admirers, she also had critics: “Who would believe, seeing the general acclaim I have enjoyed, that I have not sailed on a sea of glass with the wind in my sails on a groundswell of universal approbation? God knows that this has not been the case” (SW 266; OC 4:452). One of her critics, the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, was himself a biblical scholar. In 1690, in an ambivalent preface to his publication of her Athenagoric Letter, a critique of the sermon of the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio Vieira on the benefits of Christ’s love, the bishop berated her for her interest in worldly literature and urged her to “improve her choice of books” and “sometimes read the book of Jesus Christ” (SW 250–51; OC 4:695). This was a curious accusation since both Sor Juana and Vieira were debating the meaning of Christ’s love in reference to John 13, where Christ washes the feet of his disciples. In her critique, Sor Juana uses texts from both the Old and New Testaments to support her points. When debating the issue of tears as a sign of suffering, for example, she analyzes Christ’s tears at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35) and the tears of Mary Magdalene at the tomb (20:13).
Within three months of the publication of Athenagoric Letter, Sor Juana had written Response to Sor Philotea de la Cruz, a remarkable work in which she defends her own accomplishments and enters the debate about women’s access to higher education, including the study of the Bible. In her defense of women’s rights to study the Bible, she refers to the affirmative answer of the Mexican biblical scholar Juan Diaz de Arce (1594–1653; SW 276; OC 4:462). She also defends her own secular studies, which she maintains were steps to the highest of studies, “holy theology.” She asks: “How could I understand the methodology of the queen of the sciences if I did not know the style of her handmaidens?” (SW 261; OC 4:447). She deemed that an understanding of such disciplines as music, geometry, astronomy, law, and history was necessary to comprehend the Bible in its context. Curiously, she did not mention philosophy, traditionally considered the handmaid of theology.
Sor Juana then takes on the traditional arguments against women’s engagement with Scripture that appeal to the writings of Paul. She observes, first of all, that Paul would have experienced the participation of such women as Salome and the sisters Mary and Martha, so his prohibition cannot be considered to apply to all women. She also refers to a later authority, the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, who offers further support of her position when he explains that the term “church” in the Pauline prohibition refers to the building, not to the universal sense of the community of the faithful (SW 280; OC 4:465). Sor Juana concludes that women may not teach from a university chair or from the pulpit, but “studying, writing and teaching privately are not only permitted, but are very beneficial and useful” (SW 277; OC 4:462). Furthermore, she argues, if contrary to Eusebius, “church” in 1 Cor. 14:34 was taken to refer to the “universality of the faithful” (SW 282; OC 4:467) and “being silent” was interpreted “in the most restrictive sense of forbidding women even in secret to write or study,” then the church itself was guilty of violating this precept in its tradition of honoring such women writers as “Gertrude, Teresa and Bridget, Maria of Agreda and many others.” Similarly, extending this point back to the apostolic tradition, she maintains had “the Apostle … prohibited all writing to women, the church would also not permit it as it does today.” Therefore the church is following the tradition of the apostles by allowing “women to teach through their writing” (SW 283; OC 4:467).
Sor Juana draws support for her own writing from the long tradition of women studying and interpreting Scripture, which includes the circle of Jerome’s friends and supporters, such as Paula, for whom her convent was named. Identifying herself as a daughter of St. Jerome and St. Paula, she states, “It would be truly disgraceful for such learned parents to have an ignorant daughter” (SW 261; OC 4:447). Indeed, she recalls that Jerome recognized Paula as a gifted exegete, along with her daughters Blessilla and Eustochium. “I see [that Jerome praised] my most holy mother Paula, learned in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and with a gift of interpreting Scripture” (SW 276; OC 4:461). Other women in her canon include Fabiola of Rome, “also very knowledgeable in Holy Scripture,” and “Proba Falconia, a Roman woman, [who] wrote an elegant book with verses from Virgil that illustrated the mysteries of our holy faith” (SW 276; OC 4:462).
Sor Juana also draws inspiration from outstanding women in the Bible itself: Deborah, as a military and political giver of laws, governing with “many learned men”; the queen of Sheba for her learning; Abigail as a prophetess; Esther for her gift of persuasion; Rahab for her piety; Hannah, mother of Samuel, for her perseverance (SW 275; OC 4:461). However, the model above all others is Mary, the mother of Jesus, the focus of both her devotional works. The Exercises for the Incarnation are structured according to the seven days of creation (Gen. 1), where all creation praises Mary. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and on the first day God created the beautiful firstfruit of all creatures, saying: ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3).… This was the first creature he made, and the first to render obedience to his most pure mother, Queen of Light, without the darkness of sin, the most radiant light of all” (SW 175; OC 4:477–78). The Offerings for the Sorrows of Our Lady invite meditation on the Gospel passion narratives through the Stations of the Cross from Mary’s perspective, often contrasting the pain she felt at the suffering of her son with the joys of his infancy. “Oh, how different” from “the inert and disfigured body of your holy Son in your virginal arms … was that Son, reflection of all beauty, as you took him in your arms to nurse him, your whole soul filled with bliss!” (SW 210–11; OC 4:511–12). “How different his final resting place from the first! Instead of your pure, maternal womb, the cold, hard stones receive him” (SW 211; OC 4:512).
Mary is important not just because she brought the Redeemer into the world, but also because, as conceived without sin, she is the perfect representation of humanity. Nonetheless, Sor Juana assiduously avoids the conventional Ave/Eva contrast, referring to Mary as the “daughter of Adam” (OC 2:18–19). In her villancicos, Sor Juana indeed emphasizes women’s strength by characterizing Mary variously as a knight errant, a heavenly choir director, a “doctor of the schools,” and even a teacher of rhetoric, greater than Demosthenes and Cicero. As author of the Magnificat, Mary is a poet and thus the ultimate justification for women poets. As mother of the divine Word, her eloquence, skill, and command of the subject matter exceed that of the great teachers of antiquity (OC 1:12–14). Sor Juana is quite aware that through her villancicos, the song cycles created to be sung in the church buildings, she is actually “speaking in the church,” albeit through her poetry. It is in one such poem, one of over twenty commissioned for the dedication of a convent church of Bernadine nuns, that in a flight of fantasy she allows herself to imagine herself as a preacher, an activity still prohibited to women in the Roman Catholic Church in the twenty-first century:
The Church, Bernard, and Mary, It would be a good occasion to bring them into concert if I were a preacher. But no, no, no, no: I’m not cut of such fine cloth. But supposing that I were, what things would I say, moving from text to text, searching for connections? But no, no, no, no: I’m not cut of such fine cloth. (OC 2:202–3)
Sor Juana was all but forgotten for nearly two centuries. A groundbreaking biography, published in 1982 by Mexico’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, renewed interest in her and her work and precipitated a flood of books and articles by Latin American literary scholars, many fascinated by her advocacy for women’s intellectual gifts as well as by the beauty of her poetry, drama, and prose. A national icon in Mexico today, her face is on the two-hundred-peso bill. Though Sor Juana interpreted Scripture continuously in her religious poetry, drama, and prose, and even developed a theory of biblical exegesis, her significance as a religious writer has only recently begun receiving attention, and her biblical scholarship is an area waiting to be explored in depth.
See also Birgitta of Sweden (1302/3–73); Gertrude the Great (ca. 1256–1302); Paula (347–404); Proba, Faltonia Betitia (ca. 320–ca. 370); Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
- Humanismo y religión en Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Translated by Laura López de Belair. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1983. .
- Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003. .
- Obras Completas. Vol. 1, Lírica personal; vol. 2, Villancicos y letras sacras; vol. 3, Autos y loas, edited by Alfonso Méndez Plancarte; vol. 4, Comedias, sainetes y prosa, edited by Salceda, Alberto G.. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Econímica, 1951–57. 3rd repr., 1994. .
- A Sor Juana Anthology. Translated by Alan S. Trueblood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. .
- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Writings. Translated and introduced by Pamela Kirk Rappaport. New York: Paulist Press, 2005. .
- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism. New York: Continuum, 1998. .
- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Let Your Women Keep Silence in the Churches.…” Women’s Studies International Forum 8, no. 4 (1985): 511-19. . “
- Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Theology of Beauty: The First Mexican Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. .
Several of the nun Sor Juana’s literary works celebrate the African voices heard in Colonial Mexico. While Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and her...
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