Crowned Nun Portrait of Sor María de Guadalupe

Crowned Nun Portrait of Sor María de Guadalupe, c. 1800, oil on canvas (Banamex collection, Mexico City)


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re standing in the former Palace of Augustín de Iturbide, and we’re looking at a crowned nun portrait.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] This is a full-length life-sized portrait. She’s frontal, she’s a beautiful young woman elaborately dressed.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:20] This particular nun, María Guadalupe, is from a Conceptionist convent in the city of Puebla. The Conceptionist order was the earliest one founded for women here in New Spain, and it was reserved for the wealthiest, elite, pure-blooded Spanish women.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] When we think about nuns, we think about taking a vow of poverty, living a very simple life, so we might imagine that she’s going to renounce all of the wealth and luxury we see her with, because what we’re seeing is María on the day when she takes her vows.

[0:54] In fact, the life she leads is not really one of deprivation once she enters the nunnery.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:59] Though there were many female orders that took intense vows of poverty, the Conceptionists were not one of those orders. You came in with a dowry, for instance.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] Very much like getting married.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:08] In fact, she is getting married. She’s getting married, in this case, to Christ. The Conceptionists could actually have vast libraries, musical instruments, and we see some of that reflected in this portrait.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] The day that a woman took her vows, the day that she professed, was a day of communal celebration. This was a big deal in her life. This portrait was intended for her family to remember her by after she took those vows and left her family.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:34] Even if you could have wealth when you entered into the convent, you still were living a cloistered life, meaning you are dead to the outside world. This was not only a big deal for her, it’s a really important moment for her family as well.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] It almost reminds me of the way today we take photographs of someone on the day that they graduate from high school. She looks very proud. You can feel the pride of her family while looking at her in this portrait.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:57] She’s wearing this wonderful crown that is made of flowers and these little metal or wax angels. Then she’s also holding a sculpture of a Christ Child in her left hand, and in her right hand, this enormous candle decorated with more flowers.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] She’s being associated with her namesake, with the Virgin Mary. We might think about paintings of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. We might be reminded of paintings of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, where she’s crowned. There’s both this idea of her as the bride of Christ but also an association of her with the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:34] The Conceptionists really made this connection to the Virgin Mary clear. They are known to wear blue cloaks, which we’re seeing María Guadalupe wear here. If you look at where the cloak is fastened, just below her chin, we see this wonderful circular element. This is what’s called a nun’s badge, and it’s jewelry.

[2:52] In many cases, it was tortoiseshell frame with a painting on copper in the center. In this case, we’re seeing an image of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] We can tell that because we have iconography, or symbolism, like the stars that surround Virgin’s head, the moon at her feet, and the Immaculate Conception refers to the idea that the Virgin Mary herself was conceived without sin.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:18] You’ll notice that in this nun’s badge, the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception wears the same blue mantle or cloak that the nun displayed here is wearing.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] The most fabulous part of her outfit is that long pleat down the front of her dress. Just ironing that would have taken a very long time. This is a very luxurious outfit.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:38] And reflects the wealth of this religious order. And also reflects the wealth of her family.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] Let’s talk about the Christ Child that she holds for a moment, because that may look rather odd to our eyes, because it is a sculpture, almost like a doll of the Christ Child. He’s holding a staff, he’s dressed beautifully, he’s got a gold crown that’s got jewels in it on his head.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:59] We know that these sculptures of the Christ Child were often treated as stand-ins for children, as a way to channel those maternal instincts. This is a tradition that you see in Western Europe as well. You could dress these dolls of the Christ Child. They are also associated with the wealthier orders. It makes sense given who we’re seeing in this particular portrait.

Dr. Harris: [4:19] She also wears a very long chain of rosary beads, and if we follow those down, we see an elaborate inscription that identifies the nun and tells us the date on which she professed, or entered the order.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:31] This inscription tells us that she is the legitimate daughter of two elites. Her parents are named as a Don and a Doña, meaning that they are very high up in the social hierarchy; [it] tells us where she professes as a nun, and it tells us the date, July 4th, 1800.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] María also carries a very long candle, which is also very luxurious. It’s lit at the top, it’s wreathed with roses and carnations, flowers associated with [the] Virgin Mary, with virginity, with love, with marriage.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:01] It’s another ostentatious symbol here, similar to the ostentatious array of flowers, the huge crown…

Dr. Harris: [5:07] The jewelry that she wears, that fastens her cloak.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:11] Something to note about the crown, in addition to the same flowers that we see on the candle, is that the crown both alludes to, say, the crown of thorns that Christ wears, but it also relates to the crowning of the Virgin Mary in heaven after her death.

Dr. Harris: [5:24] We have this lovely coming together across the composition of reds, of blues, of whites, of pale brown colors. It’s just a tour de force of painting as well as this amazing moment for María.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:39] We can’t help but be drawn to her because she’s looking out at us. As a woman who’s about to renounce her worldly life and enter a cloistered convent, there’s something very alluring about this to us in the 21st century still.

Dr. Harris: [5:51] Yeah, this is a moment of transition in her very young life.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Crowned Nun Portrait of Sor María de Guadalupe," in Smarthistory, April 25, 2018, accessed June 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/crowned-nun-portrait/.