Happy Valentine's Day, a day late!
Last week we spent a day at Museo Franz Mayer for the Decorative Arts. The collection is housed in a former church, hospital and monastery. One of the exhibitions displayed the treasures of the convent for the Discalced Carmelites, the order founded by Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic (1515-1582). The treasures are presented along with a history of the order and this particular foundation, and a detailed look into the life led by the nuns.
The house had a lifesize polychrome statue of Saint Teresa, dressed like a wealthy woman of the period, in embroidered velvet with sewn-on pearls - as my friend V. exclaimed "She NEVER would have worn that!" - and of course she's right! This figure looks like a doll but it's five feet tall; sometime I'd like to research and write about the Mexican tradition of making these polychromed figures, which are most often Jesus or the Virgin, and incredibly lifelike. I think wax is applied over the paint to give a such a flesh-like appearance.
The abbess also had an extraordinary robe, embroidered (a better word might be "encrusted") entirely with silver threads.
And, of course, there are relics. A piece of the heart of St. Teresa; a piece of the flesh of her friend and mentor, the great mystic St. John of the Cross; two rose-colored fabric hearts that supposedly touched her garment; and (more touchingly, at least to me) a tiny sandal that St. Teresa supposedly wore, housed in a delicate crystal box and covered with flowers.
The women who entered this order in New Spain were often daughters of wealthy aristocrats; some are shown in life-size paintings, their heads crowned with elaborate bouquets of roses. When they took their vows of solemn profession, the nuns became "brides of Christ," sworn to a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. I did not know that this order included the practice of self-mortification, but the display included these metal whips, covered with vicious barbs and thorns, used by the nuns to flagellate themselves:
If it's hard to imagine why anyone would do this, especially women, perhaps this painting gives a clue: here is Christ as "The Divine Spouse", lying in a bed of flowers, into which are inscribed the instructions for a devout life: "Gratitude," "Love", "Penance," Renunciation, mortification.
Is it such a huge leap from teen-age girls going crazy over modern rock stars? With an image like this as one's only object of devotion, and a completely cloistered life, I can imagine love-sick, sexually-repressed young women resorting to extremes to win his favor, even though there seems to be a huge contradiction between the peaceful atmosphere of convents and monasteries, the beautiful embroideries and paintings, and what went on behind the closed doors.