The Work of Cloistered Women - A History of Two Mexican Convents - Replete with Miracles

AMERICAS. Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de (1645-1700)

Parayso occidental, plantado y cultivado por la liberal benefica mano de los muy catholicos y poderosos reyes de España, nuestros senores, en su magnifico Real Convento de Jesus Maria de Mexico: de cuya fundacion y progressos y de las prodigiosas maravillas y virtudes, con que exalando olor suave de perfeccion, florecieron en su clausura la V.M. Marina de la Crvz y otras exemplarissimas religiosas, da noticia en este volumen D. Carlos Siguenza y Gongora.

Mexico: Juan de Ribera, 1684


Quarto: 23 x 17 cm. [12], 206, [1] lvs. Collation: [a]-c4, A-Ddd4, Eee8 (lacks blank leaf Eeee8)


Bound in contemporary vellum with the title on the spine. A very fine, crisp copy, printed on thick paper, with just the slightest foxing to scattered leaves, and a tiny bit of worming in the upper margin of the final few signatures, occasional touching the headline. Complete with the first leaf, with the armorial woodcut. Woodcut initials and ornaments in the text. Excellent.

First edition of this important history: "Paradise in the West, planted and cultivated by the liberal and beneficent hand of the most Catholic and powerful Kings of Spain, Our Lords, in their magnificent Real Convento de Jesús María of Mexico City: of whose foundation and progress, and prodigious marvels and virtues, with which the Venerable Madre Marina de la Cruz and other exemplary religious women, giving off sweet smells of perfection, flowered in its cloister, don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Mexican Presbyter, gives notice in this volume."

"'Paraíso occidental' was written on the occasion of the centenary of the founding of the Convento de Jesús María, and one of its goals was to obtain continued funding for the convent from the king. Sigüenza centers his history on the premise of the convent's moral superiority as an Americanparadise, a position very much in keeping with other criollo writers in the late 17thc., whose patriotism crystalized around the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe." But the book, full of the inspiring (and sometimes fantastic) accounts of the lives of cloistered women, was also intended to inspire pious women, religious and secular.

The book is an invaluable source for the history of the convent and the women who lived there, and for the broader history of the region. Many of the historical documents and nuns' vidasupon which Sigüenza relied are no longer extant, making this their sole witness.

"'Western Paradise' is about the foundation (1580) and the first 100 years of the convent of Jesús María, intended as a refuge for the destitute daughters and granddaughters of the conquistadors. The convent itself paid for the publication of the chronicle as an act of commemoration, and we learn about the difficulties the wealthy male benefactors faced in realizing their desire to found Mexico’s third convent. We also learn in detail about two of the convent’s most famous nuns — renowned in different ways for their piety. In lesser detail we also learn about some other figures whom Sigüenza y Góngora celebrates for their religiosity, including, most unusually, indigenous servant women and a black female slave who all worked in the convent serving the nuns. And the text is peppered with fascinating anecdotes about other women, including Doña Michaela de los Ángeles, suspected to be the niece of one of the archbishops of Mexico City, but in reality the illegitimate daughter of Phillip II of Spain. Supposedly, the king founded the convent for her. Sent to Mexico at the age of two, she died young in Jesús María after having gone insane at the age of 13. But the text is so much more than the sum of its parts, and the stories Sigüenza y Góngora tells of the foundation of the convent and its inhabitants give us a fascinating window onto life in the great metropolis of Mexico City in the 17th century, of Spanish imperial practices, the culture of the creoles born there and who would eventually demand independence from Spain, and the many marginalized figures who lived and worked there and left their mark on colonial Mexican society."(Stephanie Kirk)

"Libro Primo treats the founding of the convent, starting with a chapter on Aztec 'vestal' virgins [see below] and continuing on through the inception, founding, and establishment of the new cloister in 1580. This first book ends with the founding, in 1616, of another convent, the Convento de San José de Carmelitas Descalzas (the 'noble fruit' of the 'noble tree'). The first discalced Carmelite convent in the vice-regal capital, it was begun by several of the nuns of Jesús María, who left their original convent in search of a stricter way of religious poverty and contemplation as set forth in the reforms of Teresa of Avila, who was canonized in 1618.

"Libro Segundo traces the life of Madre Marina de la Cruz, mystical visionary and convent reformer. Madre Marina's story is taken from the documents left by her confessor, Pedro de la Mota, and from the writings of her protégée and spiritual daughter, Inés de la Cruz. Marina lived a full life, complete with two husbands and a daughter, before entering the cloister. Sigüenza's history describes both those early years and the ones spent as a nun in the "western Paradise" of the convent. The second book ends with several chapters on Marina's virtues, and with the miracles attributed to her after death.

"The third and final book is a potpourri of vidas. The autobiography of Inés de la Cruz, a founder of the discalced Carmelite convent, occupies the fist seven chapters, and Inés' disciple Mariana de la Encarnación is the subject of the following two; the lives of various other nuns and servants of the convent follow. Four chapters are awarded to the life of María Antonia de Santo Domingo, a personal friend of Sigüenza's, and the muse who inspired the writing of the 'Paraíso'. Maria Antonia died before the book's publication. Thus her vidaserves as an epitaph for both the nun and the text.

"The final chapter contains the life of Matías de Gámez, chaplain of the convent, and includes the tale of his miraculously preserved corpse of Matías. He was interred by the Jesuits in the vaults of their main sanctuary. Thirty-one years later, in 1673, as the bones of these members of the Society of Jesus are moved to a new resting place, a miracle occurs: 'the body of our most exemplary and penitent cleric was found to be absolutely uncorrupted and as it was on the day he was buried.'

The Author: & The Creole Patria

Along with his contemporary and friend Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora was one of the greatest intellectual luminaries of 17thc. Mexico. After his expulsion from the Jesuits in 1668, Sigüenza went on to become an accomplished mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, and historian. From 1672 to 1694, he was Professor of mathematics and astrology at the Royal and Pontifical University. Sigüenza took a strong interest in the indigenous history of Mexico, and in preparation for his historical writings gathered a wealth of archival materials and learned Nahuatl.

In his historical writings, Sigüenza championed "the idea of a creole 'patria', which looked back to the Aztec past rather than to Europe as its antiquity."(Hamnett, p. 97) Hislife's project was, in the words of Timothy Reiss, "to create a history specific to Mexico", one that emphasized the experience and narrative of the indigenous cultures of Mexico and "the continuity and vitality of native tradition and memory." In writing his "Paraíso occidental", a history of the Real Convento de Jesus Maria de Mexico, Sigüenza "incorporated an Indian past, making indigenous peoples, Europeans, mestizos and criollos equally essential to a local Mexican history."(Reiss, p. 400) 

"'Western Paradiseis also about the desire of the colonial creole (those born in Mexico of exclusively Spanish descent) to differentiate themselves and their homeland from Spain. This is not an independence movement — they still conceived of themselves as loyal imperial subjects — but a desire to escape from the inferior position they occupied in intellectual, cultural, economic and political terms relative to those born in Spain. One of the strategies Sigüenza y Góngora employed was to align the creole with the indigenous past and to posit the glories of the pre-Hispanic past as part of the creole’s genealogy. In the book’s very first chapter, he draws a connection between the nuns of New Spain and what he describes as the Aztec Vestal Virgins who attended the great temples of the Aztec empire. There is, however, a great ambiguity in Sigüenza y Góngora’s reappropriation of the indigenous past for the glorification of the creole present. While he invokes the splendor and magnificence of the Aztec temples, he also characterizes them as theaters of abominable impiety, and any contemporaneous indigenous women appear only as servants in his narrative."(Stephanie Kirk)

Aztecs as Romans in the writing New World history:

"The opening chapter of 'Paraíso occidental' develops the syncretic idea of pre-Conquest Mexico as a land with direct parallels to Western history. This chapter is entitled 'In which is mentioned the ways in which the Mexicans consecrated their Vestal Virgins in heathen times.' Here, the indigenous virgins of the Mexican, or Aztec, temples are considered as equals to their Roman cousins.

"By placing Mexican vestal virgins in the opening chapter of a book lauding a convent founded for the descendants of the European conquerors, Sigüenza makes a conscious statement about his estimation of pre-Christian Mexico: it occupies a place in the history of New Spain equal to that of Rome for the Europeans. 'Antigua historia' is redefined as seen from the American perspective."(Ross, the Baroque Narrative of Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora)

Medina, Mexico II: 1328; Palau 312973; Sabin 80980