The Learned Saint: Theresa of Ávila

Do you know the woman in this painting? She is St. Theresa of Ávila, canonized in 1622 as one of the patron saints of Spain and, in 1970, recognized as the first female Doctor of the Church. So why is she a saint, and what does this painting tell us about her?

Born in 1515, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was a native of Ávila, Spain, and the daughter of a successful wool merchant and highly pious mother. At age 11, Teresa’s mother died, prompting an even deeper devotion to the Virgin Mary. Following this, Teresa was educated by Augustinian nuns and, in 1536, chose to enter the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation.

During her religious life, Teresa experienced instances of religious ecstasy and became fond of reading works by medieval mystics and St. Augustine, which spurred her understanding of the nature of sin and achievement of divinity. Within twenty years, however, friends became concerned that Teresa was under the influence of diabolical – not divine – forces. She had begun to self-harm through mortifications of the flesh and spoke of numerous visions of Jesus Christ. In one of these visions, a seraph drove a golden lance through Teresa’s heart, causing immense pain, of which Teresa later said inspired her lifelong motivation to imitate the life and suffering of Jesus. Her visions and beliefs made her a celebrity, but also led to an unexpected role.

Teresa wrote down everything that happened with her. Her writings reflect her increasing dissatisfaction with the Carmelites, who were lax in their observance of cloister. Supported by a Franciscan priest and a wealthy friend, Teresa established a reformed Carmelite convent in Ávila, based on the principles of abject poverty and renunciation of property ownership. Eventually, she established convents all over Spain, recording her travels and thoughts in Libro de las Fundaciones.

The Carmelites were not happy. In 1576, they began to persecute Teresa and her followers. The governing body of the order banned Teresa from establishing more convents, and requested that she go into retirement. Teresa obeyed, but the Carmelites continued to attack Teresa’s friends. She applied to King Philip II of Spain for relief, which led to the dropping of cases against her and allowed her to resume founding convents. She died in 1582, having established sixteen convents.

“St. Teresa” painting, 1929.5.20

Unlike many saints we hear about, Teresa was not persecuted into martyrdom. Forty years after her death, she was canonized and granted the title, Doctor ecclesiae, by the University of Salamanca. She is today considered the Doctor of Prayer, and her written works became highly influential among theologians of the following centuries. Today, her autobiographical account is one of the most valuable and rare 16th century accounts of religious life.

Knowing Teresa’s life helps to interpret this painting, held by the Kentucky Museum. In it, Teresa is depicted kneeling and held up by an angel, with another angel pointing towards Heaven, possibly symbolizing Teresa’s quest for divinity. Importantly, on the table beside her are a book and a skull. The book likely symbolizes Teresa’s deep love of reading and prolific writing career, while the skull symbolizes her lifelong search for achieving the divinity promised after death. While many paintings depict Teresa in ecstasy or being pierced by the golden lance, this painting shows a more subdued moment of her life – as if she is in prayer for divinity, rather than achieving it. However, it is possible that this is the moment before she is stabbed by the golden lance, with the angel in gold pointing towards the lance-bearer (which is unclear). Whichever the case, the painting is meant to suggest Teresa’s pious, learned nature and continual quest to achieve divinity.

This painting is part of the C. Perry Snell collection at the Kentucky Museum, object ID 1929.5.20. If you would like to support this collection, please consider adopting this painting through a gift of $250 to the Adopt-an-Artifact program.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

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