The call to convent life drew women throughout the early modern Spanish world, from Madrid to Mexico City to Manila. For all the strictures these institutions placed upon their inhabitants, they also gave women opportunities to pursue vocations of the spirit and of the mind. Within convent walls, Teresa of Ávila inaugurated her groundbreaking religious reform, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz composed some of the most ingenious poems in the Spanish language, and innumerable women wrote powerful accounts of their religious journeys.

“Women of the Page” showcases the John Carter Brown Library’s extraordinary collection of images and books centered on nuns and convent life across Spain and its empire. The term “convent” is used here in a broad sense to encompass cloistered communities whose residents took the veil as well as female institutions such as beaterios, which housed lay women. Likewise, the nuns featured in the exhibition are not only women who professed (those who took full vows), but also novices, beatas (lay sisters), and others who lived in female religious communities. Included are objects that shed light on how nuns presented themselves in spiritual autobiographies and on how they were portrayed by male artists and hagiographers. In several cases, the emphasis is on women’s miraculous encounters with sacred images and their rapturous visions of divine love. Other objects provide insight into the more mundane rhythms of convent life: the sound of sacred texts read aloud; the rituals of perambulating through the cloister; and the privation and pleasure involved in fasting, feasting, and preparing meals.

Representing Nuns

Renowned holy women throughout the early modern Catholic world expressed dismay at seeing themselves represented in portraiture, a genre they perceived as conflicting with saintly humility. Nevertheless, artists often portrayed nuns in paintings and drawings, which were then reproduced in widely circulated prints. In many cases, nuns posed for portraits at the insistence of their confessors. Artists also completed portraits based on written and verbal descriptions of the nun’s physical characteristics, and they sometimes depicted the women as generic figures whose features conformed to conventions of feminine beauty. Portraits of nuns were intended to provide visual records of the women whose lives they commemorated, and the images served as objects of veneration and as holy exemplars for other nuns and members of the faithful.


The Council of Trent (1545-1563) forbade professed nuns from leaving the cloister, and Church officials admonished lay sisters to remain likewise enclosed. Women and men argued that physical seclusion allowed nuns to demonstrate their modesty, commitment to sacred contemplation, and heedlessness of secular affairs. Nevertheless, early modern nuns in the Spanish world undertook journeys both bodily and spiritual. They founded convents in colonies across the Atlantic and Pacific, purportedly maintaining their cloistered status by hiding from public view, even as they traversed the globe. Nuns also made peregrinations within their convents. They processed to hear Mass in the choir, visited the sacred images that adorned the enclosure, and walked through their convent gardens, which were usually separated from the outside world by thick, high walls. In addition, nuns embarked upon mystical travels, in which visionary experiences sometimes carried them to the farthest corners of the Spanish Empire.

Sacred Images

Nuns focused much of their devotional practice on sacred paintings, sculptures, and prints. According to Church teachings, images functioned as “books for the illiterate”: sacred texts for those unable to read Latin scripture, including most early modern nuns. At the same time that nuns learned religious lessons from pictures, they also engaged images in more dynamic ways. Strictly limited in their social contact, nuns turned to visual representations for spiritual comfort and companionship. They furthermore described images that spoke, cried, or sweated in miraculous demonstration of God’s presence in the material world.

Divine Love

For nuns, Christ and the Virgin functioned as sacred family members and divine exemplars. Young nuns embraced the Virgin as a heavenly mother who substituted for their real mothers outside the convent walls. In imitation of the Virgin, nuns venerated sculptures of the Christ Child, treating them almost as babies who needed to be cradled, dressed, and fed. At the same time, early modern nuns understood the mature Christ to be their bridegroom. Upon professing, nuns accepted Christ as a celestial spouse, and in their writings they often referred to him in explicitly amorous terms. Yet Christ and the Virgin were not only proxies for earthly families; they were also models for nuns’ spiritual lives. In enduring their own travails, nuns strove to imitate the Virgin’s courage at the foot of the Cross and Christ’s forbearance as he walked the road to Calvary.

Wealth and Rank

Across the Spanish Empire, women from all walks of life entered convents, and the institutions they inhabited replicated the social stratifications of the secular world. The wealthiest convents, such as Madrid’s Descalzas Reales (featured here), admitted only women from the Spanish royal family and upper nobility, whereas the poorest beaterios (houses for women who took simple, or non-binding religious vows) accepted divorcees, former prostitutes, and street peddlers. Nuns also established clear social hierarchies within their specific institutions.

            These hierarchies were particularly evident in convents – especially those whose residents included servants and slaves – in the New World, where skin color determined a woman’s station and even the color of her veil. At the top of the conventual order were professed, or black-veiled nuns: well-off European and criolla women (those of European ancestry) with sizable dowries. Next came white-veiled nuns, who were either novices waiting to take full vows or women, usually criollas, without dowry funds. Beneath them, donadas, or servants (often women of color) labored in convents and sometimes took simple vows. The bottom echelon of convent society was occupied by slaves, who had no choice about whether to enter the religious life. This social structure remained relatively static throughout the early modern period. In New Spain (Mexico), for example, indigenous nuns were deemed ineligible for the black veil until the eighteenth century, when a handful of convents were founded for “Indians.” Even in those institutions, however, European and criolla nuns often oversaw affairs, and only noble indigenous women were allowed to profess.

Nourishing Body and Soul

In many ways, nuns’ lives revolved around rituals of fasting and feasting. Nuns belonging to austere, “barefoot” orders expressed their piety by eating little and limiting their consumption to humble, mainly vegetarian fare. Across the Catholic world, professed nuns and lay sisters alike fasted in repudiation of the inherent sinfulness of their bodily existence. Hagiographers described nuns who ate no more than one day a week or subsisted on bread and water (both Eucharistic symbols); one nun from New Spain (Mexico), consumed nothing but two cups of hot chocolate each day. At the same time, many nuns, especially in less strict, unreformed orders, made food the center of celebration and hospitality. They cooked elaborate, costly meals on major feast days, and they prepared delectable treats for confessors, visiting clerics, and family members. Some convents sold the sweets they produced, and evidence of their recipes and techniques can be found in early modern cookbooks, including one displayed here.


This exhibition was curated by Tanya Tiffany.