In Seville, in 1576, Brother Juan de la Miseria, o.c.d., was the first to paint a portrait of Teresa. Referring to the beauty of the saint, María de San José ends her comments with the affirmation that “she was perfect in all things, as we can see from [this] portrait”. Teresa herself had some reservations about the likeness of the painting: “May God forgive you, Brother Juan, for having painted me ugly and bleary-eyed.” Whatever the case, his portrait was to serve as the model for all future versions.
In this month’s cover portrait by José Ribera, the artist gives free rein to his tenebrist style of naturalism. A Caravaggio-inspired distribution of light and shade can be seen in the Carmelite habit as well as in the rendering of the cape, worn for liturgical prayers. The depiction of Teresa in the act of writing is a recurrent theme in Teresian iconography. For, indeed, in obedience to her confessors, Teresa undertook the writing of her autobiography, followed by numerous texts on the life of prayer.
Light descends from above to illumine the beautiful face of the saint. Her gaze, peering at the origin of this supernatural light, attests that her whole being is turned toward God. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit, the source of her divinely-inspired writings. “Most of the things I write do not come from my own head, but from the heavenly Master who inspires them within me,” wrote Teresa. Her writings, which earned her the honour of becoming the first woman Doctor of the Church, are an inexhaustible resource for the devout soul.
Note the skull in the foreground, a “vanity” that the saints of the Catholic Reformation kept always in view to aid meditation on the fragility of earthly existence and the grandeur of death—a death to be wished for as the ultimate baptism opening the way toward true Life: “I die because I do not die!” exclaimed Teresa. How far we are here from the attitude of our contemporaries to the prospect of death!
Pablo Cervera Barranco
Editor-in-chief, Magnificat (Spain)
Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582), José de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto (1591–1652), Museum of Fine Arts San Pio V, Valencia, Spain.