Voices from the 18th Century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ‘Fénix de America’



There are a number of surviving paintings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun who was a gifted writer of plays and poetry, including texts for musical compositions such as villancicos.

In an anonymous 18th-century(?) copy owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (seen above), a brief biography at the bottom of the painting recounts some of the more important events from her life. It is a fascinating snapshot of an extraordinary woman who achieved the kind of fame usually reserved for men.

“A faithful copy of another painting that she made of herself, painted by the hand of the Reverend Mother Juana Inés de la Cruz, Fénix de America, glorious realization of her sex, honor of the nation of this New World and subject of admiration and praise in the Old. Born the 12th of November in the year 1651 at eleven at night. She received the Sacred Habit of the Order of St. Jerome in the convent of Mexico City at the age of 17 years and died Sunday the 17th of April in 1699 at the age of 44 years and five months, five days, and five hours. Requiescat in pace. Amen”

Sor Juana’s birth and death dates vary depending what source you read. The painting itself doesn’t help the situation—if she was born in 1651 and died in 1699, she would have been forty-eight years old at the time of her death and not forty-four.

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