November 10, 2010


Heritage, Art and Architecture

A special cloister in the Spanish-American sphere: that of Sister María de Ágreda

D. Ricardo Fernández Gracia.
University of Navarra

The overflowing personality of Sister Maria Ágreda continues surprising those who approach to her study. In our case, so it happens, from the field of the history of the cultural goods that keeps the cloister of her convent in the locality of Ágreda. Traditionally it has been remembered to Sister Maria as promoter of a convent raised a fundamentisin a record period, richly endowed, thanks to the universal fame of Sister Maria de Jesus that she acquired in her own life, as protagonist of facts as significant as her correspondence with the king Felipe IV during twenty-three years, her famous bilocations in American lands, and, of course by her great work: the Mystical City of Godin which he recounts the life of the Virgin Mary.

However, little emphasis has been placed on her personality, which was rich in many nuances, such as her passion for reading. She referred to books before her community of Conceptionist Franciscan Sisters in the following way: "My sisters, I assure you that a good book is a famous friend and the one that disenchants without fear of anger.My sisters, let me assure you that a good book is a famous friend and the one that disenchants without fear of angering or contemplating the natural and tells the powerful, the humble, the wise and the ignorant what is important to them without beating around the bush...".".

It is also necessary to consider, from the point of view of the arts, how some of the texts of his Mystical City of God inspired many pictorial compositions in the New World and even in the peninsula itself. This is the case of the Baptism of Christ or of the Virgin, the communion of some Old Testament fathers or the birth of Christ in the presence and partnership of the archangels Michael and Raphael.

We cannot stop considering how the historical villa of Ágreda, once of the three cultures, became in the XVII century a small Court, visited in three occasions by Felipe IV and one by Carlos II and don Juan José of Austria. The royal presence and the well-known correspondence of Sister Maria with the monarch made many nobles come to the town, some in search of committee, others attracted by curiosity and many others seeking the favor of the nun, so that she would write to the king in favor of their interests. Some arrived with sumptuous and singular artistic gifts, which would have dazzled in any of the royal foundations. It is evident that the epistolary correspondence that Sister Maria maintained with the monarch and with other great ones of the Court, made her appear before the eyes of many people, of diverse condition, as a remedy and resource sure and omnipotent to obtain prebends and desirable and profitable positions. The twisted intentions of some clashed with the avidity, discretion and moral rectitude of the nun, which made her prevent, generally, compromising and ambitious contingencies.

In addition to the King, Queen Mariana and Don Juan José, many other nobles stood out for their gifts to Sister María, such as the Count of Lemos, the Count of Castrillo, Don Juan Chumacero, Don Pedro Antonio de Aragón, the Countesses of Chinchón and Peñaranda and the Marquises of Villlafranca and Falces, as well as prominent jurists and men of government. Bishops, cardinals and members of different religious orders were not left behind with their alms in cash or artistic pieces. Thus, we find in the cloister of Agreda important canvases of Italian, Spanish and New Spanish schools, sculptures of the best masters of the seventeenth century, unique pieces imported from distant lands speak for themselves of the relationships of Sister Maria with different people, some of them very powerful. 

Of particular relevance were the bequests that arrived from the Indies, especially all the pieces brought with them by Doña Francisca Ruiz de Valdivieso, who entered the cloister under the name of Sister Francisca, took the habit in 1662 and died in the convent in 1677. When this illiterate woman returned from the Indies and after serving the Alburquerque family as a trustworthy woman, she returned with countless artistic pieces and thousands of ducats that reverted in the convent of Agredano. Other donors who sent pieces from those lands are documented along with their pieces from all over subject, highlighting personalities of the Church, the nobility and some Creole devotees of Sister Maria who, as will be remembered, had become famous in her own life for her bilocations.

Tribune of the convent of Agreda

Tribune of the convent of Agreda

Engraving by Pietro Leone Bombelli of Sister Mary missionary

Engraving by Pietro Leone Bombelli of Sister Maria missionary, made in Rome in 1761, at the initiative of the postulator of the Cause, with a drawing by Mariano Salvador Maella.