Embodying the Sacred

Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima

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Nancy E. van Deusen
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Too often, our understanding of historical realities relies on caricature. We assume the medieval woman mystic to be a privileged European recluse starving herself and experiencing ecstatic visions devoid of theological training. We see the relationship between Europe and its colonies as purely paternalistic, and view colonial Catholicism as a syncretic, bastardized shadow of authentic (monolithically “European”) Catholic teaching. Nancy Van Deusen’s granular approach to the material history of 17th century Lima, Peru serves as a necessary antidote to such oversimplification. Embodying the Sacred: Women Mystics in Seventeenth-Century Lima makes substantial contributions to the study of material religion, of colonial Catholicism in the Baroque period, and of women’s roles as interlocutors with the divine. In this text, Van Deusen weaves together the narratives of women’s lives from different strata of Peruvian society to show the varied ways in which women’s decisions, and even their bodies, served as loci for divine experience in colonial Lima. 

Contextual theologies, and Latinx theologies in particular, have long noted that a central and overlooked site of divine activity can be found in lo cotidiano, or the everyday. Van Deusen details for the reader the ways in which women of varying privilege, race, and class in Lima experienced the divine in their everyday lives, and made that theological experience real for those with whom they came in contact. Through her analysis of the materiality of the life and cult of Rosa de Lima, the visceral, transactional holiness of Angela de Carranza, and the lives of holy women who knew and chronicled these living saints, Van Deusen not only brings to life the complexity of women’s relationship to church hierarchy but more importantly, the complexity of the depth and variety of female experience and expression of relationality to the sacred. 

The first part of the text is devoted to the lives of Rosa de Lima and her closest circle of devoted followers, including Luisa Melgarejo, the visionary Geronima de Sn Francisco, and the controversial “living reliquiary” Angela de Carranza. Through these women’s narratives,Van Deusen explodes commonly-held beliefs about women’s agency and access to the divine in colonial America. In a similar way, she utilizes the stories of women like Rosa to explore how holy women both conformed to expected norms about divine relationality and pushed boundaries of what was customary and even allowed. In particular, the story of Angela de Carranza, a woman who sold nail clippings and other viscera as relics during her lifetime even as the Inquisition mobilized against overt declarations of sanctity before a person’s death, is particularly fascinating. Van Deusen’s analysis exemplifies the ways in which spirituality and Catholic beliefs are always already interpreted, never uniform, and perennially in dialogue with the context in which religiosity is carried out. 

The second part of the text, entitled “The Relational Self,” foregrounds women’s agency across the racialized spectrum of Lima society. By attending to the realities of criadas(personal servants who worked for a specific woman) and donadas (female religious servants who worked for the convent) not only as servants but also as theological agents in their own right, Van Deusen presents us with women who negotiated their complex identities not only in relation to one another, but to the divine. As a result, she circumvents yet another caricature of colonial Catholicism—the belief that it was primarily the criollo class who shaped the religious landscape of the colonies and that those viewed as lesser human beings merely reacted to the religion of the colonizers instead of shaping it themselves. Rather, in Van Deusen’s analysis, women like Catalina de Narvaez, a non-white donada to the convent of La Concepción, come to life in their relationships and intimacies with other women whose lives they shaped (their servants), and whose lives shaped theirs (their patrons). Rather than reduce the lives of these servants to a one-dimensional reality of labor on behalf of the more privileged nuns, this text examines the self-understanding of donadasand criadas as spiritual beings. 

Readers and researchers interested in colonial Catholicism, Latin American race and class relations, and the role of women in creating and shaping Catholic belief would benefit greatly from this text. Perhaps the most valuable insight Van Deusen places before the reader is one that challenges feminist theologians to look beyond women’s ways of holiness as merely something engaged in as a reaction to patriarchy, and instead, to imagine these limeñas constructing their identities as holy women primarily in relation to the God they loved and served, not the structures of male domination that marked their historical context. According to Van Deusen, “women’s attempts to engage in active and contemplative devotional practices were not always framed in spite of or because of patriarchal limitations” (170). By looking closely at the narratives of these women’s lives, at the materiality of their existence (their clothing, embroidery, labor, and even their viscera), the author reframes notions of feminine spirituality, mysticism, and colonial Catholicism. Van Deusen makes a clear case for why women were a cornerstone of Lima’s identity as the center of Baroque Catholicism in the Americas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natalia Imperatori-Lee is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nancy E. van Deusen is Professor of History at Queen’s University; author of Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain, also published by Duke University Press, and Between the Sacred and the Worldly: The Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima; and editor of The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesús.



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