A Royal Nun: Sister Margarita de la Cruz

AGENART
Pieza del mes: Octubre 2022
Tanya J. Tiffany

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Tanya J. Tiffany, “A Royal Nun: Sister Margarita de la Cruz”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 3 de octubre de 2022. Consultado: 18 de abril de 2024. URL: https://agenart.org/a-royal-nun-sister-margarita-de-la-cruz/.

Among the hundreds of works that survive from King Philip IV’s library in the Madrid Alcázar is a large, parchment-bound tome, the Vida de la serenisima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz (Life of the Most Serene Infanta Sister Margaret of the Cross, 1636) [Figure 1]. The volume commemorates the monarch’s great-aunt, Sister Margarita de la Cruz (Vienna, 1567-Madrid, 1633)—a Habsburg archduchess and Franciscan nun who helped to raise the king from infancy despite her cloistered status [Figure 2]. After Margarita died, Philip commissioned the book from her confessor, the Franciscan Juan de Palma. The detailed account of the nun provided in the Vida was clearly intended to portray her as a venerable woman worthy of official sainthood.

As Palma tells us, Margarita was the product of a storied Habsburg lineage. She was the youngest child of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and Empress María, who was herself a daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II. In 1580, Margarita journeyed with her widowed mother from central Europe to Madrid, the empress’s birthplace, where the latter sought to retire from public duties. That same year Philip II lost his fourth wife (Margarita’s own sister, Ana) and, worried for his succession, began petitioning Margarita for her hand in marriage. To the shock of the king and royal officials, she refused him, rejecting matrimony and queenship in favor of the religious life. She and her mother took up residence in Madrid’s Descalzas Reales, a Franciscan convent founded by the empress’s late sister, Juana de Austria, and home to royal and aristocratic nuns with ties to the Spanish court. The empress became a lay Franciscan, moving freely between the Descalzas and the outside world, but Margarita took holy vows in 1584 and never again left the convent walls.

Even as she lived within the Descalzas’s enclosure, Margarita remained closely connected to her relatives and actively involved in affairs of state, negotiating dynastic marriages, exchanging gifts with Habsburg allies, and receiving visits from diplomats, clerics, and members of the Spanish royal family. She developed intimate, affectionate relationships with Philip III (the son of Philip II and her sister Ana), his wife Queen Margarita (a woman also renowned for her holiness), and the couple’s children—the future Philip IV and his siblings. The children resided for long stretches in the Descalzas’s royal apartments, and, according to Palma and others, Margarita performed the “duties of a mother” for them, especially after their own mother died in 1611.[i]


Figure 3. Pedro Perete, title page to Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa descalça de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636). Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, 3/65228. Image from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica).

If Margarita was no ordinary nun, Palma’s Vida was no ordinary book. The volume opens with a title page brandishing the arms of Philip IV and the name of Madrid’s prestigious Imprenta Real (Royal Press) [Figure 3]. Unusually for a book produced in Spain at the time, the Vida is lavishly illustrated; it features nine full-page engravings (including the title page), all signed by the eminent Madrid engraver Pedro Perete (c. 1610-Madrid, 1639). Most of the images highlight Margarita’s dual status as royal and nun, emphasizing her abandonment of courtly grandeur in favor of saintly humility. In one scene, Perete showed Margarita as a young archduchess seated at the feet of Milan’s archbishop Saint Charles Borromeo (Arona, 1538-Milan, 1584; canonized 1610), who encouraged her to follow her religious calling [Figure 4].


Figure 4. Pedro Perete, Archduchess Margarita de Austria and Saint Charles Borromeo, engraving in Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa descalça de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636). Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, 3/65228. Image from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica).

The inscription below seemingly alludes to the decision Margarita came to face between devoting herself to the king of heaven and acceding to the nuptial desires of the Spanish monarch: “Hearken, O daughter and incline thy ear for the king shall greatly desire thy beauty” (a modified version of Ps. 44:11-12; Douay Version).


Figure 5. Pedro Perete, The Profession of Sor Margarita de la Cruz, engraving in Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa descalça de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636). Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, 3/65228. Image from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica).

In another image, Perete illustrated the ceremonial pomp that characterized the nun’s profession at the Descalzas, showing Philip II’s daughters, the Empress María, and the king himself forming part of the retinue that accompanied Margarita—clad in the finery that she would soon relinquish—in procession toward the church [Figure 5]. Here, the inscription, “come, bride of Christ, receive the crown which the Lord has prepared for you,” a hymn sung for women as they entered convent life, resonates with Margarita’s election of the crown of God over the crown of Spain.[ii]


Figure 6. Pedro Perete, Sor Margarita de la Cruz with Poverty and Prayer, engraving in Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa descalça de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636). Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, 3/65228. Image from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica).

For the book’s front matter, Perete produced a portrait of the nun [Figure 6] and another of her nephew Philip IV [Figure 7] that together illustrate Margarita’s wholehearted embrace of her sacred vows as well as the significance that her religious vocation held for the Spanish Habsburgs. Perete depicted Margarita in her simple Franciscan habit, clutching a crucifix and rosary, and standing between allegorical figures of Poverty and Prayer. Cast to the ground are symbols of vanitas, including crowns, coins, the orb of worldly power, and the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose sovereign ruler was the Spanish king. The inscription, “From all these she made steps for herself to glory,” indicates that Margarita achieved religious perfection by repudiating royal privilege.[iii] Establishing a visual analogy between the nun and her nephew, Perete portrayed Philip festooned with the same trappings of monarchy shown at Margarita’s feet, among them the Golden Fleece on his chest and a crown at the top of the composition. In Philip’s portrait, the regal imagery functions as evidence of his authority to carry out what he saw as divine will. The king’s role as defender of the faith is further established by the bound figures beneath him: a Native American and a Turk (both shown with stereotyped iconography), symbols of his mission to subjugate, convert, or vanquish non-Christian peoples. The two portraits work in tandem; the king has assumed the mantle of power spurned by Margarita in order to promote the holiness she embodied.


Figure 7. Pedro Perete, King Philip IV, engraving in Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima Infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa descalça de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636). Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, 3/65228. Image from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica).

Thanks in large part to the sumptuously produced Vida, Margarita’s saintly reputation spread across Spain and beyond in the decades following her death. Copies of the 1636 edition circulated widely, and the book was reprinted in Seville in 1653. Translations into Italian (1680) and German (1687) soon followed, making the text available in three of the principal languages spoken in lands governed by the House of Austria. In 1689, the nuns at the Descalzas worked to carry out the ultimate aim of the Vida when they submitted Margarita’s canonization cause to Rome. The Vatican never approved the cause, but Palma’s book continues to offer vital insight into the seventeenth-century exaltation of a cloistered nun whose piety was central to the self-definition of the Spanish Habsburgs.


Further reading:

  • Blas, Javier; de Carlos Varona, María Cruz y Matilla, José Manuel, Grabadores extranjeros en la corte española del Barroco, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional-Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2011.
  • Bouza Alvarez, Fernando J. El libro y el cetro: La biblioteca de Felipe IV en la Torre Alta del Alcázar de Madrid. Madrid: Instituto de Historia del Libro y de la Lectura, 2005.
  • Checa, Fernando, ed. La otra corte: Mujeres de la Casa de Austria en los Monasterios Reales de las Descalzas y la Encarnación. Exh. cat., Madrid: Palacio de Oriente, 2019.
  • Hoffman, Martha K. Raised to Rule: Educating Royalty at the Court of the Spanish Habsburgs, 1601-1634. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.
  • Sánchez, Magdalena S. The Empress, the Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • Tiffany, Tanya J. “The Infant Christ at the Spanish Court: Sor Margarita de la Cruz (1567–1633) and Sacred Material Culture.” Sixteenth Century Journal 50, no. 3 (2019): 783–820.
  • Wyhe, Cordula van. “The Making and Meaning of the Monastic Habit at Spanish Habsburg Courts.” In Spanish Fashion at the Courts of Early Modern Europe, edited by José Luis Colomer and Amalia Descalzo, 1:251–89. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2014.


[i] Juan de Palma, Vida de la serenissima infanta Sor Margarita de la Crvz Religiosa desçalca de S. Clara (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1636), fol. 141v: “oficios de madre.”


[ii] Trans. in van Wyhe, “Making and Meaning,” 265.


[iii] Trans. in Cordula van Wyhe, “The Making and Meaning of the Monastic Habit at Spanish Habsburg Courts,” in Spanish Fashion at the Courts of Early Modern Europe, ed. José Luis Colomer and Amalia Descalzo (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2014), 1: 263.