Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Death as Climax and Mystical Matrimony

A nun on her deathbed.
What's is death like when it's the culmination of life?

Death portraits of nuns on display in the Santa Clara Church-Museum make one ask what these women were like. Many wear expressions that aren't tranquil or benevolent. A minority are smiling. Did they live lives of quiet, fulfilling prayer and contemplation, or bitter rivalries? Does a cloistered life mean peace of mind or repression of natural energies?

The exhibit's title: 'Opaque Bodies: Invisible delights of mystic eroticism' suggests that death should be the climax of these women's existences.

A peaceful, happy death.
Certainly, the nuns' cloistered life doesn't seem terribly natural. Some families sent in their daughters to a convent as young as 7 or 8, when they couldn't possibly have been able to choose for themselves (they could choose to leave, but that couldn't have been easy). Others were interned for 'bad' behavior - likely for not obeying sexual or romantic norms - and some widows chose a cloistered life, perhaps because a widowed woman had few resources for any other role in society. (virginity was not a requirement.) Nuns, of course, represent a certain ideal of femininity: humility, sacrifice, resignation and virginity - similar in many ways to the lifestyle required of some conservative Muslim women.
A satisfactory life?

The convent's central mission was to protect the nuns, particularly those of 'clean blood' - daughters of Spanish Catholic families.

Once inside the Santa Clara, the girls and women could not even see their families again and left only after death.

Altho the nuns, called Las Clarisas, had very little contact with the outside world, the convent did play a surprising economic role - lending money with interest. The convent held the belongings of its credit clients, similar to the pawn shops which today line Ave. Decima just two blocks west.

The museum's exhibit points out the changes in society's attitude towards death. Today, many people, prompted by marketing, aspire to eternal youth - a contrast with Colombia's sometimes violent culture. In contrast, the nuns supposedly conceived of death as a culmination of their religious life - a matrimony with Christ.

For a person who had lived such a closed existence, the prospect of entering heaven and accompanying Jesus must have provided hope and inspiration. Perhaps that was why being permitted to paint the deceased nuns' portraits was a great honor. Yet, only one of the painters signed his work.

Nuns, and young women preparing to become nuns, are fairly common in Bogotá. Many (I hope most) do charitable work, and a few are social activists. But the cloistered life still exists.

The Santa Clara Convent was built in 1649 and in 1969 purchased by the government of Colombia. The church officialy made it 'unsacred', and today it's operated by the Ministry of Culture. If you like that heavy, often overwrought, religious art, it's worth a visit. Admission is 3,000 pesos, free on Sundays.

The Santa Clara's other works are elaborate and intense religious items:

A Christ portrait with burning heart.

The Santa Clara's elaborate interior. 

Old woodwork.

An agonized Christ sculpture. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

The problem with these poor women was the fact that they did not enjoy life to the fullest. Yes, probably some of them did it for honest religious and spiritual commitment, but I believe most of them were forced to be there, in a place where their lives had a slow and for most of them very boring end. No sex, no freedom, no family of their own...Mike, take a look at their faces, they look young and, that makes it even more sad. Celibacy is one of the most cruel things to impose on people, is a source of frustration and depression and bitterness. I was educated by catholic priests and nuns and let me tell you dude, these were among the most angry and pests off people I ever knew. I was 12 o 13 years old and at my school one of the very young nuns, a very attractive girl in her twenties was having an affair with one of the students. When the secret came out, the nun was taken to mental institution or something like that where she tried to commit suicide. The boy that was having the affair with her was also very traumatized, any way, I just can not get this idea of having such existence to serve God.

Miguel said...

Hi Mauricio,

I've met many nuns who seemed as fulfilled and satisfied with their lives as anybody. But I'm sure that it's not for everybody, and particularly dangerous when a person is forced into that lifestyle - and being cloistered one's whole life is even more curel unnatural, at least when it's involuntary.


mauricio forero l said...

There are very dangerous ones like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Miguel said...

Dangerous like Mother Theresa? She had her problems, but did a lot of good.


mauricio forero l said...

Mike, sometimes you really surprised me. I don't know if is naiveté or plain lack of information. Are you aware of her ideas on the used of condoms in Africa, or I may say, her idea of telling people in the most affected continent by AIDS not to used condoms. Her alliance whit people like Reagan and Thatcher and her views on the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, denying all the atrocities by the armies of these countries, not to mention what she did in Haiti, or her infamous visit to that poor country. The real state of affairs of her clinics and the list keep going. Dude, you strike me as an educated person, do not disappoint me.

Miguel said...

Hi Mauricio,

Yes, I'd heard about some of Mother Theresa's opinions, but not others. And they aren't justifiable by my book.

But she also helped a lot of people who'd been abandoned by society. I admire a lot of what she did, if not some of her opinions, which I agree are destructive.


mauricio forero l said...

Gracias Miguel. :)