Scent of a Mystic Woman: Teresa de Jesús and the Interior Castle

In: Medieval Encounters
María Carrión Emory University

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In 1577 Teresa de Jesús composed the Interior Castle, an account of her spiritual experiences that deployed architectural images designed to incite readers to piety and devotion. Critical readings have identified the castle as a spiritual and aesthetic emblem of Christian hegemony, emplotting de Jesús's works in the rhetorical frame of Reconquista narratives. But the Castle, like the houses in the 1562 Book of Life and the palaces in the 1562-1564 Way of Perfection, moves readers to remember landscapes that differ from a monocultural event, as it narrates the ultimate spiritual encounter in frank dissidence with the hegemonic politics and aesthetics of Catholicism that became the law of the land in Spain after 1492. In line with a diversity of medieval mystical traditions from Europe and the Middle East, the choice of a castle—a key architectural sign of the Middle Ages—as the place of paradox, memory, and experience of the sublime offers clues that de Jesús figured out a way to communicate what seemed to be an unaccountable event in Counter-Reformation Spain: being in the presence of divinity and living to tell such story in cross-confessional terms. This essay analyzes the polysemic traces of the castle built by this mystic woman with the figurative fragrance of multicultural medieval Iberia, a space where she carefully negotiated war, crusades, and other kingdoms of heaven with contemplation, survival (pervivencia), and adaptation.

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