Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 172

Female power in Constanza de Castilla’s tomb
Female monasteries and convents, such as Santo
Domingo el Real de Madrid, would have offered
an ideal architectural and spiritual environment
for the establishment and development of this
new intellectual trend, which continued into the
Renaissance period.
Constanza de Castilla has thus been compared to
other late-medieval/early modern female religious
writers in this current of “feminine Humanism”,
who seem to have followed in Christine de Pizan’s
(died ca. 1430) footsteps, such as Sister Teresa de
Cartagena (1425-?), and, especially, Sister Isabel
de Villena (died 1490),65 with whom Constanza de
Castilla had many things in common. Both Teresa de
Cartagena and Isabel de Villena shared family ties
with the Trastamara dynasty, and therefore became
the monarchs’ protégées. Considered two of the most
important Hispanic female writers of the second half
of the fifteenth century, both showed a special interest
in artistic patronage and were responsible for major
building renovations at their respective convents.66
Most likely due to a lack of space, Sister Constanza
de Castilla was forced to choose just four of the seven
virtues to decorate her tomb. Faith and Hope flank the
Castilla coat of arms, while Prudence and Temperance
are relegated to the corners at the tomb base. In her
Book of Devotions, Sister Constanza implores Christ:
“Give me hope fulfilled in You so that I die confessing
Your Faith;”67 a few lines later she continues: “Oh,
Holy Cross, for You I beg mercy from He who was
crucified on You, so that He may give You to me as
a shield between me and my enemies at the time of
my death, when they will try to accuse me of faults
and take with them my soul to where there is no
Prudence and Temperance, as cardinal virtues, decorate
the corners whereas the front is reserved for theological
virtues. In his Doctrinal de príncipes (1475-1476), Diego
Female power in Constanza de Castilla’s tomb
de Valera defines cardinal virtues, “as the door or
entrance for all the others.”69 Thus, Juan Rodríguez
del Padrón refers to the cardinal virtues when
defending women. In his Triunfo de las donas (14391441), he claims that while women embody Prudence
and Temperance – precisely the two cardinal virtues
that Constanza included in her tomb’s decoration –
men embody capital vices such as greed and envy.70
Aristotle considered Prudence to be an intellectual
virtue, obtained through study; hence, its presence
on Sister Constanza’s sepulchre presents her as a
wise and learned woman. The demand for women’s
education was one of the main pillars of the Querelle
des femmes.71 In her Admiraçión operum Dey (ca. 1478),
Teresa de Cartagena alludes to the expectations
raised by the writers.72 On the other hand, during
the second half of the fifteenth century, Temperance,
fostered by mendicant orders, was intimately linked to
Observance, representing the renunciation of earthly
pleasures and the moderate use of speech.73
Constanza de Castilla seems to have been a woman
ahead of her time, harbouring devotional, intellectual,
social and political interests that had been reserved,
until then, for men. Thanks to her status as a royal
protégée she occupied a privileged position inside the
convent, and this allowed her to remain in her priorate
for fifty long years and to enjoy unprecedented freedom
for a cloistered, contemplative nun.
With the commission of her own tomb, originally
located in the convents’ choir, reserved for the nuns,
Constanza de Castilla bequeathed an important and
timeless message to her sisters in religion. Constanza is
represented lying on her lit de parade, shrouded in the
Dominican habit in which she was probably buried.
The base of her tomb is decorated with the coat of
arms of the Castilla family, to which she belonged,
as well four virtues, iconography generally reserved
for men. The presence of these four allegories
Fig. 11 / Effigy of
Constanza de Castilla
(detail), Tomb of
Constanza de Castilla,
1464-1478, marble,
Madrid, National
Archaeological Museum.
transformed Constanza’s sepulchre into a statement of
intent, asserting the virtuous condition of women at
a time when equality between men and women was a
matter of debate in Castilian courtesan environments.
Indeed, her Book of Devotions, shows special concern
for the nuns’ virtues rather than for the health of their
souls. She even implores Christ: “I beg you to send
your grace to all of the nuns in this convent, and to
increase their virtues.”74 After all, virtues would equate
them with men and would, therefore, make them
wise, independent, and, finally, free to make their own


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