Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 165

Female power in Constanza de Castilla’s tomb
Constanza’s quarters, located above the wine cellar,
included a private portal, a cloister, a kitchen and a
Her expenditure was so great that the prioress was
subject to an audit instigated by the archbishopric
of Toledo, but, as on other occasions, Constanza
was protected by the Crown. The inspection was
immediately frustrated in 1454 by Lope de Barrientos,
royal confessor, bishop of Cuenca, auditor of the
Royal Audience, member of the Royal Council,
High Chancellor of Prince Henry and former prior
of Santo Domingo el Real de Madrid,10 who duly
approved Constanza’s major financial expenditures.11
As a consequence, the Madrid convent obtained
independence from Toledo’s archbishop.12
The first concessions granted to Constanza de
Castilla date from 1419, indicating that she enjoyed
a privileged position from the beginning of her
priorate.13 Throughout her tenure Sister Constanza
was for example exempted from any ecclesiastical
sentence and even excommunication.14 She was
also permitted to build her own palace inside the
enclosure, hear Mass from her room, choose her
confessor, leave the convent whenever she needed
or wanted to, and she had at her service three dueñas
(María González, Isabel Rodríguez and Catalina
de Castilla), two laywomen and a nun (clériga), who
were excused from obligations of the Order of Friars
Preachers. She also had a personal servant (Juana
Martínez), a chaplain (Juan de Iniesta), and other
servants that lived above her quarters. She enjoyed
lunch in her own room, accompanied by three or four
other nuns (dueñas); she used linen sheets and clothes;
she did not wear the veil as it bothered her; her family
members could visit her freely; her female relatives
(parientas), even those who were pregnant, could eat
or sleep in her chamber; her letters could not be
intercepted; and she was excused from attending choir,
refectory and sleeping in the dormitory.15
Female power in Constanza de Castilla’s tomb
The private institution that Constanza de Castilla
created at the convent of Santo Domingo el Real
in Madrid enabled her to promote her own lineage.
Her main concerns were to recover and legitimize
King Peter I of Castile’s legacy,16 and to establish
the prestige of the Castilla family in the Castilian
kingdom.17 Constanza thus ordered a family pantheon
to be built in the main chapel of the Dominican
church,18 construction of which was completed in
1444.19 In 1446, she obtained authorization from
John II to transfer to the convent the remains of her
father (the infante Juan), of three of her brothers who
died during childhood,20 and of her grandfather, Peter
I of Castile who was until then interred in oblivion
in Puebla de Alcocer (Badajoz).21 This initiative was
interpreted as the definitive reconciliation between the
Trastamara and petrista branches of the ruling house of
Castile.22 Desire for political reconciliation may have
motivated the exceptional double patronage of the
royal chapel; so although John II founded the chapel –
in response to his aunt’s “contemplation and constant
supplication,”23 so that its officials would pray for his
relatives’ souls24 – and financed the construction of
the tombs,25 Constanza de Castilla was appointed as
the chapel’s patron.26 She was, thus, responsible for
choosing the chapel’s officials,27 and she wrote the
chapel’s second, and definitive, constitution, dated 5
November 1464.28
Constanza de Castilla also located her tomb in her
convent’s choir. However, in an apparent break with
Dominican practices, she did not opt for a simple
tombstone. On the contrary, Constanza chose a
monumental alabaster tomb, which was placed in
an arcosolium. This decision, which may have been
motivated by the prioress’s desire to leave behind an
idealized image of herself, would serve as the model
for the rest of the nuns over the course of centuries.
At the same time, the coat of arms of the Castilla
lineage and her epitaph (fig. 2) reminded beholders of
Constanza’s royal ancestry:
Here lies buried / the very noble and
very religious lady / doña Constanza
de Castilla / daughter of the infante don
Juan / granddaughter of King Pedro
/ She was a nun in this house / and
prioress for many years / She died in
The extraordinary simplicity of the tombs of several
Castilian Dominican prioresses belonging to the
female branch of the Order of Preachers reveals the
exceptionality of Constanza’s sepulchre.29 The choir
of the convent of Santo Domingo el Real of Toledo
houses the body of Teresa de Ayala, prioress between
1403 and 1424, who chose a humble tombstone as her
funerary monument.30 The remains of Sister Leonor
de Castilla, who is documented as the prioress of the
convent of Sancti Spiritus in Toro (Zamora), also rest
under a tombstone in the nuns’ choir.
Fig. 2 / C. Pizarro and
E. Ancelet, Tomb of
Constanza de Castilla,
Madrid, Museo Español
de Antigüedades, 1875.
The idealized, recumbent statue of Constanza
with her eyes closed, slightly larger than life-size, is
mourned and guarded by two praying female figures
without veils (figs. 3 & 4). Constanza is dressed in
the Dominican habit and wears a rosary around
her neck. She also holds a closed book (19.6 x 15 x
4.5 cm), kept inside a chemise binding, which has
been identified both as the Order’s constitutional
document and her own book of devotions.32 It
could not, however, be the latter because, as Ángela
Franco Mata has indicated, Constanza’s book (11.7 x
11.3 cm) is much smaller than the one represented
on her tomb.33 The tomb base is decorated with the
coat of arms of the Castilla lineage,34 held by two
angels and flanked by the allegorical figures of four
virtues (two on each side): Prudence, identified by an
inscription beneath; Faith, who carries a Cross; Hope,
who looks out expectantly, with the palm of her
right hand raised,35 and Temperance, pouring water
into wine (figs. 5-8).36


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