In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saint John of the Cross

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Textual Criticism
  • Literary Studies
  • Biblical and Other Influences
  • Comparative Studies

Renaissance and Reformation Saint John of the Cross
Colin Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0294


A poet, mystic, and monastic reformer, St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz; born Juan de Yepes [b. 1527–d. 1591) is generally considered to be among the greatest lyrical poets in the Spanish language and one of the profoundest mystical writers in the Western Christian tradition. He collaborated with St. Teresa of Ávila in extending into the male communities the reform of the Spanish Carmelite Order she had begun among its female members, which led to the creation of the Discalced (Barefoot, Teresian) Carmelites as a separate Order. His poetic output is relatively small: a series of verses written in popular forms and meters and three poems written in the Renaissance form of the lira (five or six lines, with a mixture of seven and eleven syllables): the “Spiritual Canticle,” the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and the “Living Flame of Love.” The latter are characterized by a richness and sensuality of imagery inspired largely, but not exclusively, by the biblical Song of Songs. He began composing poems during an eight-month period of solitary confinement in Toledo, imposed on him by unreformed members of the Order, and he completed them in the years immediately following his escape, when he also produced commentaries on the three lira poems. It is these commentaries, published only after his death, which embody his teaching, much of which derives from his own experience as a spiritual director. The “Ascent of Mount Carmel” and the unfinished the “Dark Night of the Soul” together form his most systematic analysis of this journey, as they trace the soul’s progress through the fourfold dark night of the soul to union with God. The “Spiritual Canticle” expounds the imagery of the corresponding poem according to the three traditional ways of the mystical journey—the purgative, illuminative, and unitive—and also through the symbols of the spiritual betrothal and marriage. The “Living Flame of Love” was written as a guide to the unitive way, the highest state of prayer possible in this life. St. John’s analytical language is that of scholastic theology, but he supports his teaching through exegesis of a wide range of biblical texts. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926. Interest in both his poetic and his prose works has increased notably in the last one hundred years and has attracted the attention of literary scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and writers on spirituality, from within and beyond Christianity. Many articles and books appeared during the years surrounding the quatercentenary of his death in 1991.

General Overviews

Most overviews give an account of the life of St. John, as well as of his poetry and his prose works, with varying degrees of emphasis and detail. The first half of the English-language study Peers 1943 is devoted to the life of St. John, and, after a short introduction to the poetry, addresses the difficulties readers are likely to find with the saint’s mystical teaching. Like Peers 1943, Brenan 1973 is dependent on the earlier work of the Discalced Carmelite Crisógono de Jesús for its biographical elements (see also English Translations and Biographies). He offers his own interpretation of the poetry, which is often illuminating, whereas he has hardly anything to say about the prose works. Tavard 1988 aims to bridge the gap between the poetry and the prose and treats them together under various characteristic themes in both. Ros, et al. 1991 has the fullest and most useful of the overviews in Spanish by leading scholars who cover every aspect of St. John’s writing and mystical teaching. Cummins 1991 stresses St. John’s purpose as one of providing guidance to contemplatives seeking union with God and offers a good introduction to some of the principal concepts that emerge from his poetry and prose. Dombrowski 1992 takes a more controversial approach, arguing that the contemplative life as a critique of materialism is even more relevant now than in St. John’s time, and linking him with defense of that life in the 20th century by Thomas Merton. If the collected articles in Pacho 1997 do not give a single overview, taken together they offer individual snapshots of the state of scholarship on virtually every aspect of the subject. Thompson 2002 aims to provide English-speaking readers with a comprehensive account of the saint’s life and work. Always working from the original Spanish and incorporating the most recent scholarship, the author analyzes each of the poems and the commentaries in detail as well as assessing their significance.

  • Brenan, Gerald. St. John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    Brenan came to St. John late in life, following the success of earlier works that brought Spanish literature to the attention of the English-speaking public. Most of the book is a biography, but Brenan’s study of the poetry remains of interest, even if more recent criticism may call into question some of his conclusions. Includes an English translation of the poetry by Lynda Nicholson.

  • Cummins, Norbert. Freedom to Rejoice: Understanding St. John of the Cross. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

    Stresses that the whole purpose of St. John’s teaching, especially in its emphasis on negation and detachment, is to bring about the freedom to love both God and the created world properly. Goes through the commentaries to bring out the essential insights of each.

  • Dombrowski, Daniel. St. John of the Cross: An Appreciation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

    A plea for the contemporary relevance of the teaching of St. John; sees the contemplative life as a form of involvement in the life of the world, not an escape from it. Explains the significance of concepts such as appetite, detachment, and solitude. Claims that St. John is inclusive in his view of gendered language and a panentheist in his view of nature.

  • Pacho, Eulogio. Estudios sanjuanistas. 2 vols. Burgos, Spain: Monte Carmelo, 1997.

    A collection of almost fifty articles, otherwise often difficult to locate, covering some forty years of work by the most distinguished and prolific of the Discalced Carmelite scholars. Covers a very wide range of topics, from textual and literary history to biblical and doctrinal studies.

  • Peers, E. Allison. Spirit of Flame: A Study of St. John of the Cross. London: SCM, 1943.

    In many ways a pioneering study for the English-speaking world by the most influential Hispanist of his age. The first part is a biographical study, the second an exploration of what St. John’s teaching, when rightly understood, might mean for the modern reader.

  • Ros, Salvador, Eulogio Pacho, Téofanes Egido, et al., eds. Introducción a la lectura de San Juan de la Cruz. Valladolid, Spain: Junta de Castilla y León, 1991.

    The work of eight leading scholars and the most comprehensive Spanish-language survey. Covers historical, literary, and doctrinal studies and provides full introductions to the poetry, the short works, and each of the prose treatises.

  • Tavard, George H. Poetry and Contemplation in St. John of the Cross. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1988.

    A fresh approach, intended to bring a new perspective; always begins with the poems before moving on to more theological reflections. Particularly interesting on the place of faith and love in the mystical journey and the centrality of the Trinity in St. John’s teaching.

  • Thompson, Colin. St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night. London: SPCK, 2002.

    A full account of the life and work of St. John, including his reception in the English-speaking world, the major influences on his thinking and writing, literary analysis of all his poems, an exposition and analysis of his commentaries, and an appraisal of the significance of his spiritual teaching.

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