Renaissance and Reformation Cecilia del Nacimiento
Barbara Mujica
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0324


In spite of the birth of the scientific revolution, 16th-century Europe was concerned predominantly with the relationship between man and God. Spain saw a burgeoning spiritual innovation, as ideas from northern Europe and Italy penetrated the Iberian Peninsula. The devotio moderna, a 14th-century reform movement that sought a return to a more primitive, authentic Christianity, galvanized the Spanish Court. Spiritual leaders such as Ignatius of Loyola, Luis de Granada, Pedro de Alcántara, Teresa de Ávila, and John of the Cross spread the new spirituality through their writings and foundations. The classic study of 16th-century Spanish mysticism, Peers 2002, covers the history and major elements of mysticism with excerpts from major mystical writers. Peers has been superseded by more recent scholars such as Pacho 2008, whose extensive analysis of Spanish mysticism focuses more on the spiritual and theological components and less on the literary aspects of mystical writing. By the early 17th century, interest in science and technology grew in northern Europe, although in Spain the monarchy repressed scientific inquiry and fomented works supporting religious orthodoxy. The cult of saints was encouraged, and the canonization of Teresa de Ávila produced countless imitators. Some convents became centers of intellectual activity, where nuns produced a plethora of Vidas (or spiritual memoirs) and poetry (Arenal and Schlau 2006, Haliczer 2002, Poutrin 1995). Increasing numbers of women claimed mystical enlightenment, causing alarm among Church authorities, who often attributed their experiences to female hysteria or demonic possession (Sluhovsky 2007). Although Teresa had faced the same kind of skepticism, by the 17th-century, the Spanish Inquisition had become even less tolerant of female mystics. Haliczer 2002 argues that the male-dominated church hierarchy saw the prestige conferred on women by mystical experience as a threat to their own authority. Many 17th-century Spanish female mystics passed into oblivion, either because they were overshadowed by Teresa de Ávila or because the Church downplayed or ignored their experiences. Although Cecilia del Nacimiento (b. 1570–d. 1646) was recognized for her spiritual perfection and literary achievements in her own time, after her death, she was virtually forgotten. However, burgeoning interest in early modern women mystics has led investigators to rediscover her writing. Cecilia was the daughter of Antonio Sobrino, secretary of the University of Valladolid and holder of several papal commissions, and the highly educated Cecilia Morillas, his wife and assistant. Nearly all their children entered religious life. The two daughters, Cecilia and her older sister María, both took vows at the Carmelite convent in Valladolid in 1589, and both became accomplished writers. In fact, they made the Valladolid Carmel into a beehive of artistic activity, where nuns wrote not only Vidas but also poetry, plays, and treatises and even composed music. An excellent administrator, Cecilia was ordered in 1600 to Calahorra to found a convent with Fray Tomás de Jesús. A controversial figure because of his missionary zeal, Fray Tomás brought the wrath of the Carmelite hierarchy not only on himself but also on her. Nevertheless, she was a highly effective prioress who inspired her nuns (Dobner 2011). Cecilia probably wrote her Canciones de la unión y trasformación del alma before leaving Valladolid, but her much praised Tratado de la Transformación del alma en Dios and Tratado de la union del alma con Dios were the product of the difficult years from 1600 to 1603. During this period, she also wrote a Vida, which relates her spiritual evolution from early childhood, but most of it has been lost. After returning to Valladolid, she enjoyed another highly fecund period (1629–1643). She died in 1646 after a flood made conditions in the convent of Valladolid unhealthy. Most of the bibliography on Cecilia del Nacimiento is quite specialized. General or teaching editions are marked as such.

  • Arenal, Electa, and Stacey Schlau. “‘Leyendo yo y escribiendo ella’: The Convent As Intellectual Community.” Letras Femeninas 32.1 (2006): 129–147.

    A description of the intellectual life of early modern Spanish convents. Educated men discounted the cultural output of nuns. Yet, in the Carmel in Valladolid, where Cecilia del Nacimiento and her sister fostered a climate of artistic activity and reasoned exchange, nuns painted, performed in plays, composed music, and wrote poetry.

  • Dobner, Cristiana. “Cecilia del Nacimiento: ‘Mucho más que una mujer.’” Monte Carmelo: Revista de Estudios Carmelitanos 119.1 (2011): 55–86.

    Letrados (university-educated men) believed that sophisticated theological language was above the capabilities of women, who could use it only when God infused it in their souls. Yet, when she was a prioress, Cecilia was able to inflame her nuns with love because she used the eloquent language of God rather than mere woman’s language.

  • Haliczer, Stephen. Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195148630.001.0001

    An overview of the upsurge of female mysticism in 16th- and 17th-century Spain. Halizcer examines the influence of early modern translations of hagiographies and the canonization of Spaniards such as Teresa de Ávila. He brings to light Inquisitorial cases against women accused of “feigned sanctity” and shows how women used mystical experience to transcend the constraints of a male-dominated religious hierarchy.

  • Pacho, Eulogio. Apogeo de la mística cristiana: Historia de la espiritualidad clásica española, 1450–1650. Burgos, Spain: Editorial Monte Carmelo, 2008.

    Pacho avoids the artistic or literary approach and instead focuses on the development of mystical thought from the 15th through the 17th century, analyzing the spiritual doctrines, religious lives, messages, and impact of Spain’s great mystics. Among those he covers are Francisco de Osuna, Bernardino de Laredo, Juan de Dios, Juan de Ávila and John of the Cross. Aside from Teresa de Ávila, he includes no women.

  • Peers, E. A. The Mystics of Spain. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.

    For decades the classical introduction to Spanish mysticism, this groundbreaking study introduces the major elements of mystical experience (recollection, silence, interiority, union with God) and provides examples of the writing of mystics from Lull through John of the Cross. The only woman included is Teresa de Ávila. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • Poutrin, Isabelle. Le Voile et la plume: Autobiographie et sainteté féminine dans l’Espagne Moderne. Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 1995.

    An exploration of Vida production in convents after the death of Teresa de Ávila. Poutrin argues that from 1580 to 1720, nuns produced an extraordinary amount of spiritual writing, in large part because religious orders encouraged devout women who aspired to sanctity to put their spiritual experiences into words. However, many Church authorities found women’s claims to mystical experience dubious and sought to censure their writing.

  • Sluhovsky, Moshe. Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762951.001.0001

    Examines the experiences of visionaries and mystics in early modern Europe in the light of coetaneous ideas on faith, possession, and medicine. Of primary importance is Sluhovsky’s exploration of the “discernment of spirits,” through which religious and scientific experts determined whether a subject (often a woman) was truly a mystic or the victim of hysteria, illness, or possession.


Howe 2015 examines the challenges to researchers seeking to unearth biographical information on early modern women. Autobiographical writing took varied forms. It is central to Vidas but also appears in letters and treatises. Vidas are not entirely reliable, as they were ordinarily written at the behest of a confessor to prove the piousness or orthodoxy of the subject, and so they might be distorted. Cecilia del Nacimiento exemplifies the complications biographers face. While in Calahorra, she wrote her Vida at the request of Tomás de Jesús, according to Díaz Cerón 1970, but only fragments remain. Other examples of her autobiographical writing are interspersed in the letters she wrote to her brothers, particularly Antonio Sobrino, but these were lost for centuries. First housed in Valladolid, the manuscripts passed to many other locations until Díaz Cerón tracked them down to a private collection in Buenos Aires. The Vida served as the basis of the biography included in the 1710 Reforma de los Descalzos de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, by Manuel de San Jerónimo, reproduced by Díaz Cerón. Other autobiographical sources are the Interrogatorio para el proceso de beatificación del Padre Fray Antonio Sobrino, O.F.M., Fundación de Calahorra, and Cecilia’s letters (Obras completas). Boyle 2015 refers to Des sus hermanos y de su hermana Madre de María San Alberto as an “autobiography,” but this does not appear to be the document that Díaz Cerón was searching for. Boyle summarizes parts of Des sus hermanos in “Skills Proper to their Sex.” Around 1620 Cecilia’s brother Diego de San José wrote the family chronicle, Relación de las cosas memorables de la vida y muerte del señor don Francisco Sobrino, a rich source for biographers. Blanca Alonso-Cortés provides a synopsis of Cecilia’s biography, based largely on Manuel de San Jerónimo’s work, in her dissertation, Dos Monjas vallisoletanas poetizas. Most of Cecilia’s anthologists provide biographies (Arenal and Schlau 2010, cited under Education; Mujica 2004, cited under Anthologies; Olivares and Boyce 2012, cited under Poetry), as do Donnelly and Sider 2012. Several online bibliographies of Cecilia are available, although these are quite superficial.

  • Boyle, Margaret E. “Skills Proper to their Sex: Cecilia Morillas and a New Domestic Education in Early Modern Spain.” Gender and History 27.2 (August 2015): 293–306.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-0424.12126

    Includes summaries of parts of Des sus hermanos y de su hermana Madre de María San Alberto, which exists only in manuscript form. A valuable overview of the available material on the upbringing of Cecilia del Nacimiento.

  • Cecilia del Nacimiento. Obras completas: Notas críticas y estudio de su vida mística. Edited by José María Díaz Cerón. Madrid: Espiritualidad, 1970.

    The introduction recounts Díaz Cerón’s efforts to recuperate Cecilia’s Vida and his success in finding fragments of her autobiographical writing in Argentina. He reproduces the biography by Manuel de San Jerónimo in this volume.

  • Donnelly, Kevin, and Sandra Sider. “Introduction.” In Journey of a Mystic Soul in Poetry and Prose. By Donnelly, Kevin and Sandra Sider, 1–31. Toronto: Centre for Renaissance and Romance Studies, 2012.

    Introduction to Cecilia’s life for the English speaker. The editors paint a vivid picture of the Sobrino-Morillas household. They show Cecilia to be a tough and determined prioress, able to engage in negotiations with men. They provide useful historical context for developments in Cecilia’s life. Suitable for undergraduates.

  • Howe, Elizabeth Teresa. Autobiographical Writing by Early Modern Hispanic Women. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

    An overview of different types of early modern women’s autobiographical writing, from chronicles and Vidas to letters, testimonies, and treatises. Although Howe does not deal with Cecilia specifically, she provides useful information about the strategies women used to represent themselves through writing and where, besides Vidas, researchers might look for information.

  • JR. “Cecilia del Nacimiento: Monja carmelita descalza y escritora.” mcnbiografias.

    General introduction to the life and work of Cecilia del Nacimiento that covers the salient points. Suitable for undergraduates.

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