Theses defended

L'amore mistico come relazione con l'Altro dal XVI al XVIII secolo in Spagna (Teresa d'Avila), Italia (Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi) e Portogallo (soror Maria Joana)

Eleonora Graziani

Public Defence date
January 9, 2024
Doctoral Programme
Feminist Studies
Maria Antónia Lopes e Maria Irene Ramalho
The basic question that permeates the research is whether mysticism, understood as direct contact with the divine, would have represented a form of female empowerment. The three nuns under analysis, who all lived in cloistered monasteries, had a direct or mystical relationship with the divine Otherness and, although living in different historical contexts, substantial similarities can be found in the representation and self-representation of women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries: a model of sanctity that privileged the heroic virtues of obedience, modesty, humility and in general submission to the male ecclesiastical hierarchy. After the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a rigorous control was implanted over mystical phenomena, which proliferated in convents in order to reaffirm the need for ecclesiastical mediation in the relationship with the divine, exacerbating the mistrust of female mysticism, whose authenticity is carefully examined.

The analysis of autobiographical and biographical sources highlighted, for this purpose, the enormous weight of other historical subjects, representatives of the patriarchal domain, such as confessors, bishops and the Inquisition. It can be seen that of the three mystics the only one to have serious problems with the Inquisition was Teresa of Avila, although indirectly and always due to her writings published post mortem. Teresa's theology detaches itself from Passion-centred theology by placing the divinity at the centre of the human being, that is thus glorified, including the woman, which, for the Inquisition bordered on heresy. The other two, Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi and Maria Joana, are protected by the rigid control established that leads them without hesitation on the path of "suffering".

Avoiding both the fideistic approach, which hides or minimises the coercive aspects of the path to holiness, and the reductionist interpretation, which pathologises mystical phenomena, we chose to include the mystical experiences of these nuns in the mystical history, which begins in Antiquity and ends at the end of the 18th century. Even though their original writings may have been expurgated, a strong subjective charge transpires in the three mystics examined, in the personal articulation/mediation with the surrounding historical context and with the strong social pressure that regulates their behaviour.

One of the hypotheses raised is that ecstasies are a symptom of female resistance, according to Foucault and Butler's approach to body discipline. Whether canonisation was achieved or not, the construction of sanctity itself has been reconfirmed as a historical product that aims not only at the regulation of female behaviour, but also at the production of mimetic effects of reproduction and imitation to be diffused in conventual environments. The ascetic excesses, such as the self-destructive behaviours, are part of a reading of the feminine body as a "cultural text", in which the excess represents the underlining of the ecclesiastical prescription.

In the study of the three mystics, the thesis highlights the abyss between the post-mortem representation of the saint and the factual and concrete reality of her experience. The institution of confession, an instrument of control and management of social behaviour, was here placed in a line of theoretical continuity with the psychoanalytic session that prevailed above all in the twentieth century. The Freudian and Lacanian female representation, substantially coincident with that of the woman as an "incomplete, defective" being, does not take into account female specificity and difference, as Luce Irigaray points out, and does not contribute to an identity reference to female transcendence.