Saint Teresa of Avila's Biretta: A Brief Introduction to the Iconography of St. Teresa of Avila as Doctrix Ecclesia

St Teresa. Juan Nepomuceno Peñalosa,1840.
Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, Alba de Tormes.
Embroidered birretta by Sister Cándida María de Jesús, 1902. 

It might be shocking to some (in particular those outside of the Hispanic world) to come upon an image of St Teresa wearing the biretta, which generally considered an exclusive item of clerical vesture. We must nevertheless remember that the biretta is the common ancestor of today’s varied academic headdress, including the iconic mortarboard used throughout the English-speaking world.

St Teresa writing. Germán López, 1732.
Convent of St Joseph, Malagón.

The characteristically Spanish stiff 4-horned biretta did not fully develop until the 17th century, which at this time is restricted to ecclesiastical, academic and judiciary circles. A code was developed to denote each of the main disciplines taught in university using the tufts and mozzettas worn: white for theology, red for law, yellow for Medicine and blue for philosophy, etc.

Imposition of the bonete on a new doctor. Anonymous copy of a 17th century original.
University of Alcalá.

It was Pope Paul VI who in 1970 finally granted the Title of Doctor of the Church to St Teresa, finally answering a request that was first elevated in 1597 by all the cathedral chapters of Spain to Pope Clement VIII. The petition had been repeatedly denied by Rome dryly arguing Obstat sexus (her sex prevents it).

The devotion of the Spanish people was too great to be contained, and while the title of doctor of the church could not be used, this did not stop her receiving other titles such as doctrix seraphica or doctrix mystica.
St. Teresa, Mystic Doctor, Print by Vicente Galcerán, 1773.
  Library of the University of Navarre.

St. Teresa was particularly popular among the scholars of the University of Salamanca, who were tasked with the efforts for her canonization and are likely responsible for the apparition of the biretta in her iconography. This intrusion by a member of the opposite sex into academic circles must not have been too shocking, since it is known that at least 4 women attained degrees and taught in Spanish universities at the turn of the 15th century, and while very rare, the precedent was set.

St Teresa teaches scholars. Anonymous artist of the Cusco school, 18th century. 
St. Teresa Museum, Arequipa, Peru

While the academic bonete with white tuft can be found in depictions of the saint as early as 1647, it usually placed on the side, with the first images of her actually wearing it dating from the mid 18th century.

St. Teresa. Alonso Cano, 1628.
Church of El Buen Suceso, Seville. Picture by Maldonati photography.
The bonete is likely a later addition to the original sculpture.

As the depiction of Saint Teresa donning the 4-horned “bonete” with white tuft gained popularity, we see examples of sculptures getting the hat added later on or as an accessory to be used on particular occasions.

The transverberation of St Teresa. Anonymous, 17th century.
Church of the Holy Angel, Seville. Picture by Maldonati photography

An atypical example of these removable birettas is the one crafted by Fr Félix Granda in 1922. Rather than being shaped like the traditional 4-horned “bonete”, it was modeled after the 8 sided academic caps used by the doctors of the university of Salamanca at the time. Also, instead of being made out of wood or fabric, it was crafted in gold plated silver and profusely decorated with filigree, enamels, ivory and gemstones.

Doctoral Bonete of St Teresa. Fr. Félix Granda, 1922.
Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, Alba de Tormes.

Further reading:

Iconography of St Teresa of Avila, María José Pinilla Martín, 2013

Saint Teresa’s Biretta and Infused Science, Antonio Rubial Garcia, 2017

1922 Santa Teresa doctora por la universidad de Salamanca, José Luis Gutiérrez Robledo, 2018

Granda’s Bonete

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