The Footsteps of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Seville

Entrance to Las Teresas convent
Entrance to Las Teresas convent

In the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Seville, leading up from the Plaza Santa Cruz towards the cathedral, is the little winding street of Las Teresas. If you live in Seville, or have visited as a tourist, you will certainly have walked along it. You will quite likely also have stopped in at its best-known landmark, the delightful Bar Las Teresas, with its rows of jamón Iberico hanging from the ceiling. But diverting though it is, this is not our topic for the day and reason for being here, which is across the street and a couple of doors down. Here you will find yourself in front of a truly impressive wooden door in an ornate portal set in a rather blank and forbidding wall, with just a few barred windows set high up near the roof. It’s the entrance to the Convent of San José, better known as Las Teresas after its founder Saint Theresa of Ávila.

Santa Teresa is one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent saints and theologians, a mystic, writer and reformer of the Carmelite nuns, and the current interest in her is because next year is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

She was born in 1515 in Ävila, a small town between Madrid and Salamanca most famous for its virtually intact city wall. Her grandfather had been a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith (remember that the last of the Moors had only been expelled from Granada in 1492, and Christianization of the newly created kingdom of Spain set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabela). Her father, however, had successfully integrated into the new order, and Teresa’s mother was a pious Christian who read Teresa stories from the lives of the saints as a child. After her mother died, when Teresa was 14, she developed a romanticised and sentimental obsession with the Virgin Mary and works of popular fiction about mediaeval knights.

Not long afterwards she was sent to be educated by the Augustinian nuns of Ávila, after which, now aged 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastary of the Incarnation, an order enjoined to contemplation and devotion, supposedly founded on Mt Carmel in the 12th century. It was here in the quiet of the cloister that she experienced the ecstatic religious trances for which she is most famous, and developed the mysticism which was her inspiration. At the same time she became increasingly concerned by the lax observance of the Carmelite order in Ávila, and despite some initial opposition set up a reformed Carmelite (the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites) convent in Ávila, the beginning of twenty years of reform and founding of new convents which bring us back again to the starting point of our article.

On May 26, 1575, Teresa arrived in Seville with a few nuns, for the purpose of founding a convent (her eleventh). To begin with they rented a house on Calle Zaragoza, where they stayed for ten years, but the location was never satisfactory. In those days (Seville’s Golden Age at the height of the America’s trade) Zaragoza was one of the main streets leading down to the port, a noisy place full of taverns, sailors and traders. Eventually, with the help of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), they were able to buy the property in Teresas Street which has been their home ever since. Although not open to the public, it included among its possessions the only known portrait of Teresa painted during her lifetime, and the original manuscript of her best known work, Las Moradas, the Dwellings of the Interior Castle.

Teresa herself never saw the order’s new home. In 1582 while travelling in northern Spain she was taken ill and died. By one of those strange quirks of fate or history she died on the night when the Church was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, with the removal of the dates October 5-14 that year. Teresa died either late in the evening of October 4 (Julian), or in the early hours of October 15 (Gregorian). She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, and remains one of the Catholic church’s most popular and important saints.

The Spanish Inquisition

I bet you didn’t expect that! Okay, so I’m probably showing my age a bit, but I thought I’d start on a light note before delving into one of the darker aspects of the history of Spain and particularly of Seville.

san jorge model

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, to give it its proper title, was established in 1480 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage in 1469 had effectively unified Spain for the first time, shortly before the surrender of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada in 1492. As well as the Islamic Moors, Spain had for a thousand years played host to a large Jewish population, and the primary purpose of the Inquisition was to enforce the unification of the country through a rigid Catholic orthodoxy, although it also conducted investigations into blasphemy, clerical misconduct, and, occasionally, witchcraft. Although the numbers are not precise, it’s thought that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were put to death before the Inquisition was formally disbanded in 1834.

In Seville, the Inquisition almost immediately established it’s headquarters in the Castillo San Jorgé, whose ruins can now be seen below Triana market and house a Museum of Tolerance which is well worth a visit.

Plaza del Altozano s/n
Tel 954 332 240
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 11.00-18.30 / Sat-Sun 10.00-15.00
Entrance free

The castle itself is certainly much older than this, and was certainly already there in 1171, when the Moors built the “bridge of boats” where the Puente Isabella II (usually known as Triana Bridge) now stands.

 san jorge museum

The Inquisition’s first victims in Seville are closely connected to a well-known local folk-history, that of Susona ben-Suson (the basic story is history, the embellishments are various and not guaranteed). Susona was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, who, as harrassment of the Jews mounted in the late 1470s, started meeting in secret with other influential local Jews. It’s not known for certain whether actual sedition was being planned, but Susona made the mistake of telling her Christian boyfriend about them, and he in turn reported it to the authorities. The group were duly summoned by the Inquisition and later executed. Overcome with remorse, Susona never again left her house, and when she died her head was hung outside, by her own command, as a warning to others, and in Calle Susona in the Barrio Santa Cruz, the street named after her, you can still find a small tile plaque of a skull on the wall.

Spanish Charm – the Plazas of Santa Cruz

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, or Virgin of the kings, is the beautiful and iconic square between the Cathedral and the Barrio Santa Cruz. In the centre is the fountain designed and built for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, surmounted by an ornamental farola (street light), and its periphery is formed by three of Seville’s most important historic buildings, the cathedral (including the Giralda tower), the Archbishop’s Palace and the Convent of the Incarnation. Although these buildings are much older, the square itself was only created at the end of the 18th century by the demolition of administrative buildings belonging to the Church, and has only had its modern form since the remodelling of its eastern side for the widening of Calle Mateos Gago in the 1920s. Enjoy the view and the comings and goings of the horsedrawn carriages from one of the benches in the shade of the orange trees.

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes

Plaza Santa Marta Santa Marta is the little square next to Virgen de los Reyes, reached by way of the little alley behind the statue of the Pope. Even though it’s so close to one of the busiest places in the city it’s a little oasis of peace and quiet. The cross in the centre dates to 1564, but was only placed here in the early 20th century. The door to the right is the entrance to the Monastery of the Incarnation.

Plaza Santa Marta

Plaza del Triunfo Alongside Virgen de los Reyes is the Plaza del Triunfo, surrounded by Seville’s three world heritage sites, the Cathedral, the Alcázar Palace and the Archivos de Indias, as well as the Casa de la Provincia. The small monument in front of the Archivos, which gives the square its name, celebrates the safe completion of the mass that was interrupted by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, whose effects were also felt in Seville. The modern appearance of the square, including the statue of the Immacualate Conception, whose steps are a popular gathering place, dates back to the early twentieth century.

Plaza del Triunfo

Patio de Banderas Going through the archway beside the square brings you to the Patio de Banderas (Flags), where the Kings of Spain once greeted foreign ambassadors. Notable for its rectangular promenade formed by two rows of orange trees, and its fountain, it was recently the site of archaeological investigations which brought to light some of the earliest stages of the Palace’s history.

Patio de Banderas

Plaza de la Alianza This charming little square with a length of the old wall on one side and a simple central fountain, was once called the Plaza del Pozo Seco (the dry well).

Plaza de la Alianza

Plaza Doña Elvira Possibly the most picturesque little square in Seville, and one of the most frequented by tourists, it’s supposedly the birthplace of Doña Elvira, the impossible love of Don Juan. The square was actually created as part of the redevelopment of the barrio for the Spanish-American exhibition, and owes much of its beauty to the symmetry of its orange trees, ceramic benches and central fountain.

Plaza Doña Elvira

Plaza Alfaro Plaza Alfaro is the little square at the entrance to the Murillo Gardens. Look for the Moreton Bay fig trees just inside, the water pipes in the exposed end of the old wall, and the ornate entrance to the Casa Palacio de la Marquesa de Pickman a few steps up Calle Lope de Rueda.

Plaza Alfaro

Plaza Santa Cruz Once the site of one the Jewish quarter’s three synagogues, and after the pogrom of 1391 of the parish church of Santa Cruz, the square was created by its demolition by Napoleon in 1811. The church was the burial place of the artist Bartolomé Murillo, as attested by the plaque in one corner of the square. The rather strange metal structure in the centre is the Cruz de la Cerrajería, once located at the corner of Calle Sierpes and Calle Cerrajería, and moved here in 1921. Notice the serpents and the little figures on the top corners.

Plaza Santa Cruz

Plaza de los Refinadores Los Refinadores (the refiners) is another of the charming squares that are such a feature of the Santa Cruz. The circular benches around the five palm trees make a quiet and shady spot for a few minutes tranquil contemplation. The statue is of the legendary Don Juan Tenorio, and was erected in 1975. Also of interest is the Casa para Luis Prieto, which is the one on the corner with the big glassed-in balcony, designed by Aníbal González, who also designed the Plaza de España.

Plaza de los Refinadores