This painted lie you see

by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As a sister in the order of Saint Jerome, Mexico’s Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana (1651–1695) became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. An exceptionally well-read woman for her time, Sor Juana wrote extensively about both mundane and spiritual matters, often insisting that the two were not actually separate. Before entering religious life, she had already become known for her writing and erudition.

Among the hundreds of sonnets Sor Juana wrote, Sonnet 145—often called “the painted lie”—is one of the most well-known. It encapsulates numerous themes that occupied her and often put her into conflict with her superiors. The poem is remarkable for its insistence on the limitations of mortality while offering no indication of the hope of the eternal life of the spirit. In form, it is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines in two quatrains and two tercets; it uses an abba, abba, cdc, dcd rhyme scheme.

Many commentators have noted marked similarity in form and themes to a 1582 sonnet by Spain’s Luis de Góngora y Argote. In his poetic commentary on vanity, Góngora concludes with reference to the idea of “dust to dust” as the ending of corporeal life; Sor Juana uses the same words to end her poem. One remarkable contrast in this apparent homage is her reversal of the theme. Rather than criticize a vain woman’s folly as the male poet does, she criticizes the falsity of the painted image. In that regard, she reminds the reader as much as herself of the ultimate futility of trying to outlast fate.

Throughout her poem, Sor Juana points out the misleading quality of any portrait. While it attempts to capture the sitter’s youth, it may remind them of the onslaught of “old age,” which all are powerless to arrest. Even to pretend otherwise is a kind of vanity that ultimately embodies the foolishness of all art rather than the supposed beauty of the subject. With the analogy of a “fragile flower” being blown away, she suggests that any effort at defense against death is futile. For everyone and everything, the end will be “nada,” “nothing.”

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