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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Isabella de Joya Roseres

b. circa 1508, Lérida, Spain; d. 1575, Lérida, Spain

The correct name of this person is ISABEL DE JOSA.

Encomiums to Isabel de Josa began in her lifetime. Born Isabel d’Orrit, she married Guillem Ramon de Josa; their son, Bernardo de Josa, became the bishop at Vich, Spain. An extraordinarily cultivated woman, Isabel was a humanist, Latinist, philosopher, and religious scholar. She is said to have preached at the cathedral of Barcelona and appeared before the College of Cardinals at Rome during the pontificate of Paul III (1534–49), where she delivered an eloquent exposition on the theology of Duns Scotus. She retired to a convent at Lérida.

Curiously, it was not until the nineteenth century that “Roseres” (or variants thereof) became attached to Isabel’s name. It is possible that later historians mistakenly conflated Isabel de Josa with her friend, Isabel Roser. Both Isabels were members of influential and wealthy families of Barcelona. Both were devotees of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and both make many appearances in his correspondence. Unlike de Josa, however, Isabel Roser is extensively documented in modern scholarship because she precipitated a crisis in the Jesuit order during its foundational years. Born into the noble Ferrer family of Catalan, Isabel married the wealthy Barcelona merchant Juan Roser. Together with de Josa, she led a circle of matrons who became generous benefactors of Ignatius during his stay in their city in the early 1520s and, later, of the fledgling Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Society did not operate as a traditional monastic order; rather, it was established as an activist ministry in which members—all male—worked in the world, particularly among the poor. In 1543, Isabel (now a widow) and two female companions joined Ignatius in Rome, where they helped to finance and administer a Jesuit rescue mission for fallen women. But Isabel’s ultimate goal was to create a female branch of the Society. Ignatius resisted the idea, so she took her case directly to Pope Paul III, who ordered Ignatius to admit the three women as full-fledged members of the Jesuits. He complied but problems began immediately. Among other issues, the male Jesuits were “distracted” by the women. In 1546, Ignatius successfully petitioned the pope to reverse the order, and Isabel and her companions were turned over to a traditional—i.e., enclosed—convent. Soon rumors began to circulate that Ignatius had fleeced Isabel of her fortune; the altercation went before the court, which decided against Isabel. Meanwhile, Ignatius asked the pope to issue a bull forbidding women to enter the order. Thenceforth, the Jesuits were protected from the disturbing female presence.

Biographers of Ignatius, when discussing the “affaire Roser,” portray Isabel as a demanding, imperious woman subject to nervous disorders. But the larger issue concerns the role of women in religious orders. Isabel Roser, a noblewoman educated for leadership, had insisted on a public existence on a par with male co-workers. The Jesuits, in turn, were horrified by the specter of religious women in daily contact with lay people. The pope ultimately agreed and ordered Isabel’s enclosure. The Council of Trent, which began deliberations in 1545, would ratify and enforce the claustration of all religious women. The Church would not tolerate independent women engaged in an active ministry.