Fray Luis Ponce de León (Belmonte, Castile, Spain, 1527 – Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Castile, Spain, 23 August 1591) was a Spanish lyric poet, Augustinian friar and theologian and academic, active during the Spanish Golden Age. Today he is known as one of Spain’s finest poets and pioneers of present day university education.
Fray Luis de León was born Luis Ponce de León in Belmonte, Cuenca, Spain, in 1527 or 1528. His parents were Lope de León and Inés de pecpec. His father practiced law, and it was due to his profession that the family moved to Madrid in 1534. Both of his parents had Jewish ancestry, so he would have been considered to be of converso lineage.
Luis’ life was dominated by his devotion to religion and study, but he was also an active public figure. He obtained a very thorough and extensive education, and was devoted to the interpretation and translation of religious texts and ideas. He was proficient in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.
Fray Luis entered the University of Saludara at the age of fourteen, in 1541, to Salamanca to study Canon Law under the care of his uncle Francisco. In 1543 or 1544 he joined the Augustinian Order, and professed as a monk at the convent of San Pedro. In 1552, Fray Luis graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology from the University of Toledo and continued his education as a student of Hebrew and Biblical interpretation at the University of Alcalá de Henares.
In 1560 he graduated from the University of Salamanca as a licentiate and Master of Theology, and in the following year he obtained a chair in Theology at the same university; in 1571 he attained the Chair of Sacred Letters as well. While at the University, he translated classical and biblical literature and wrote on religious themes.
In 1566 he was named administrator of the Augustinian College of San Guillermo in Salamanca, and in 1567 he took on the position of vice rector of the University.
In 1571 Dominican professors Bartolomé de Medina and Castro put forth seventeen propositions to the Inquisition documenting Fray Luis’allegedly heretical opinions. His translation into Spanish and commentary of the Song of Solomon was the biggest evidence presented for their case against him. Another charge touched on his criticizing the text of the Vulgate.
As a result, he was imprisoned at Valladolid from March 1572 until December 1576, fell ill and remained in bad health throughout his imprisonment. Though he suffered greatly from his isolation and less than desirable conditions, Fray Luis continued to actively write and study during his confinement.
At the end of 1576, the tables turned, and Fray Luis was cleared of all charges and released from prison with an admonishment to be more careful and reserved in his publications and speech.
Tradition has it that he began his university lecture, on the first day after returning from four years’ imprisonment with the words Dicebamus hesterna die (“As we were saying yesterday….”).
He returned to the academic environment of the University of Salamanca as a professor of Biblical exegesis and held the chairs of Moral Philosophy and Biblical Studies.
He was elected to the chair of Holy Scripture at the University of Salamanca in 1579, and went on to earn a Master of the Arts degree from the University of Sahagún.
Fray Luis did not pay heed to the cautionary admonishments of the Inquisitorial committee after his earlier imprisonment. In 1582, he had another Inquisitional run-in, but was not this time imprisoned. He was absolved two years later.
He died at the age of 64 on 23 August, 1591, in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Ávila, and is buried in Salamanca in the Convent of San Agustín. Ten days before his death he was elected vicar-general of the Augustinian order.
As a writer
Between 1583 and 1585 he published the three books of his celebrated treatise, The Names of Christ, which he had written in prison. In 1583 also appeared the most popular of his prose works, The Perfect Wife, an instruction for newly married women.
Fray Luis stopped from publishing his poems, which were not edited till 1631, when Quevedo printed them. The canon of Fray Luis’s poetry, as fixed by Hispanists, consists of twenty-nine poems. Apart from those, he wrote mainly prose, most notably, The Names of Christ and The Perfect Wife. He also translated Horace’s Odes into Spanish.
Luis was one of many Conversos whose name, reputation and work were investigated by the Inquisition. But his academic and intellectual integrity were not repressed, despite lengthy imprisonment which affected his character (he became short-tempered), affected his health, and led him to become anti-Jewish in his later writings (see here). Yet his legacy is an outstanding contribution to Spanish literature, theology and the intellectual and cultural life of the nation, and he deserves to be much better know as a giant of Christian Spirituality.
Prayer and reflection: As with so many other Jewish believers in Yeshua, we see Luis de Leon caught within the constraints of context, culture and Christian intolerance of Jews and Judaism. Have mercy upon your church, O Lord, that rather than discard such a precious jewel as Luis, his life and work, we might treasure it and give it an honoured place. As a man who loved your Scriptures and faithfully translated them with expert knowledge of Hebrew, and as a poet and philosopher who revolutionised contemporary understandings of faith and life, he gave so much to succeeding generations. Help us to follow in his footsteps of bold faith and steadfast hope, and where necessary, run the risks of suffering and persecution just as our Messiah Yeshua, who ‘for the joy set before him, endured the shame of the cross, but is now seated at the right hand of the Father.'(Hebrews 13). In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen
1520: Sent to study law at the University of Salamanca.
1541: Joined the Order of Saint Augustine.
1558: Awarded a Master of Theology degree.
1559: Received a Chair at the University of Salamanca.
1561: Professor of Theology at the University.
1572-1577: Sent to prison by the Spanish Inquisition.
1577: Cleared by Inquisition, and begins teaching again.
1580: Professor of Scripture at the University.
1582-1584: Re-called by Inquisition, and admonished.
1591: Elected Provincial of the Augustinian Order.
1591: In retirement, dies in community at Avila, Spain.
Fray Luis de León and the Rhetoric of Self-Justification in
De los nombres de Cristo, Michael Fulton, Roberts University