May 23, 2013

Saint Teresa’s Spiritual Orgasm


Rome is famous for the Colosseum, for the Roman Forum, for hosting within its perimeter the small but powerful state of Vatican City with the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Rome is a city renowned world-wide for the splendid monuments of the City Center such as, to just name a few, Piazza Navona or the Pantheon: ancient monuments make Rome one of the most rich-in-history and admired cities in the world; but Rome has also been the capital of and art movement that has shocked rules of artistic expression that had been established and followed for centuries—the Baroque—and has produced artists of the caliber of Borromini, Bernini and Caravaggio. Baroque artists loved massive and detailed decorations, curved lines, flowery curls and stucco. Their works often contain an idea of movement and motion that was directed to confuse and surprise—actually, astonish!—the viewers; Bernini’s statues, for example, literally seem to come to life and can be looked at from multiple perspective points. The facades of Borromini’ buildings stretch and bend in a way that make them seem to be on the verge of coming to life. Caravaggio’s original use of light is still studied today by photographers and movie directors for the dramatic effects that it is able to produce.


One of Bernini’s most impressive works is the Statue of Saint Teresa of Avila that can be found in the Cornaro Chapel inside the famous Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria—in English, Our Lady of Victory—located not far from the Termini station in Rome and Piazza della Repubblica, a site easily reachable during any of your tour of Rome. Our Lady of Victory was built in the beginning of the seventeenth century by Carlo Maderno a baroque architect who in the same years also completed the facade of St Peter’s Basilica! Years later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who had been as well working at the Basilica of St Peter (building the colonnade of the piazza and the famous baldachin) started a project to build a campanile, a very tall bell tower that had to be demolished even before being finished, because of its excessive weight. After this humiliation, Bernini’s brilliant career took an unexpected turn and he fell in disgrace. In the mid-1640’s, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was going through a tough time. After a few years of living in reclusive misery, he was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro to do a sculpture for the cardinal’s family chapel. He wanted was a statue of Saint Teresa, a Spanish mystic canonized just 20 or so years before. Bernini jumped at the opportunity, seeing it as a last shot at resurrecting his career.


In this work, rightly considered now one of the highest achievements of the Baroque, Bernini represented Saint Teresa in ecstasy, demonstrating not only his theological competence but also that theatrical style that was so peculiar of him. It is an artistic approach directed to give the viewers the impression that a special and incredible event (in fact a miraculous event!) is happening right here and right now, before our very eyes, so that we can believe and nurture our faith. In fact, Bernini’s statue is what we would nowadays call an installation. It is made of white marble, but placed within an edicola decorated with ceiling frescoes, from which a rain of golden steel rays comes down on the Saint. The marble group is like floating in air, and a child-like angel is about to penetrate Teresa’s heart with an arrow. Bernini’s rendering of Teresa’s description of her angelic visions resorts to explicit sexual symbolism. Bernini visualized the spiritual pain that Teresa describes in her writing with a physical experience that has clear sexual overtones; however, Bernini’s work is in fact very faithful to Teresa’s own description. In her autobiography, which was widely read in Rome, Teresa of Avila recalls a vision in which an angel appeared before her and pierced her heart with a golden spear. Teresa describes being repeatedly penetrated by the angel, setting her on fire with a love for God, and causing her to moan in ecstatic bursts of pain.

I saw in his hands a long golden spear […] This, he plunged into my heart several times into my heart,  that it penetrated to my entrails. […] The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans, and yet such pain was so exceedingly sweet that one cannot possibly desire it to cease. (St Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582)

It is exactly this scene, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, that inspired Bernini’s statue.  His angel grips his arrow, preparing to strike again, looking down at the swooning Teresa with a sly smile. Teresa lies overwhelmed beneath, her eyes and mouth in ovals of euphoria, her rippled habit mimicking the spasms charging through her body.


Even in pre-Freudian Europe you’d have to be pretty dense not to know what’s going on here. Teresa’s words are erotic enough.  And after all, the link between sexual pleasure and spiritual ecstasy is far from being uncommon in mystical literature. Thus, it’s not hard to imagine how Bernini could have seen bodily arrest as a useful metaphor for spiritual euphoria. However, his rendition of this concept was so strikingly visual, explicit, and engaging, that viewers are stunned at its sight. This is particularly noteworthy if you think that, through the centuries, the Church employed visual arts with a primarily pedagogical and didactic end. But after the Council of Trent (1545 and 1563) with which the Catholic Church made an attempt to moralize its institutions and behaviors of its representatives, to contrast the Lutheran reformation, had no little impact on the arts and the artists’ freedom. After the Council even the nudities of the Sistine Chapel were removed, and medical literature was discussing the legitimacy—and thus, sinfulness—of female sexual pleasure towards the goal of human reproduction. It is in this context that Bernini’s genius was able to produce one of the greatest example of religious art, by integrating into it all the subversive power of female orgasm with such plastic evidence. And yet this is one of the greatest examples of religious art, and one of the greatest masterpieces of the baroque sculpture ever.