Saturday, June 21, 2014

MWA XXV: Bernini's Teresa

It's been some time in my Monthly Work of Art posts since I wrote about sculpture, so I thought I would return to that medium by writing about one of my favorite works of Baroque sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52, by GianLorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) [image: Web Gallery of Art]. The sculpture itself is located in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. I've been fortunate to visit this church twice in order to see this work, and I will return to see it again the next time I am there. The subject is taken from the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who wrote about spiritual ecstasy in the form of an angel visiting her and piercing her heart with an arrow. Here is an excerpt from her text that describes the experience (which I sheepishly admit I've ripped from Wikipedia):

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

Bernini's sculpture is breathtaking to behold, as Teresa lies half-asleep on a cloud as the grinning angel holds an arrow aloft like a spear about to stab her. We clearly have caught them in medias res because we can see from the way her face writhes and her mouth moans in ecstasy that the angel has already been piercing her. The scene is truly nothing less than a representation of a woman experiencing an orgasm. The talents of Bernini's studio workers and the master himself in the carving of these dynamic figures in marble is incredible. Their stone bodies undulate like waves of water, fooling the viewer into thinking this isn't stone at all. But Bernini's talents lie not only in his skills as a sculptor but also in his use of a theatrical tableau to frame his work (see the full installation of this work below). Above the figures are gilded wood rays that emanate the light coming from an unseen window, suggesting divine light from God, and on the left and right are balconies in which members of the Cornaro family--all male--gaze with varying degrees of emotion at the scene before them. Saint Teresa's ecstasy is a performance, arguably not unlike the performance art of Marina Abramovic and others in contemporary art today. The saint's spiritual contortion serves to entertain the Cornaro men, and all men who enter the church and stare along with them at the saint in ecstasy. This is artistic voyeurism at its finest, the spying on a female body in one of its most private moments.

In 2009, I included Bernini in my Top 10 Favorite Things About Rome series of posts. As I noted in that post then, you cannot avoid Bernini and his influence on Rome. He defined Baroque sculpture, and he made Rome the center of that artistic universe. The contortions and vibrancy of his sculpture and architecture is everywhere, whether it's the baldacchino and Cathedra Petri in St. Peter's, Vatican City, or Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria. Bernini is just one of the many reasons why it is worth visiting Rome.

UPDATE 9/24/14: My dear friend MT recently took a trip to Rome and, although she had been there before, it was the first time she saw Bernini's St. Teresa. She described to me in an email her experience in seeing it, and I've decided to record it here for posterity because I found her words and experience so moving. Seeing this work for the first time in-person is an incredible experience: "I had been in Rome in 1979 and 1989 but missed the St. Teresa both times because I was trying to cross reference my guide books with my art books and missed the crucial info of the location of the chapel in the church. But this time I was armed. Who says Google is a bad thing? And we went to the chapel almost directly from the airport. I was so struck by how small the saint is. I had expected her to be monumental in scale. But she looks so tiny and delicate, yet life-like. She brought tears to my eyes. I also wished that I had never seen photographs because I felt that I had to work hard to have a direct encounter with the sculpture. It is as if her fame had  changed her meaning for me."

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