Indiana University Bloomington

Ecstatic Bernini, Abashed Modernity

Sarah Kissel, religious studies, English, and political science

Rome, Italy


Since taking a course on gender and sexuality during the Reformation, I have been taken with both the testimony of St. Teresa of Avila and its representation, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. During my semester studying abroad in Rome I have encountered innumerable breathtaking works of art, but this particular sculpture of St. Teresa was a primary priority because I wanted to investigate the entire chapel and display surrounding Teresa and her angelic visitor.

Whenever St. Teresa has appeared on a syllabus, the conversation has focused on the sexuality of her mystical experience. Both the vision itself — being pierced repeatedly by a divine, flaming arrow — and especially the rhetoric she utilizes to describe the vision are erotic. She writes of an angel appearing to her while she slept: “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 Book of Her Life). This blend of violence and pleasure bears sexual connotation in the context of terms such as “passion” (pleasure to the point of pain) and “le petit mort” (“the little death,” a French euphemism for orgasm), both of which historically bridge the gap typically governed by the church — between mortal life and the hereafter — by their implication that one can experience the divine while in the throes of ecstasy precisely because it is a moment in which the soul “leaves the body” and is in a position to access God in new or unique ways. Teresa writes that: “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 pain is not bodily, but spiritual; hough the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God…” (The Book of her Life). St. Teresa’s account of her vision is so replete with images and rhetoric evocative of sexual ecstasy that Bernini’s representation of it proved too overt for the Cardinal who commissioned the statue, and therefore Bernini’s sculpture does not adorn the Cardinal’s tomb as it was originally intended, but rather the front left chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria just outside central Rome.

What I found most fascinating about the piece’s display was the aversion to its sexuality upheld by Italian society into modernity. The statue is placed up high, far above the heads of visitors, and is flanked by marble columns in such a way that one cannot achieve a complete view of St. Teresa’s face even when standing on the first step of the entrance all the way to the left. It was also originally illuminated by natural light via a small window far above the angel’s head, and still is, unless a euro is donated to switch on the electric lights. The source of the Cardinal’s outrage — Teresa’s erotic expression, with head throw back and mouth open as if gasping — is barely visible.

Because the entirety of Santa Maria della Vittoria was designed by Bernini, it is unclear why the sculpture is so difficult to clearly see. Certainly he himself did not shy away from the sexuality of Teresa’s ecstatic experience — not only did he choose to represent her overwhelmed by painful pleasure, he mocked the prudishness of the Cardinal who denounced the piece as “exhibitionist” by depicting him and his family in theatre boxes watching Teresa’s “show” on either side of the chapel. Additionally, Bernini makes several tongue-in-cheek allusions to ecstasy’s double-entendre by decorating the chapel’s floor with skulls, a possible nod to “le petit mort.” All that in mind, however, I was still surprised by how shrouded the sculpture was. The answer, of course, seems to be in the shroud itself.

Likely anticipating the feathers he would ruffle, Bernini takes advantage of another opportunity to subtly convey the sexuality of Teresa’s vision by arranging the two figures so her physical form receives emphasis by spatially dominating the sculpture. We see very little of her body: her face, one hand grasping the rock below her, the other hand open to receive the angel, and a foot curled downward. But the cloak that billows around her distinguished Bernini as a master precisely because of its torrid movement: rather than depicting her garments flowing calmly downward, as was the classical style that preceded him, Bernini sculpts Teresa’s robes in a swirling, chaotic mass that ripples over itself in waves so lifelike they seem to move. Here, such a technique seeks to convey the exquisite madness experienced by the body below the beautifully twisted garments, and Bernini manages to depict a divine orgasm without providing more than a few square inches of Teresa herself.

Italian society, however, has taken full advantage of Bernini’s cloaked intentions by choosing to interpret them for tourists in the same seemingly-vague manner. The provided description references Teresa’s ecstasy as almost completely devoid of sexuality: “The ecstasy of Saints and their visions of the divine represent one of the themes most dear to Baroque art. The moment of ecstasy, understood as ‘death through love’ on the basis of Teresa’s understanding, refers to a mystical experience that involves body and spirit together.” The decision to explain Teresa’s vision as one in which body and soul were united both contradicts Bernini’s title — The Ecstasy of St. Teresa — and removes the possibility of understanding sexual ecstasy as an opportunity for unity with the divine precisely because it is a moment of disunity with the body. An allusion is made to such a construction with the interpretation of ecstasy as “death through love,” a paradox that also invokes the transgression of cosmic boundaries, but the relationship between body and spirit is oversimplified through the rejection of the sexuality of Teresa’s vision. While walking around the front of the chapel, trying in vain to get a good view of Teresa’s face, I overheard an English guide mention that the sculpture was considered “exhibitionist” when unveiled, but the rest of her tour centered on Bernini’s technique and mastery.

In homage to Teresa’s original account, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is all contradiction and duality. Although originally dismayed by the indiscernability of the themes I knew to be present, I left Santa Maria della Vittoria overwhelmed both by Bernini’s incredible skill as a creator and by his vision as a storyteller: his sculpture simultaneously depicts Teresa’s fiery rhetoric unabashedly and with the sort of engineered reserve that prompts viewers to question the binary between invisible and manifest, spiritual and physical, sacred and profane.

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