The Ecstacy of the Ecstacy of Saint Teresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

In a small church only a few blocks from the train station in Rome there resides a marvelous sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicting an episode in the The Life of Teresa of Jesus in which Teresa of Avila, founder of the eremitic order of the Discalced Carmelites, undergoes a profound and ecstatic religious experience at the hands of an angel who disembowels her with a gold-tipped spear. She finds the pain so excruciating that it is glorious, and it causes her to surrender herself wholly to God. She describes the episode with the following:

“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.”

Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa’s Autobiography

The narration is pronouncedly erotic. The angel pierces Teresa Avila with the phallic arrow and repeatedly plunges the point into her heart in a motion resembling copulation. The sensation is both painful and pleasurable and inspires in her a deep attachment to God, of whom the Angel is an agent and a surrogate. The overtly sexual nature of the passage was not lost on Bernini. In his composition the angel kneels over Teresa’s prone body, her back rearing up slightly. From her expression, we see that she is overwhelmed, but there is no strain in her face. Her complexion is not is not wracked and twisted, as it would if she were undergoing tortuous pain. Her eyes are lightly closed and her mouth is slack and half agape. She is not crying out, but only moaning.

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We recognize these as signs of sexual pleasure, and Bernini is positing that these same signs may also be used to represent spiritual rapture. Of course it is an approximation. He manages to convey sexual extravagance with remarkable fidelity, however he falls well short of representing divine encounter. But it is a doomed project to begin with and Bernini is simply doing his best with what he has. It is impossible to represent the ecstasy described by Saint Teresa of Avila because they have no precedent in shared experience. The episode with the angel was a revelation intended for Teresa and Teresa alone, and cannot be shared with others who have not undergone the same trial.

In her own telling, Teresa too is at a loss when she attempts to explain the significance of the event and what it might mean to others besides herself. She writes this:

“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.”

Here she struggles with the contradiction of the sensation that is not entirely sensate, and concedes finally that her object is ineffable and beyond the knowledge of those whom God has not made knowledgeable of it. And so this is the dilemma that Bernini audaciously seeks to solve with his masterpiece: make commonly known the singular event, that which was experienced by one blessed individual and which remains obscured from all others. I believe succeeds, but only to a degree. He shows us the road we must take to reach knowledge, but he can only take us so far up the road. He shows us that the ecstasy of Saint Teresa is like sexual ecstasy that we experience in intercourse with a lover, but it is not perfectly analogous. It is an incomplete representation. Many see the work and are able to discover the secret meaning (that this sculpture is in fact a pornographic image), but they stop there and they do not see it as anything more than a surreptitious representation of sexual expression. It is expected that we will go further, that we will use the sculpture as a starting point and that we will compose our own masterwork within our imaginations and this will be the true image of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. By doing so we will be effecting our own revelation upon ourselves and we will, as Teresa bids us, experience it so that we do not think that it is a lie.

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Naturalistic Aesthetic of the Mayan Civilization

The stylization exhibited in fine art of the Aztecs was a clear departure from the classical tradition that predated it. Art originating from the empires of the Maya and the Olmec is strictly representational. The aesthetic of Mesoamerica had been for more than a thousand years absorbed with the visible world. These Olmec figurines are the earliest exponents of this ancient tradition of assertive naturalism.

While these forms were motivated and inspired by carefully observed reality, I would not call them realistic. Accuracy was not the artists’ intent. The thighs of the baby are improbably plump. The lines of the seated figure are smooth and unintricate. The sculptors have chosen to accentuate certain features while dispensing with others. It is not an exhaustive compilation of realistic details. We see reflected in the sculptures only those details which the artists apparently interested in and chose to include. Thus, we have evidence of a sense of elegance perpetuated and passed around within this prehistoric culture.

 

As Mesoamerica passes into its classical age (approx. 200 AD to 900 AD), the sophistication an and nuance of its artistic representation become staggering. The figure above can safely be identified as high realism. It was obviously created by someone who had been trained for most of his life by elder artists who were carrying on a continually improving tradition. What is interesting about this figure is not the exquisite craftsman ship or the excellent sense of anatomy—though both are impressive. Other cultures achieved comparable feats of mimesis. What sets this figure apart from those is that it is not only realistic but also plausible. There is no idealization, no extraneous expression. The artist set out to reproduce his model precisely as he is. This statue tells us nothing more than how this man looked. It expresses a refined and discerning fastidiousness.

Aztec Figuration

Representation of human and animal forms in Aztecan art is so heavily stylized that they are almost beyond recognition. The image above depicts the dark god, Tezcatlipoca, rival of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration appears on the first page of the Codex Borgia, one of the few surviving pre-colonial Aztec manuscripts. His regalia are so elaborate that obscures his figure. Ensconced at the center of all of these lines and colors is a human form. The costuming, I believe, is representative of his glory radiating outward. One can only discern the god by analysis. If you look at the image as a whole, Tezcatlipoca just looks like a hulking edifice, or a detailed map.

 

It is possible that depictions of gods are depicted as distorted forms intentionally. Many characters of Aztec mythology are distinctly non-human. Pictured above, also taken from the Codex Borgia, is of the monstrous goddess Itzpapalotl, the “clawed butterfly.” Though she was capable of turning herself into a beautiful woman, in her true form she skeletal head, bat wings barbed with obsidian and jaguar claws for hands and feet. While still quite stylized, her illustration in the Codex Borgia is reasonably accurate.

 

It is possible that it is not the artist’s prerogative to produce an image with confusing details and a mixture of different elements but rather that is what the mythology prescribes. This illustration from the Codex Laud seems to depict a serpent figure with multiple bodies and human limbs. I don’t believe the identity of the character has been linked to known mythology, but it is quite apparent that there is intentionality here on the part of the illustrator. He was trying to represent something that perhaps could only be conceived abstractly.

 

Generally, Aztec art can be recognized by its profusion of detail and blocky shape. This Huastec sculpture of Tlazolteotl, a sexuality goddess, seems to diverge from that trend. It is extremely spare. The figure is abstracted and textureless. The fact that it was crafted by a Huaxtec artist rather than the Azteca might account for its distinct style, but it shares much in common with work from elsewhere in the empire: pronounced shapes, distorted proportions. The artist is not so much interested in constructing a perfect simulacrum of the goddess to show her as she would appear if encountered in real life. I think it was acknowledged that this was beyond the ability of the artist. Instead, he seems to be trying to express other concepts beside simple physicality with the decisions he makes about stylization and what details to include.

This last haunting figure is Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead and king of the Aztec underworld. Of all of the works I have presented here, this is probably the least familiar to the Aztecs. In mythology, Mictlantecuhtli is a blood-splattered skeleton with a grinning skull and ethereal eyes in his otherwise empty eye sockets. The sculpture gives him a very simple pair of clawed human hands. His ribcage is recognizable as a ribcage. The bloom of innards peaking out from beneath it appear to be a liver and stomach. It would seem that the sculpture responsible for this work had some passing knowledge of anatomy. He knew enough about the body to carve a figure that we can recognize as sentient. The form is distorted and abstract, but not so much that it would appear alien to us. The figure is succeeds in disturbing us because it is human-like and relatable. As I shall explain in tomorrow’s post, with this piece, the artist is reviving an older standard of artistic quality: rigorous representation of the seeable.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Olympus

This famous baroque treatment of the Greek pantheon by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo which hangs today in the Prado Museum in Madrid is positively arresting. The image is framed in mid-air with no horizon to train one’s perspective upon. Up and down are interchangeable. We see Mercury at the top, inverted and sprawled against the sky. Venus is borne on a chariot of clouds yoked to two white doves. Everything appears weightless and swirling. Forms are alleviated of basic physicality. It is a depiction of flight, but it is also more than that. Figures do not appear suspended; rather, they seem to be floating, perhaps rising. This is an application of recognizable levity to convey the sensation of transcendence. And it works. The picture is thrilling to look at. It is a view into perspectiveless space. Form freed of relation.

Below is Gianbattista’s best-known work, Allegory of the Planets and Continents. Here the earth and heavens are imagined as having changed places, with the sun and the sky occupying the middle of the frame and four hemispheres of the globe arranged along the outside. I present it here upside down, with America at the bottom, right-side up, and the Europeans hanging from the top.