We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Teilhard de Chardin
One of the unique aspects of great art is that what may have first stirred our excitement about a particular work can deepen and broaden over time, growing in meaning as we grow, the image or object continuing to speak to us in new and important ways. This is what happened for me with Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” (1647-52), which I was first made aware of as a freshman in college when an art history professor described it as an erotic representation of mystical union.
The sexualization of a religious sculpture shocked me, and indeed the work was quite unlike anything else we had studied in Western art that semester. The initial intrigue of this provocative interpretation, along with the stunning beauty of the sculpture helped to ensure the iconic masterpiece would stay firmly and deeply lodged in my young psyche. Now, so many years later, my own spiritual journey has brought me back to it with a renewed interest.
While it was intended to induce in viewers an intense sensory and emotional state, I now see the work revealing something much deeper and quieter at the heart of lived experience through four primary qualities of the contemplative mind: the divine within the everyday world of things, the acceptance of mystery through non-dual understanding, the body as a gateway to presence and the emptying of self in the presence of God.
Bernini doesn’t represent the mystical experience as a supernatural event beyond our reach, but as a personal and direct relationship with God through what might be referred to as the “ordinary mysticism” of human experience.
Consider that the miracle doesn’t unfold in some indistinct realm but in the artist’s world: St. Teresa’s personal drama is presented on a seventeenth-century stage, a space particular to time and place. The larger work is an installation, and in it reliefs of spectators, the proscenium space, the holy spirit painted above, rays of sculpted gold and the natural light pouring in through a hidden window at the top of the chapel, are all objects of an artificial, human spectacle.
In the figures, Bernini’s masterful sculpting of a variety of surfaces, such as the delicate feathers of the angel’s wings or the billowy fabric that seems to extend from him to enfold the saint are all imbued with a quality of the holy that can only be accessed in and through the world of things. The delicate tilt of a head or the sensuous curve of an arm are more than examples of ideal beauty; they are the body as a thing in the world animated by divine presence. Teresa herself is defined as much by the heavy folds of her robe, formed by sensuous waves of material which become a living thing, as her figure within.
Mystery is a fundamental quality of nondual understanding, represented in the work by elements made stronger through their seeming opposition. The sculpture is carved in colored marble, its great weight emphasized by the complexity of surface details and the sheer volume of the stone. Yet, there is a delicate refinement to the forms, every surface inviting the touch. Defying the hardness and weight of marble, the ensemble seems both soft and floating through the veracity of surface textures and the deep recesses throughout and below the figures.
Teresa’s face and body express pain and pleasure in equal measure as the angel’s spear will repeatedly strike downwards, descending deep into her entrails (as her written account describes it), while her spirit simultaneously rises upwards to meet God. The sweetness of the angel’s gaze and his sly smile are in stark contrast to the violence of the iron tipped spear and its point of fire. All these dualities; upwards and downwards, lightness and darkness, pain and pleasure, beauty and violence, function as a whole reflecting the unitive nature of human experience.
The sculpture also speaks of the body as a gateway to mystical union, another characteristic of contemplative wisdom. The figures, representative of the two aspects of reality (heaven and earth), become one through the swirling forms of material that engulf them. God is encountered in the here and now of the body and its felt sensations, expressed in the charged language of baroque sculpture and through details like the rippling of the saint’s habit, mimicking the spasms of her ecstatic body. At the same time, Teresa’s emotive aspect contrasts sharply with the calm and graceful, otherworldly beauty of the angel whose apparition is undeniably solid. The unity of our world with God is manifested through the intimacy of a physical encounter.
And then there is the self-emptying that this event describes, which can also be thought of as the surrender of the ego, or false sense of self in the consent to God’s presence. The work is about relationship more than belief, represented in the way that Teresa allows a penetration into and removal from her body, and through her facial expression and limp form, which convey the release of self-will as she rises to meet God in Heaven. In another sense, the craftsmanship of the work imbues the stone with a weightlessness, an emptying of density that makes the material itself along with the figures seem to float above the altar.
Bernini’s work uniquely demonstrates how mystical wisdom can be represented in art. Through the play of bodies, gestures and objects, his sculpture finds God in the prosaic and concrete details of lived experience, through an intimacy that suggests the nature of true mysticism. The spiritual experience is a deeply human experience, occurring in and through the world of the here and now.
Cover Image Credit: “Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” graces the Cornaro Chapel in the Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome” by eriktorner is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Inline Image Credits:
“IMG_3014K Santa Maria della Vittoria The Cornaro Chapel. Funeral chapel of family members of the Patriarch of Venice. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1642-1652) The ecstasy of St. Teresa On both sides of the box the family members Cornaro.” by jean louis mazieres is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
“Ecstasy of St Theresa – arrow.jpg” by User:Mattes is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.