We’re all bombarded daily with urgent demands: buy now! renew now! click now! save the environment! save your soul! I too have a demand for you and while it won’t whiten your teeth, update the virus protection on your computer, or reward you with salacious celebrity gossip, it’s truly urgent: get yourself to Rome. Walk rapidly, dodging Vespas with a chunk of pizza al taglio in hand, towards the early Baroque façade of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Brush the pizza crumbs off your chin and enter. Ignore the usual Baroque shiny gold bits, frothy frescos and cascading putti blobs. You want the Cornoro chapel, just left of the altar. Inside is a…stage, a marble stage with two balconies. Set about the stage and balconies are a group of marble sculptures; the marble is liquid and the sculptures are divine. There’s a skylight hidden in the center of the chapel emitting both natural and sculptural light in the form of gold rays. The rays are illuminating an arrow-thrusting angel and a rippling mass of marble that is robe of Saint Teresa, with her hooded face turned to the light, eyes closed in ecstasy. There are men on the balconies, fashionable rich men, and you feel sorry for them, distracted with chatting and flipping though their programs, missing the spectacle of St.Teresa transported into a realm of spiritual rapture.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is the masterpiece of art in situ. Now that you’ve seen it, let’s talk about it.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from 1647-52. (Since our own pictures were craptastic, these images are from Wikipedia.)
St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun, wrote an autobiography in the 1500’s describing an episode of religious ecstasy, in which an angel thrusting a gold arrow into her heart caused her to moan in a sweet spiritual pain resulting from the pure love of God. (Let’s just get this out of the way: Teresa’s expression of sweet spiritual pain appears rather convincingly orgiastic, and her descriptions of thrusting and moaning make my dirty mind wander far from the spiritual.)
How did you respond when seeing The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa? My main reaction was and still is “BERNINI WTF! A person made this, a person, a person, a human being like me!!” And then my interior dialogue kicked in with “This could be corny, this should be corny, this is not corny. Why isn’t this corny?”
Dudes with beards just hanging out in a trompe-l’œil balcony (check out the “fabric” draped under their arms–that’s made of marble!) I love this ingeniously constructed mise-en-scène of distracted secular onlookers idly observing a divine spiritual transformation.
Had I been a casual observer when the real Teresa of Avila was experiencing spiritual bliss, I too may have been distracted. I need Bernini’s extraordinary talent in order to engage in the concept of religious ecstasy. This is what great artists do: make the unknown knowable, rendering abstract concepts of emotions into words, paint, movement, music and stone. What works of art have you visited that most successfully represent transcendent states?
Of course I won’t miss an opportunity to quote My Humanist Boyfriend Walt Whitman yet again. I’ll leave you with his gorgeous and sexy-as-hell description of spiritual ecstasy, from Song of Myself, verse 5:
Loafe with me on the grass—loose the stop from your throat;
Not words, not music or rhyme I want—not custom or lecture, not even the best;
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers;
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves, stiff or drooping in the fields;
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them;
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, and heap’d stones, elder, mullen and poke-weed.
How we got to Rome: flight from Chicago.
Where we slept: (we’ve stayed at several places in Rome–my favorite was Papa Germano.) Price: €60 for a double. Recommended: yes.