>Kwild thing wrote:
->How would you respond to someone who said Bernini's Ecstasy of St.
>Teresa is too erotic to be in a church?
What a wonderfully stunning question!
Surely a work like this is meant to be meditated on, to spend time with (I
mean, he worked on it for seven years) and have the layers of meaning reveal
themselves (that is, after all, why such pieces are placed in a chapel, one
presumes); we do disservice to dismiss them simply because they remind us of
a really great saturday night we had back in college.
Perhaps Bernini indeed thought he was showing us something we almost
shouldn't see; maybe that's why he places the Cornaro family in little opera
boxes to the side, where they can discuss the event, but are not permitted
to view it. This allows us to question, upon the shock of witnessing this
privileged gift of transverberation, whether we should shield our eyes and
walk on, or sit quietly and reverently and let the sculpture - and the
experience behind/within the sculpture - work on us.
Maybe part of our uncertainty attaches to where we "place" this eroticism:
is it inherent in Santa Teresa's experience? Was it produced by Bernini's
artistic choices (and thrilling command)? Was it present in the responses of
the faithful, entering the chapel, across the centuries? Or is it more our
nearly-reflex response, socially drilled to perceive - or at least to
momentarily consider - a sexual subtext in most images?
I almost believe the more fundamental question is, Is the mystic (or
ecstatic) experience too powerful "to be in a church?"
If the mystic experience can lead to a sustained moment in which the Divine
is felt to wholly penetrate one's person/being, it would seem wholly natural
for that experience to manifest itself sensually - sensually, existentially,
and intellectually, all three, inseparable.
I actually think the Bernini rather poetically subdued, given the
originating text (Caveat: Noone having thought to send me to Rome, I only
know the piece from photographs). There's certainly a precedent for more
dramatic interpretations of mystics' experiences, heavier on the fire and
piercing and all. If anything, I think the angel and arrow are the weakest
components of the sculpture: the angel's face does not "seem to burn with
fire" or possess anything more than passing physical beauty; and the arrow
seems to carry precious little promise of divine power or love (not to
mention a flame).
But the portrayal of Santa Teresa is marvelous: yes, we can read her as
erotically fulfilled (if we must), but we can also see her as emptied out of
herself, of her ego, and thus filled with the Divine. As Teresa says, "as
[the angel] drew [the arrow] out, he dragged me with it": you can certainly
sense this state of compliant malleabililty in her body language. She has
given herself wholly over to the Divine. Is that erotic? It depends on how
we compartmentalize experience.
Earlier today and yesterday there were references to St. Catherine's
neuroses and Hildegard's migraines (Hmm. how odd they all just happen to be
women), as well as a well-earned caution against reading too much of our
contemporary ills in them.
Surely there is something to be said for the same caution about
centuries-past mysticism. Intransigent little St. Bernard of Clairvaux
nevertheless found time to suckle at the breast of the Virgin - and even if
we decide to attribute his claim to a political motive, we must account for
the subsequent similar experiences of many monks who were inspired to "try
it." Can we separate ourselves from the sexualized breast enough to imagine
this mystical experience as "pure", or at least free of licentiousness?
I think it might be useful to distinguish portrayals of the religious
experience that are, variously, sensuous; titillating; or practically
pornographic. Among the latter I would unhesitatingly place Caravaggio's
John the Baptist, from the Capitoline museum; strong open legs, visible
"member", taking a ram's horns in his grasp (Hey, who needs subtext here?).
In the middle would come still more Caravaggios, of course, but also any
number of St. Sebastians, and certain passages in a handful of Tiepolos,
titillating being, in my mind, an expression of gratuitous sensuality,
something which impedes rather than furthers the narrative flow or meaning.
and then there's sensual: how long a list do we want? Ribera? Zurbaran?
Gerard David? Rembrandt's Bathsheba? the look of love in the eyes of the
Infant being handed to Mary in Giotto's mural? the Babe's hand (and eyes) on
His mother's ivory breast in the Master of Mary Magdalene's diptych?
It is not that the Bernini is too erotic to be in a church, but rather that
we are too rushed to give ourselves over to his meditations, as Santa Teresa
gave herself over fully enough to experience the "ecstacy [which] was God
So, kwildgen, i guess (seeing how much i wrote) I would respond to someone
who said the Bernini is too erotic, by talking until they said, 'okay, sorry
i brought it up' and walked away.
Here's hoping you're not and don't.