Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold. Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.
Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like. Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body. St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure. The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage. When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.