Monday, 26 December 2016


For those interested in the darker, sensual elements that strictly religious works can offer, look no further. If you visit Rome, I recommend a trip to the Santa Maria della Vittoria. Inside this fantastic church is the Conaro Chapel, a full chapel commissioned by Venetian Cardinal Federico. Bernini, the artist of the time, undertook a full mood board, complete with marble, special lighting and sculpture. The sculpture is (in my view) Bernini’s best work and is entitled St Theresa in Ecstasy. To give you a quick bio, Teresa was an important figure in the Catholic Church, she wrote a biography on her spiritual experience which formed debate over this piece. 

There have been many critics of this work, discussing it as a sexual piece, and it’s in- appropriateness for its setting of a Church. The work shows the moment of ‘Transverbaration’ Theresa’s entrance into the state of spiritual marriage. Yet Bernini tackles this piece with a sense of eroticism, it is undeniable. It was once named ‘the most astounding peep show in art’. To us it may seem a little ‘blasé’ but imagine at the time a piece of religious art having a hint of sexual tension - shocking!

We can read Theresa’s own account of the tale here:
“Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.” – St Theresa of Avila

It is indeed a wonder if Bernini did this on purpose, our senses are completely overwhelmed with elements of both spirituality and sensuality. I’d love to argue he was defying the conventions of the time, and that Bernini was indeed a naughty boy cheekily laughing at the church - but alas I cannot. 

Putting this into context with the counter reformation you can see why it caused so much tension, the piece is undeniably sensual, but I believe Bernini did not intend for it to be Sexual in any way, he was a devout religious man and understood the implications if he were to create an image of this type. He has followed Teresa’s account of ecstasy and therefore depicted her this way. Yes, if you focus upon her face, her eyes are slightly closed, the mouth open depicting the moans she described herself and her body is reclining into a spasm noted in her foot tensing. 

However, Teresa was known for her chastity and having a lack of knowledge in the area of sex, this was something that was brought up during her investigation to perceive her holiness. So it is extremely unlikely like Bernini intended for this piece to be sexual. Careri (an Art Historian) reminds us of the difference between 17th century boundaries between spirit and the senses to the Victorian values we have inherited. During Bernini’s time, both the body and the soul took part in the life of the spirit.


Author : Violet Glenton

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