Book Shelf 4.


4. Ecstasy, Art, & the Body

(Sculpture / Mysticism)

Ecstasy, Art, & the Body. Teresa of Avila’s “Transverberation”, and its Depiction in the Sculpture of Gianlorenzo Bernini

See: illustrations.

It is some years, now, since I saw Bernini’s famous sculptural composition commonly known as The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1650s), in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of St. Maria della Vittoria, Rome. In this work, the central figure is a marble rendering of a woman, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, writhing in a state of religious ecstasy, which Teresa herself described in Chapter 29 of her (autobiographical) Life (1565):

Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them. … But it was our Lord’s will that I should see this angel in the following way. 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. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names. … 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 in to 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 then 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. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it. – I have used J. M. Cohen’s translation (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957), p. 210.

– And when I saw the sculpture, that day in 1983, I was reminded of words of a theology lecturer of mine, heard when I had been a student (in about 1971), concerning Teresa’s experience: “But of course, she was just having an orgasm, wasn’t she?”; even at the time, though only about 20, I was aware that that judgement was surely somehow inadequate; surely, she wasn’t just having an orgasm? Of course, the idea that Teresa had experienced some form of sexual, rather than religious, ecstasy, was far from new even in the era that had claimed to have “discovered” sexual experience; such claims had been made many times, particularly with the coming of analysis based upon post-Freudian psychology, which, of course, has been applied to many things in religion, the arts, and beyond.

Inevitably, many people have poured scorn on Teresa’s interpretations of her experiences, and naturally she has provided very fertile ground for cynics, sexuality promoters, feminists, materialist philosophers/psychologists, and writers of many kinds – and also (regarding Bernini’s work) those who champion revisionist re-interpretations of Christian art; this is ground, one might say, which has been raked over many times. But those who do not have any animus against Christianity, and who seek to study Teresa’s words – and the expression of them in art – from within Christian faith, inevitably look with very different eyes. Some have surely seen Teresa’s experiences as having a purely spiritual nature; but the clue that this is not correct is found explicitly (unlike the idea of it being a purely sexual experience) in her own words. Throughout her many accounts, in the Life, of – very varied – religious experiences, Teresa creates, time and again, a hierarchy of the physical/spiritual nature of realities; this account, of her most famous experience, is no exception. She writes of the angel in bodily form, as rarely seen by her; visions of angels which she does not actually see, and, most dramatically, that she sees the angel stabbing her heart and removing her entrails with the aid of a sharp, burning object, which occurrence nonetheless did not cause her to bleed profusely and then expire. She explains: “… this is not a physical but a spiritual event …” – but then she immediately qualifies it (“ …the body has some share in it …”), and then yet again (“ – even a considerable share”).

However, when all the accounts of religious experiences in the Life are considered together, one slowly comes to doubt that Teresa actually has a very clearly-defined hierarchy, and certainly no reasoned separation between the natures of different kinds of things – but the same is true of accounts by Christian mystics from completely different times and cultures (eg. Julian of Norwich). She expends great effort in all her writings (and no doubt did throughout life), to describing and defining what we know as the stages or degrees of prayer (and in The Mansions, the whole book is devoted to presenting a framework within which spiritual experience and ascent can be carefully explicated; but even here, there is on many occasions the cautionary note that the categories are not “watertight”, nor is any one experience divorced from another, nor must a strict, ordered process be observed/experienced). But what we can be certain of is that in her view, and experience, the physical and the spiritual – the bodily and the mystical – are intimately related. Whatever her experience(s) in the “Transverberation”, it was much more than physical – but (though not physical such as to cause the afore-mentioned wounding) physical nonetheless.

Of necessity, I have a great disadvantage in discussing the fullness of Teresa’s experiences – that of never having been a woman, and thus never having had womens’ physical experiences, sexual or otherwise. Experiences confided by Teresa’s brother Lorenzo, however, are claimed to have involved some kind of sexual arousal encountered after prayer or after some kind of mystical event. This interpretation [1] is found in the account Fr. Thomas Dubay, a scholar and authority on Teresa, in his book Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel – On Prayer, Ignatius Press, 1989, pp. 232-233. (also: ). He quotes Teresa:

“Pay no attention to those evil feelings which come to you afterwards [after his deep prayer]. I have never suffered from them myself, since God, of His goodness, has always delivered me from such passions, but I think the explanation of them must be that the soul’s joy is so keen that it makes itself felt in the body. With God’s help it will calm down if you take no notice of it. Several people have discussed this with me.”

(taken from The Letters of St. Teresa of Jesus, Tran. E. Allison Peers, London, Sheed and Ward, 1951, 1980, letter 163, p. 411 [Vol. 1]).

It has been said that love cannot flower, or be indefinitely prolonged, without some physical expression (the assumption, though, that this must needs be sexual expression is surely false); and perhaps the Lord’s love of us is no exception. There is the physical element in worship, such as the physical expressiveness seen in liturgical dance, and the swaying motion, and gestures, often seen in Evangelical/Pentecostal worship, in which, hands held high and faces enraptured, a gathering is filled with the Spirit; worship, as seen here, is a bodily, sensual, experience. These, of course, are human expressions of love received – and love offered; but in the Sacrament, we specifically encounter the Lord’s love of us, communing in and through that act (though, I would argue, it surely is, on many occasions, an event devoid of any special feelings whatever, and thus perhaps hardly seems to merit, to us, the label “experience” at all). Can any authentic communion be devoid of all physical/material ingredients? And might it never be that the soul’s “keen joy” might never make itself “felt in the body”? (And how in the body? – perhaps in many different ways). And if the nature of worship, and communing, is physical, perhaps salvation and eternal destiny are in some way physical also (one is reminded, perhaps, of St Paul’s reference to an eternity, beyond the existence of this world, in which though we will have spiritual bodies (unlike now, where we have natural (“fleshly”) bodies), they will be bodies nonetheless; 1 Cor. 15, 44).

Perhaps, as authentic religious experience has to be known, in this view, by way of the physical – this being the (only) form that humans currently have – aesthetic experience (whether we acknowledge it or not) perforce has to have a spiritual effect, “spiritual” being defined as the non-purely-material part of the human whole (this, of course, assumes the view, now contested, that there is some non-material essence “within” the brain/mind); this idea, of course, raises questions as to the nature of spiritual effect (and of the difference of effect between explicitly-religious art, and non-religious art). The mono-dimensional imagination, which the materialist world-view requires, means that such people (the “orgasm only” variety) are unable to know both the partial-correctness of their approach (physical experience is indeed involved), as well as its sad inadequacy.

Such an artist as Bernini was from beginning to end a Christian person in a Christian culture. To refer to him as a “Christian artist” would have been a curious platitude. Such an artist would have been incapable of separating out his beliefs and culture – the whole of society’s beliefs and culture – from his art (that particular –odd, tragic – dislocation is only a product of our own fraught age, one devoid of authentic belief in anything, yet clinging to the ever-cracking façade of – wholly groundless – belief in ourselves (to want to have Christian culture without Christian faith and the Christian world-view, is somewhat like the nature lover – there are plenty of them around – who might greatly value dolphins and porpoises, beautiful star-fish and whales – but detest ocean, sea: “We certainly don’t want any of that great, nasty wet stuff!”)).

The Cornaro Chapel was constructed on the commission of Cardinal Federico Cornaro, Patriarch of Venice. A sepulchral chapel, it is a shallow space set in the left transept of St. Maria della Vittoria, a small Carmelite church [2]. Vital to understanding Bernini’s work at St. Maria is seeing the space he produced – the chapel, with its architecture and sculpture, and painted vault – as a whole. To left and right of the sanctuary (beyond which is the space occupied by the sculpture) are two balconies, set high on the lateral walls; they remind us strongly of the boxes which are found in many theatres and opera houses; the sculpture’s space, in this analogy, is the stage. Here, the well-known connection between Baroque art/architecture and theatre (the then-developing forms of oratorio and opera), is very apparent. The “boxes” are populated with sculpted images of members of the Cornaro family (which included six cardinals, and Federico’s father, the Doge Giovanni) who are meditating on the matter of the “Transverberation”, the image of which is beyond their sight [3]. Indeed, they are not actual spectators, since the image of Teresa, the rocks on which she lies, and the cherubim, are in a different space which is separated (and made inaccessible) by the architectural frame set in front of it – a veritable proscenium arch. The fact that the ‘Transverberation space’ is so completely separate dramatically illustrates an important fact: the rest of us (as shown by the members of the Cornaro family, and their positioning) can only know of Teresa’s mystical experience second-hand through reading of it, or seeing it through the visionary capacity of imagination (a quality that is very much present in Bernini’s work), but cannot actually experience it ourselves. But what of the space that the Cornaros inhabit, or rather, look down on? It is the chapel’s sanctuary; it is not the space beyond it (the ‘Transverberation space’) which holds the altar (and, presumably, tabernacle): we ourselves can receive the Lord’s gifts to us in the form he himself commanded, the consecrated host, which is actually (though, as suggested, not necessarily an experience) a more complete and total communion than Teresa’s powerful experience; and Teresa herself, in her Life, was the first to acknowledge that “visions” were a lesser thing.


[1] “One of the more surprising and disturbing phenomena that may occur during communion with the Lord is sexual disturbance or arousal. It is “surprising and disturbing” not because the phenomenon is in itself a cause for concern but because most people would never expect that in so holy an occupation there could be sexual repercussions. While they seem not to be common, they do occur. Lorenzo, the saint’s married brother who had chosen his sister as spiritual director, had experienced these disturbances, and he asked her for guidance.”, Dubay, loc. cit.

[2] Howard Hibbard, Bernini, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965; 1978 ed., pp. 128-141.

[3] Hibbard, op.cit., p. 130.

John Thomas studied theology in the University of Wales, history of art in the University of London, and the theory and practice of Christian worship and religious architecture in the Universities of Birmingham and Sheffield.

Summer 2011.