Push through the tourists in the Roman piazza, dodge the chaotic traffic, and duck inside the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, and there, in the Cornaro Chapel, you’ll see it: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
A swooning nun, eyes closed and lips apart, yields herself to the gaze of a young male angel. His hand pulls open the robe around her chest, his spear sharp and ready to thrust. To the left and right, high in the chapel walls, male members of the Cornaro family, carved in the same white marble, peer down from theatre boxes like enthusiastic voyeurs.
You don’t have to be a Freudian to see something suspicious here. The imagery is frankly erotic. Is the expression on Saint Teresa’s face really one of religious ecstasy? Or, if one looks closely and skeptically, does it not rather resemble the look of coital bliss?
Shocking and blasphemous, you might think. But this is not the fantasy of the sculptor. What Bernini, that great master of Italian baroque, offers in The Ecstasy is a very literal interpretation of an event that Teresa of Avila herself described.
A pioneer of Catholic reform, later declared a Saint, Teresa experienced dramatic mystical visions throughout her life. In her autobiography, ’The Life of Teresa of Jesus’, she uses visceral language to express them, including one in which an angel repeatedly thrust a golden lance into her heart:
‘I saw in his [the angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’
It was this passage that provided the basis for Bernini’s sculpture. The erotic imagery was not his but Teresa’s. But in portraying Teresa’s spiritual ecstasy so physically, Bernini offers a powerful challenge to our conventional understanding of two different forms of love.
‘Agape’, the Greek word normally used for love or charity in the bible, is usually characterised as selfless, giving, and unconditional. By contrast, ‘eros’ or erotic desire, has often been seen in Christianity as possessive, grasping, and selfish. The antithesis between the two was formulated most sharply by Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren: Christian love good; erotic desire bad.
But in The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, eros and agape come together: a scandalous conjunction that has deep roots in Christian theology. The Hebrew prophets, for example, often compared the relationship of God and Israel to that of husband and wife. In the New Testament, the portrayal of Christ as groom and the church as bride meant marriage itself was as a sacrament – a physical sign of a spiritual grace.
The explicit sexual imagery of the biblical Song of Songs, a poem full of breasts and thighs, was frequently allegorised in the medieval church to describe the yearning and panting of the soul for God. The Syrian theologian and monk known as Pseudo-Dionysius spoke quite openly of the erotic desire for God. Even Saint Augustine, that most questionable theologian of human sexuality, thought true Christian love needed to be a synthesis of both agape and eros.
Sexual imagery thus permeates christian spirituality. Teresa of Avila’s younger contemporary, Saint John of the Cross, was even more daring in his expression, with mystical writings which read as homoerotic in character. But there are similar instances right through Christian tradition. Repelled by aspects of Wesleyan hymnody, the great historian of the English working classes, EP Thompson, complained of ‘the perverted eroticism of methodist imagery’. In contemporary Christian choruses, the language of desire, and the longing to yield, to be touched, and to be filled by God, is rife.
Perhaps we should be neither surprised nor shocked. We are erotic beings, embodied spirits, structured through desire. If we want to find language to describe our desire to be united with God, what could be more natural than to turn to that which generates our deepest experience of emotional intimacy and physical ecstasy?
The sexual provides the most powerful metaphor for the spiritual. The daring brilliance of Bernini’s sculpture is to make that connection so explicit.