Sacred Swoon

One of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1598-1680) most famous sculptures is the group depicting the ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.  Saint Teresa of Avila was a very new saint at the time; she’d died only in 1582, just a few years before Bernini was born. She was a mystic, and in her writings she described an intense religious experience: “Beside me, on the left hand, 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 … 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”. In Bernini’s statue, which takes inspiration from this quotation, the woman swoons with a passion partaking of both the religious and the erotic: a total commitment. I took over a hundred pictures of this statue the other day, and I couldn’t quite get one that encapsulated its complexity. This was as close as I could get. The angel’s hand is visible on the left, delicately opening Teresa’s blouse to reveal the soft breast into which he will plunge his arrow. She submits with complete abandon.