Rome Journal: Saint Teresa, on Ecstasy

One of the great Bernini sculptures “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” appears in S. Maria Della Vittoria on the Via XX Septembre. The sculpture depicts an angel shooting an arrow into Teresa. The sculpture itself, set in an aedicule, epitomizes the high drama of the baroque sensibility. Maderno sculpted another writhing saint, Cecilia, which lies in the church named after her in Trastevere. But here is what Saint Teresa herself said about the experience which Bernini attempted to render:

“The pain thereof was so intense that it forced deep groans from me; just as the sweetness which this extreme pain caused me was so excessive, that there was no desiring to be free from it; now is the soul then content with anything less than God.”

Here is a quote from Balzac’s The Girl With the Golden Eyes which expresses a similar sentiment about pleasure:

“Pleasure is of the nature of certain medical substances; in order to obtain constantly the same effects the doses must be doubled, and death or degradation is contained in this last.”

Can we say that the endorphins that had kicked in when Saint Teresa got shot by the arrow were beginning to wear off when she wrote her Life of Saint Teresa, Chapter XXIX from which the above passage emanates? Was the arrow a kind of spiritual syringe and was she a junkie who simply need another dose of God? But no matter. Here is the famed art historian Ernst Gombrich on the statue:

“Even the treatment of the drapery by Bernini is entirely new. Instead of letting it fall with dignified folds after the classical manner, he lets it twist and swirl to accentuate; the dramatic and dynamic effects.”

watercolor by Hallie Cohen

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