The controversy of St. Teresa

I read about the controversy surrounding the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture before I saw it. The arguments, referring to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s depiction of Teresa of Avila in a state of pure ecstasy upon being struck in the heart by a cherub, were based on the artist’s depiction of said ecstasy: her facial expression was perceivable as inappropriate – was Bernini guilty of being lascivious and portraying an innocent virgin as a prostitute, or did society only perceive it as such because it will throw in immorality wherever it can?

If this is the controversy, then we’re arguing about Bernini’s work and whether he himself meant for the saint to be viewed as sexual or enlightened. But assuming, like any artist, he was simply depicting his interpretation of her account, couldn’t we also argue his interpretation as artistic license like any other work he had sculpted? We would then turn to her actual account, to see how he could have possibly interpreted (or misinterpreted) her words into what he designed.

Before detailing the moment of ecstasy, St. Teresa gives the context of it, describing the angel that appears before her. She then goes on to say:

I saw in his 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. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet, which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

I beg to argue that the controversy should have nothing to do with Bernini at all.  If Bernini was working from her account, it shouldn’t matter whether he meant it to look divine or whether he meant it to look sexual – his work of art is in his ability to correctly attribute her facial expression to her written account of how she felt – and that he does impeccably. Whether she really envisioned an angel, or whether she imagined the whole thing while instead experiencing an orgasm can be a topic of debate, but the controversy against Bernini is moot.


Santa Maria della Vittoria, Repubblica. Free. Various opening times

reading the inscription: septimus severus arch

In hindsight, as it usually seemed to be, the highlight, the most memorable moment of my Rome, was the inscription.

We were just passing through and hadn’t realized the triumph arch was going to be right there. RIGHT there. But there it was. Massive. Like everything in Rome, grandiose beyond comprehension.

in front of the massive severus triumph arch

“I want you to try to read what it says.” Giacomo said.

I looked up at the arch. That was a lot of Latin. I sighed.

“You might be expecting too much from me.” I said, and turned away for the moment, readying to take photos.

“I’ve come to expect no less.” he replied.

Maybe it was the inherent belief and confidence he had placed in me at that moment, but my desire for more (MORE, MORE!) pushed me right back towards the arch when I was finished taking photos.

James was waiting patiently. He knew I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

The inscription towered over me.

I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t get all of it (though I blame part of this on the giant hole that took out some words on three lines) but I got most of the words. And Giacomo would chime in with the story every few words I read to give me context. Latin inscriptions are really a whole bunch of kerfuffle words distracting from the verb and the point usually hanging out at the end of the sentence. But I got it. And when I finished, I had only one thing to say:

“Ok, so…what does it say?”

In hindsight, maybe I got less than I thought I did, but that feeling of accomplishment, the exhaustia of using all my mental power to attempt to comprehend a nearly 2,000 year old inscription written in a language I only looked at for a few hours a few weeks ago – one of the best moments of my life.


Oh, and basically what it said was :

To the Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, Son of Marcus, Pius, Pertinacious, Augustus, Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland – Head of State), Victor in Arabia and
Victor in Adiabenico (Persia), Pontifex Maximus (Chief of Religion), having held the tribunician power 11 times, emperor 11 times, Consul 3 times, Proconsul,
and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Caracalla), Son of Lucius, Antoninus, Augustus Pius, Felix (lucky), having held the tribunician power 6 times, Consul, Proconsul, Pater Patriae,
Highest and Strongest Prince,
for having restored the Empire of the people of Rome,
by their visible strengths at home and abroad, the Senate and People of Rome [made this]

Geekyy fun fact: Originally it mentioned both the emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons Caracalla and Geta. The name of Geta was removed in 213AD, when he was killed by Caracalla after the death of Septimius Severus. A condanatio memoriae was issued, and all images or mentions of Geta were to be removed from all public buildings and monuments.

The holes used to attach the bronze letters allow a reconstruction of the original inscription, which had the fifth line changed. Originally it read: “P. Septimio L. fil Getae nobilissi(mo)”; translated: “to the most noble son of Lucius Septimius, Publius Septimius Geta.”

and no, i’m not giving you any more details [roma, italy]

Just a quickie because I didn’t go inside, but if I did, Palazzo Spada would probably be my favourite of Borromini’s works (and we all know by now how partial I am to Bernini’s dimples and his anything-goes demeanor).

I couldn’t quite imagine what my guidebook was talking about when it said that thanks to Borromini’s optical illusion, the gallery looks longer than it is…but then I saw it’s architecture, all mathematically equated, sketched out on a sign in front of the Palazzo. And then I saw what it would look like had I been right inside on an image on another sign. And it was amazing.

It would likely be even more amazing in real life, so you should go and check it out. Heck, you should at least go and check out the poster.

What you will someday be: Cripta Cappuccini

Underneath the Santa Maria Immacolata Concezione church is a crypt. I’ve never seen a crypt and knew I wanted in the moment I read about it in my now shamelessly scribbled and appreciated guidebook so when the day finally came, I made sure to cover my shoulders and hide my knees and then giddily bounded up the stairs beside the church ready to be spooked.

Continue reading What you will someday be: Cripta Cappuccini

A good find: Campo de’ Fiori

By the time we meandered into the Campo de’ Fiori, it was about two in the afternoon. The market was slowly coming to a close but was still a bustling piazza of tourists mingling with locals picking, choosing, buzzing, haggling, vendors shouting, dogs begging, seagulls waiting. The market was laden with tents and merchants, each selling something different, from oils and nuts to knick knacks, from fresh vegetables to fruit cups.

Continue reading A good find: Campo de’ Fiori