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