May 24, 2009

Explain the Ecstasy of St Theresa to a 3 year-old

"I saw in his hand a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it repeatedly into my heart, penetrating all the way down to 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."

Chapter XXIX; Part 13, Theresa's Autobiography

That's ecstasy. Here it is described with surgical precision by the saint who chronicled her own experience. The saint's name is Theresa, and the scene she describes happens every day in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria on via XX Settembre, in Rome. It takes place in a secluded chapel owned by a noble Roman family, the last one to the left before reaching the altar.

ecstasy of st theresa rome
The statues of the marble complex known as the Ecstasy of St. Theresa depict the moment described by Saint Teresa of Avila during her vivid vision of an angel piercing her heart with a golden shaft, causing her both immense joy and pain. The flowing robes and contorted posture abandon all classical restraint and repose to depict a more passionate, almost sensuous trance.

Mr E. and I walked into the chapel this morning after the last pews had been cleared following Mass. We stood there, muted by the monumental Baroque sculpture complex. The natural light coming down from a skylight above, made it all more powerful. The pain described in Theresa's bio was there displayed before us, condensed in the hardness of the snow white marble sculpted by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1646: the solar plexus heaving, the angel's pike menacing down, the saint's face glowing with divine light. There's been copious literature written on that face. The Marquis de Sade (expert on the subject) said: "One doubts she was a saint."

There I stood, bashful and flushed, holding the sweaty, chubby hand of my astounded 3 year-old, before a stone figure having a transverberation orgasm. Bernini, a devoted church-goer, firm believer and artist of immense stature, would never have intended to depict here an episode of lust fulfilled. Instead, Bernini I'm sure, aimed to simply express the facial and body equivalents of a state of divine joy. But Theresa's face speaks volumes, nonetheless.

Next time you're ever in Rome, do take the time to visit the Conero chapel in the above mentioned Roman church, and see for yourself. Was Bernini trying to test his good fortune with a slew of wealthy benefactors by immortalizing a Saint in unsaintly attitude, or was the sensual voluptuousness of the times he lived in, take his hand too far while chiseling away?


  1. As far as you last four lines, the latter, I'd say.

  2. Or can a saint feel as we do? Is what we feel as humanly close to a transcending devine as we can manage in our moments of rapture. Love much to consider.

    (And you honour me, time and time again at my place. Honour. And that is a mighty big word!)

  3. Lola please put stories like this in the cook book.

    I think it is brilliant. I even like how her hand is positioned.

    I totally think that this could be pure rapture of how she loved and envisioned God coming to her.

    By the way the chairs is a spoof on the trash talk shows in the states of a woman bringing 10 men forward to have paternity tests to see which one is the father of her child.

    Love you.

    Renee xoxoxo

  4. "There I stood, bashful and flushed, holding the sweaty, chubby hand of my astounded 3 year-old, before a stone figure having a transverberation orgasm."

    that's brilliant -how you put them. ;) and i totally love your Bread Pie, girl!

  5. I don't think my 'ticker' can take much more of this! I think she must have sat on a cucumber! Wish I knew his secret! Perhaps the model he was using was teasing him when he was chiseling!
    Seriously, Lola - this is a marvellous post. I love it - very well written ~ Eddie

  6. Giorgio - Io sono un po' Barocca, in effetti...
    Erin - You're a loyal and stimulating presence here. So, as far as recognition goes, I'm the one who's mightily honoured.
    Renee - I'm glad you agree, my book's filled with stuff like this.
    Silver - I'm happy you're here, stay, make yourself at home while I carve the cheese.
    Eddie - Thank you Edoardo. Did I read correctly: cucumber?!

  7. Lola that is such a good point. I think if you define it as only a cookbook then you would lose such a huge crowd that would love it.

    It is almost more about life and all that would mean.

    I love it and want one.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

  8. Loved your parethetical about Marquis de Sade and his quote!

  9. It is strange that in a religion that would like to pretend sex is only for procreation that nuns are referred to as 'brides of Christ'....

    Happy Days

  10. What a beautiful and fascinating post. I read a biography of St. Teresa once and don't remember the story of the piercing of her heart. I agree with what's already been said about divine ecstasy possibly looking like this. Who are we to say? I remember a line from the William Styron book, Sophie's Choice, in which the protagonist has a vision of God in a sexual climax. That made quite an impression on me when I read it as a teenager.

    Thank you, Lola. Absolutely...include things like this in your cookbook. You have so much to say about the richness of Italian life and culture.

  11. Hello. Pleased to make your acquaintance! I followed the trail from Renee's blog and am ever so happy I did. I have never seen this statue. I very much agree with Woman in a Window's statement: "Is what we feel as humanly close to a transcending devine as we can manage in our moments of rapture." For I had often thought of receiving Communion as being more intimate than sex...that Christ would choose to feed us of himself, and inhabit all cells of our being. Lovely. **blows kisses** Deborah