ROME, Italy—The first time I laid eyes on Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, all I could think was: “I want that.” Even in black and white, flat on a page in an outdated art history book, I could tell she was experiencing something unearthly. And it was good.
Recently, I had the privilege of seeing the work in person during a class trip to Rome. Bernini is depicting a scene of a 16th-century nun, Saint Teresa, in which her spirit is overcome by “the great love of God,” which causes a pain so extreme “that one cannot possibly wish it to cease.”
In person, it appears as if every part of her body is caught in tension, suspended between tautness and relaxation. Her fingers and toes are captured in a moment that makes it difficult to decipher whether she is inhaling or exhaling out of pure pleasure. But it’s the way her eyes are fluttered half-shut, the way her head is thrown back as she lifts her mouth gasping for (or exhaling) air that emote a pure sensation of ecstasy, of pain so penetrating that it results in pleasure.
Her body, under the control of both divine intervention and her primordial instincts, is contrasted with the angel’s sweet face and soft smile. He delicately balances his arrow (was it just pulled out, or is it going in?) between his fingers with his left hand as his right lifts her voluminous shroud.
In this work the primitive and divine are reconciled, the private and public spheres become one, the heavenly and earthly come together bridging impurity and holiness. For religious reasons, my entire life I’ve been told to steer far from desiring such gratification. But here, in a sanctuary, I found pleasure at its extreme, its most beautiful. Saint Teresa writes she was experiencing the Holy One, but what Bernini captures is nothing less than human.