Bernini's Ecstasy Of St Theresa - When stone came to life

Who can look at Bernini's Ecstasy Of St Theresa (1644- 47) with an innocent eye? On a scalding Roman summer afternoon some years ago, a trio of sandalled nuns came into the dark church of Santa Maria della Vittoria and approached the Cornaro Chapel. I was sitting in one of the pews opposite, unsettled as usual by what I was seeing - intermittently illuminated rapture. Every so often a coin would clunk into the pay-for-light box, and the most astounding peep show in art would proceed: the saint's head thrown back, her mouth, its upper lip drawn back, opened in a moan, heavy-lidded eyes half-closed, shoulders hunched forward in both recoil and craving. Beside her, a smiling seraph delicately uncovers Theresa's breast to ease the path of his arrow.

The nuns stayed for 10 minutes, stock still, then two of them genuflected, crossed themselves, as well they might, and left. The third sister sat down in another pew, dipped her head in prayer and occasionally caught my eye as I tried not to wonder what she was thinking and feeling. Bernini's sculpture is, after all, a spectacle that hovers on the borderline between sacred mystery and indecency. Scholars have fallen over themselves to warn us that what we are looking at could not possibly be a moment of sensual surrender. It is utterly unhistorical, these interpreters insist, to imagine the Pope's architect could conceive of representing the mystical levitation of a saint as a moment of orgasmic convulsion. But as a matter of fact, the modern anachronism is not the union of body and soul that so many 17th-century poets and writers obsessed about, but its demure separation into sensual and spiritual experience. Ecstasy in Bernini's time was understood, and experienced, as sensuously indivisible.

A century after he had made this most miraculous and emotionally overpowering of all his works, a French aristocratic connoisseur, the Chevalier de Brosses, passing through Rome on the Grand Tour, took one look at the saint and made a remark that has become infamous for its smirking cynicism: "Well, if that's divine love, I know all about it." But the Chevalier may have understood more than he affected to know: that the intensity of Theresa's ecstasy, the representation of the transport of the soul, in fact, had everything to do with carnal knowledge, especially Bernini's own.

Before Bernini, sculpture's preoccupation had been with immortality. When modern sculptors looked at, and learned from, antiquity, what they saw was the translation of mortal humanity into something purer, chillier and more enduring: gods and heroes. Michelangelo's self-appointed mission, famously, was to tease out from the marble those ideal forms he believed lay trapped within it. So the heroic power of his David (1504) lies precisely in its inhumanly frozen immobility. Michelangelo was not much interested in the rendering of common bodies, still less in the imitation of workaday faces. His passion was to approximate men to gods. So no matter how grand the subjects - Pope Julius II, for example - he never bothered with so much as a sitting.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, on the other hand, cared a great deal about likeness, to the point where he redefined it as more than appearance. True likeness - the kind he wanted to capture in his sculptures - was the animation of character, expressed in the movements of bodies and faces. Bernini took the stat - the Latin for their usual condition of "standing" - out of statues. His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation. Bernini could make marble do things it had never done before. His figures charge into hectic action. Most of them are naturally yeasty, on the rise, and their natural drift is into the air and light. So on Rome's Ponte Sant'Angelo, Bernini's angels trip into the sunlight. Within the basilica, his bronze columns supporting the canopy - the baldacchino - over St Peter's tomb aren't static; they writhe and seethe with organic life, bees and leaves teeming on their surface. Beyond the baldacchino, at the farthest end of the basilica, the Cathedra Petri - the throne of St Peter himself, the seat on which the entire Church of Rome institutionally rests - is held aloft on the fingertips of the apostles, as though it were a holy Lilo bobbing on a cushion of celestial helium.

It's magic. And that was precisely why, after his death, Bernini would be attacked by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds for being a cheap sorcerer, a specialist in theatrical trickery, who - for the sake of wowing the worshipper - had, unlike Michelangelo, debased the purity of his chosen material. The two classicist gripes against the Baroque Bernini were that he was emotionally overloaded and that by going to such great lengths to imitate the surfaces and textures of other materials - steel, fur, skin - he had betrayed the integrity of stone. The more he made marble impersonate some other substance, the critics complained, the farther from the sublime he took the beholder and dragged him down to earth.

According to the contemporary writer Filippo Baldinucci, Bernini liked to boast that in his hands marble could become as impressionable as wax and as soft as dough. Bernini's marble does indeed seem to mutate into other substances: fibrous rope; brilliant steel; locks of hair. Through understanding the way light could strike a highly polished surface, and how deep incising with a fine drill-head could supply shadow, he could even make the skin of a figure appear to sweat. All of this made him an exceptional dramatist, and just as his talent as a painter played into the colour that we imaginatively sense in his stone figures, so his third career as writer, producer and actor of Roman plays meant he was committed to sculpture as a high performance art. Contemporaries marvelled at this virtuosity, and believed that Bernini's unearthly powers as the Great Transubstantiator were a sign that he must have been kissed by God. False modesty was definitely not one of his failings. But since there had never been a time when he had not been hailed as a human marvel, it's surprising he wasn't more swollen-headed. The child Gianlorenzo, paraded and promoted by his father, was singled out as extraordinary. Brought before the Borghese Pope Paul V, the eight-year-old did a shrewdly ingratiating lightning sketch of Saint Paul "with free bold strokes" that moved the astonished Pope to hope that he was looking at the next Michelangelo. To nurture his talent, Paul V appointed Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to watch over the young Bernini and shape his education.

Years of what all sculptors had to do - study and draw from classical models - followed. Even boy wonders had to learn the rules. But Bernini was later famous for saying that "those who never dare to break the rules never surpass them", and there was something else apart from antique busts and torsos that he was evidently looking hard at - himself. For all three of the great masters of 17th-century dramatised realism - Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Bernini - the mirror was almost as important a tool of their work as the brush, etcher's needle or chisel.

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