Pardon the verbose title – I’ll explain in a second. It’s funny how often in art history, works that meant one thing in their own historical context were interpreted a completely different way in other eras. This is never truer than for Bernini’s masterpiece The Ecstasy of St. Theresa.
In Theresa’s day and age, the Catholic Church was undergoing a series of changes known as the Counter Reformation. The Church was fighting the wave of Protestantism in Europe by making itself shinier, stricter, and tightening its grasp on its members. A very important part of this process involved Baroque art. The simple explanation is that religious paintings and sculptures were meant to inspire people to follow the Church. The slightly more complicated undertone of some of the pieces is that they could serve as a form of propaganda.
That’s where Bernini’s sculpture is quite relevant. The altarpiece depicts St. Theresa, a Carmelite nun famous for having immaculate visions and describing them in her memoirs. The center of the sculptural program shows the saint in the middle of her most famous vision, one in which she was pierced in the heart by an angel if God and jotted down as such:
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…
Heavy Stuff! The sculpture can be seen as propaganda because it is basically telling viewers that any worldly pleasure is inferior to divine pleasure. The piece speaks especially, perhaps, to women and the denial of lustful thoughts and experiences in favor of heavenly rapture.
Now here’s where the concept of a parallax comes in. A parallax is an astronomical term for the way an object looks different when viewed from two different lines of sight. It’s like if you were watching a play from the audience versus from the wings of the stage. I like to think of The Ecstasy of St. Theresa as a metaphorical parallax, viewed from different “places” over different periods of time.
You see, post-Freudian viewers of the piece tend to see something else entirely from what 17th century Catholics saw. Many scholars today will tell you that Theresa is clearly having an orgasm. Robert Harbison explained that it’s tempting to imagine the saint reaching climax and only describing it in religious terms because, as a nun, she didn’t know what she was experiencing. He argues that Bernini probably did not intend to depict lust, however. It’s so interesting how our modern culture is saturated with sexual psychology and therefore applies it egregiously.
I challenge you to think of some of your favorite pre 20th (or hey, 19th) century pieces of art. Could it be that you’re missing the point entirely? I know I have quite a few times!