March 28: Teresa of Ávila

2016/03/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1515 Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born.

Better known as Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582), the Spanish Carmelite nun was ultimately beatified in 1622 after becoming famous for her mystical writings during the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  (They remain popular in the present day: her many books have been continuously in print, and are even available for your Kindle.)  Among all the many portraits made of her through the centuries (some better than others), nothing exceeds the technical brillicance and emotional impact of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) for the Cornaro Chapel.  The chapel, in Santa Maria Vittoria in Rome, was ordered by Federico Baldissera Bartolomeo Cornaro (1579 –1653), cardinal,  bishop of Venice, and super-rich guy.  Also super-smart guy, hiring the best sculptor to walk the earth, maybe with the exception of Michelangelo, but it’s a close call.

In the sculpture (detailed above) Bernini illustrated an excerpt from one of Teresa’s ecstatic visions.  She described being visited by an angel:

I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.

Bernini managed to express this otherworldly experience with what is, essentially, a well-illuminated rock; applying his keen vision, deft skills, and profoundly creative mind, made spirit visible in stone.  From the murky interior of the relatively small church, the sculpture is luminous, and appears to float.  The saint’s stretched eyelids, limp hand and body, even the difference in the light, diaphanous garment worn by the angel and the nun’s heavy robe emphasize the miraculous quality of the scene.  You don’t have to be Catholic to be moved, in a deep way, by this work, and if you’re not, you should check your pulse.

We agree, it’s kind of a long walk from the birth of a regular girl in Gotarrendura to this most exquisite sculpture in a glorious chapel patronized by one of the wealthiest and most powerful divines of the day, but it’s a walk worth taking.

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