Some people go Italy and come back bellowing that if they never saw the inside of another cathedral for the rest of their lives, that would be fine with them.
Not I. I could see another one tomorrow and tomorrow again; there would never be enough churches to satisfy me. I find the church the most sublime and inspiring of human structures. And in many cases, especially in Italy, churches are the home to some of the finest works of art in all the world.
On my trip to Italy last summer, I saw some of these. There was of course the Pieta, Michelangelo's magnificent sculpture in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. There were the beautiful medieval mosaics in the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere. Or Carvaggaio's astonishing cycle of paintings on the life of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi die Francesi (St. Louis King of France).
But among every group of goods there is always a best. For me, the best was my visit to the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome, where I saw the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture draws inspiration from the diary of St. Teresa of Avila, the relevant passage displayed on a marker below the piece. St. Teresa, a sixteenth century mystic, describes a vision that came to her during prayer: An angel appeared before her brandishing a spear of gold, which he proceeded to plunge into the saint's chest:
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.
Bernini's sculpture depicts the moment just after the angel has pulled the spear from Teresa's chest. The angel hovers above her, the arrow relaxing in his hand, it's miraculous power having met its purpose. St. Teresa's head swoons back, her face transfigured in ineffable, ecstatic you. Her body appears pushed to its very limits, a corporal being feeling as much of the glory of God as a human can feel without being torn apart. I can almost see the very cells in her body swollen to the point of bursting with happiness. The angel, looking on, has a look of sympathetic knowingness -- yes, Teresa, this is what it is like, this is complete joy, this is knowing God and God's love in all of its completeness. Even Teresa's nun's habit tells a story, swirling and disheveled, it mirrors the shock of disarming ecstasy, the sense of being completely overwhelmed.
The Ecstasy is different from most of the other works I saw in Rome. Michelangelo's works are cool and confident -- think of David, calmly facing Goliath, or the Pieta, which depicts a mother mourning her dead son, the eyes of Mary gazing away from Jesus towards an inner peace: God will somehow make this right. Carravaggio is usually darker and brooding. Raphael is vibrant and noble, but his paintings are composed -- never the loss of senses or control that Bernini displays here. The Ecstasy is pure fire and heaven's light, it is the very picture of joy, if joy can be cast into stone.
Some art historians have said that the glory of the sculpture lies in what is not depicted. Teresa looks up, and above the statue is a stream of golden rays from heaven represented by a burst of rods, suggesting that the greatest joy, the spiritual energy of the artwork, comes for above in heaven and not from the angel or the saint.
Maybe so. But I see in the sculpture itself diving glory embedded in physical being, the body completely taken by the power of infinite joy. Santa Maria, after all, is a Catholic church, and Catholicism teaches that body and spirit reside together. Jesus was divine and human at the same time; we humans will die and one day return, body and soul resurrected, spirit and biology together. I don't think Bernini meant to show the separation of spirit and body, but its complete union. And he succeeded, to the extent that a human being can succeed in such a task.
In Italy, most of the churches with major artwork have lights above them, to illuminate the art in the gloom inevitably inhabiting the side chapels of churches built long before electricity. To make the lights work, you put a euro into a box and the light comes on for a few minutes, providing enough light to fully appreciate the artwork. I stood at the foot of this chapel, emptying my pockets of all the loose change I had, as transfixed by a work of art as I have ever been.
Anything I could say beyond this about the Ecstasy of St. Teresa would be a regurgitation of Art 101. About how art represents the emotions and thoughts we all have about ourselves. About how it models our hopes and dreams. About how it embodies, and inspires, our desire for human perfection.
And it would all be true. And this: When a person approaches a work of art, one must do so with a willingness to be changed. Not all art will change you -- certainly not every work of art I have encountered has changed me. But many have, and a few have touched me so deeply that everything I see afterwards is somehow observed in its light. The Ecstasy teaches joy. How to experience it, and how to look for it, and most importantly, through St. Teresa's example, how not to be afraid of it when it finds you at last.
Happy New Year.