Gianlorenzo Bernini, St Teresa and the ‘shock of the old’

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The 1st of November  is one of the great feast days: All Saints. In the past few days there have been a flurry of articles on how Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows, ie saints) is actually a Christian feast that’s been somehow transmuted into a vague Satanist/Samhain/pagan borefest, with lavish costumes and silliness. Not my bag, although it can be fun I guess. I would have to concur with @Mr_Eugenides on Twitter:

Kids dressing up for Halloween: lovely. Parents with kids: great. Students: if you must. Grown adults: get a ******* grip of yourselves.

It is also the anniversary  of what was a bit of a revelation for me. Nine years ago, I took my dad to Rome, for a break. He wasn’t too nimble physically, the plane was late, our luggage hadn’t arrived with us, his medication was in the luggage, and it was a Holy Day of Obligation (see here, for those of you who don’t get it). In other words, we had to get to mass.

We arrived at Termini, Rome’s main station at about 1730, and it was dark. I figured that if we headed over to the Piazza della Repubblica and up the hill to the Piazza di San Bernardo, there were so many churches around there that we’d find a 6pm mass. The lack of nimbleness meant a very short taxi ride, and I left Dad in the Chiesa di Santa Susanna, listening to nuns singing, while I found a helpful chemist. Very sensibly, you can buy lots of medication over the counter in Italy (unlike the UK), so a belated thank you to the bearded pharmacist with impeccable  English in the Farmacia Internazionale  on the Piazza Barberini.

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When I got back, I had spotted a 6.30pm mass in the nearly adjacent church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, so in we went. My ego would identify me as a pretty knowledgeable art and architecture buff, but it was only when I entered the church, that I realised that it housed what I had always thought of as perhaps the greatest sculpture mankind had ever produced (I know how much of a poseur that phrase makes me).

Really, it is  that good: Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. So I attended mass, in a city centre church with no admission restrictions or charges, with, on my right side my dad, and on my left, one of the most extraordinary technical, aesthetic and (yes, it’s true) erotic creations of any human hand.

You have to see it to fully appreciate, but you can get pretty close, as opposed to say, Michelangelo’s Pieta (with which it has some similarities), now miles from the crowd in St Peter’s, since the infamous hammer attack in 1972.  However, so striking and perfect is the  brilliant detailing, most notably in the folds of cloth and the ecstatic face of the saint, photographs can to some degree, do it justice. The eroticism is pretty much overt, inspired by these lines from St Teresa’s own writings. It’s no accident that the word ‘ecstasy’, with all it implies, is applied to extreme religious experience:

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. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(For very good histories and commentaries, all worth reading, try these sites: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 .)

Such is the perfect setting, in what is known as the Cornaro Chapel of the church (named after the benefactors, who are themselves portrayed in reliefs, as spectators on either wall of the chapel), with the associated altar and golden shafts of light, that it would be criminal to display it anywhere else. Which brings me to my last point.

As far as I can see, the last time a true Bernini work – as opposed to the many auction pieces described as ‘after Bernini’ – came on the market, it was a very small, damaged terracotta study of a Moor, in 2002. Essentially it was a clay sketch. This relatively insignificant piece went then for £2,096,650 at Sotheby’s.

If, somehow,  ‘St Teresa in Ecstasy’ went on the market today, I reckon it would easily become the most expensive artwork ever sold. The current record is somewhere between $250 and $300 million, for what I would describe as  a pretty mundane painting by Cezanne. Admittedly, the Sunni Qataris (who bought the Cezanne) would be unlikely to invest heavily in a Catholic mystical meisterwerk, as opposed to generic famous French post-impressionists, but you still get a good idea of the going rate. A billion? Two billion?

Cezanne features prominently in Robert Hughes’ iconic book and TV series of art after Impressionism, memorably entitled The Shock of the New. However, Bernini easily fulfils the definition provided by Hughes in that work, and if anything, goes beyond it:

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”

All of which makes me reflect on how fantastically fortunate we are to be able to do what I did – just walk in, almost randomly, and get up close with something so mindblowingly brilliant, without being crowded out, moved along, ripped off, disturbed or otherwise hassled. You only have to attempt a visit to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre to see what I mean. It has actually become pointless to do so.

Yet it’s still possible, across the world, mostly in Europe, and particularly in Rome, to experience thousands of the most sublime and priceless works of art and architecture , for free, basically for as long as you want to. I’ve given one example above, but there’s also Borromini’s facades, the ceilings of Il Gesu and Sant’Ignacio, the Scala Regia etc etc. This is not intended to be a rather obvious tourist guide to Rome, more to point out how counterintuitive it is in these times for such astonishing and priceless works of man to be just sitting there, waiting for our passing glance or intense study, regardless of their value, their maintenance, the risk of damage and so on.

These are not ‘ordinary’ masterpieces, rather they are the subject of this quote from Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Pure Reason:

“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”

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