SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Reduction of Art

Today I commented on a not-new and rather irascible thread, even though I meant not to do so--I don't really like web-contention or find it worthwhile. Both the article and the thread made me feel the urge to reach out a hand toward the long-dead artist.  It's not just that Bernini arouses controversy; it's a certain lack of courtesy and understanding and love for the works of the past that bothers me.

Why attempt to sink into a  work of art when we are so very different (and better, surely) now?  We're sex-friendly, so Bernini must have just been wanting to show the world a sexual image and plunk it down in the middle of Cardinal Cornaro's chosen burial site. As for Teresa of Avila, a mystical nun, and her precisely stated account of divine contact, what do we care whether it was a direct source for Bernini and accurately portrayed? What does that have to do with anything?

Anyway, I thought that "entering in" to a work of art is an important topic for people who love the arts and the achievements of our predecessors, so I am sharing my comment here. See below the picture for a link to the original article.

from "Sexuality and Love in Art"
The critic says that some of the shots he included were stills
 from Schama's Power of Art DVD--not sure whether this is one.

The desire to depict the overwhelming nature of religious ecstasy and the ravishment of the soul led Bernini here. You can find parallels in written art--in John Donne, for example. The biblical concept of the body of the Church (that is, the company of all believers) as “bride of Christ” is here taken to its passionate, baroque extreme.

Judging by this thread, I would say that the secular eye and the religious eye are not seeing the same piece of art. Two world views, two versions.

The secular viewer is constrained to be reductive and perceive only sex. To use a proverb with a few sexual connotations of its own, “When you’re a hammer, all the world’s a nail.”

Meanwhile the religious viewer sees the sensuality of this bride of Christ, yes, but in the form of an utter abandon of the human body “slain in the spirit.”

Bernini was not a secular man but a Christian, and here he presents divine joy in a way utterly right for how St. Theresa described her mystic union with God. “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” shines with his genius for bringing passionate life to stone and a thrilling ability to create dramatic architectural design as setting for his sculptural works.

A hallmark error of our era is to diminish the glories of the past in an effort to make them better “fit” our modern times and modern sensibilities. Not only is there a lack of sympathy for religious experience and transformation, but there is a determined and even self-righteous lack of imagination, which has already begun to close off the great works of past time from many secular viewers.


  1. THANK you for posting this, Marly. Well said. and BRAVO especially for that last paragraph!!

  2. The interplay of the light and colours of the stone is remarkable, and the effective use of bronze. It is hard to see this as a functional altar. Yes, sexuality is very much present, but with a passion that elevates it beyond the physical. This is religion in its purest form, it draws one into the subject and beyond.

  3. zephyr,

    I am honored by the approval of the mild and beneficent zephyr!

    Fr. Al,

    Yes, it is gorgeous, both weighty and ethereal.

  4. Well said, Marly! Interesting that just only a few weeks ago I saw that episode of Schuma's on Bernini, and it certainly opened my eyes towards a better understanding and appreciation than what I remember from art history class decades ago! The Baroque period of art and architecture is a bit over the top to my/our taste yet I can appreciate it in the context of its time. The same could be said for the religious fervour of the time and the power of the RC Church that paid for this. If I recall the film correctly, some of the patrons were still a bit disturbed yet it was a time of overt sexuality amonst the rich and powerful, even within in the Church - so it brings together both the spiritual and the earthly. I applaud Bernini for his mastery and power, for stirring the emotions of viewers-- to me, that is what makes the work of art successful--and timeless.

  5. marja-leena,

    I do remember thinking of Donne when I first saw an image of the Bernini "Teresa" in an art book. Think I was a teen still, and I loved Donne. That strange and wonderful marriage of eros and psyche!

    And Donne is very complex and metaphysical--a dramatic and baroque sort of writer who combines sensual fire with holy fire and likes to yoke seeming opposites. Maybe that's why the "St. Teresa" attracted me in spite or because of its marked differences from the norm.

    You can certainly imagine that the sensuality yoked to the relgious did disturb at the time because it still does bother many people! And it suggests that religious experience can be of a very high order of magnitude. That also bothers people!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.