A woman in love - Madonna Magazine

A woman in love

Michael McGirr 10 March 2017

Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St Teresa depicts a saint who is alive to the present moment, able to let God take her breath away.

Pardon the pun, but nobody could make a splash like Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). He created some of the most beautiful fountains in the world. Perhaps the best known is the Four Rivers Fountain which, like so much of Bernini’s work, you will find in Rome.

The fountain is built on land that was used for public entertainment, some of it pretty horrifying, in the first century and probably before. It is centred on an enormous obelisk that, somehow or other, was brought from Egypt. The fountain itself features extraordinary carved figures to represent the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata, rivers from what were then considered the four continents of the world. All of this is surmounted by Christian symbols that appear to be the source of the water which plays around the structure. The whole thing makes a powerful impact. It suggests that everything in the world and, indeed, all of history, flows from Christianity. It is hardly a modest work of art. Then again, Bernini was hardly a modest artist.

Bernini belonged to a period of art called the baroque, which was known for extravagant ornamentation and detailed symbolism. His fountains are exuberant. This is a good thing for a fountain to be. A fountain usually has a lot of fun with the relationship between water and rock.

Bernini did other things as well. He is famous for the colonnade that sweeps out from St Peter’s basilica and which is often said to resemble a pair of arms reaching out to embrace the whole world. This is a delightful image of what the Christian community is supposed to do: stretch itself to make people welcome. Bernini’s work always projects an air of confidence and importance. The great structure he created to go over the altar inside St Peter’s basilica is a good example. It is a statement of triumph which completely dwarfs any human being who might happen to be praying below. The God to whom Bernini paid homage was unrestrained. Bernini was not slow to use plenty of material resources to celebrate his immaterial faith.

It is curious then to think about a very intimate work for which Bernini was also responsible, namely The Ecstasy of St Teresa.

It is 500 years this year since the birth of St Teresa of Avila, a woman whose impact is hard to measure. Comparisons are odious, of course, but if we were to exclude those mentioned in the Bible, St Teresa is quite possibly the most significant woman in the history of the church. Yet she was the last person who would have considered herself a suitable model for the likes of Bernini. She explains in her autobiography that she was only writing the work because she had been told to do so by her superiors. She was the last person to want to make a splash.

This memoir is full of the homely wisdom for which St Teresa is famous. She made a big impact on the way that ordinary people relate to God, speaking of God as her ‘friend’. Admittedly, God could be a frustrating or elusive or inexplicable friend, but a friend none-the-less. Teresa urges people to think of themselves as a garden and God as a gardener, working to help us produce beauty and order. She writes: ‘a beginner must look on herself as one setting out to make a garden for the Lord’s pleasure, on most unfruitful soil which abounds in weeds.’

Elsewhere she says, ‘God gives more in a moment than in a long period of time, for His actions are not measured by time at all… Know that even when you are in the kitchen, Our Lord is moving among the pots and pans.’

I am one of the millions who turn on an almost daily basis to the words that were discovered on a bookmark in her breviary after her death. I actually use them as a signature on my emails, mostly as a reminder to myself:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.

Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that St Teresa found her relationship with God mundane or predictable in the ways that household chores or gardening might be mundane and even bland. Bernini wonderfully captures the face of a woman passionately in love.

The face of his sculpture is unashamedly sensual. It shows a woman in an act of deep surrender, completely alive in the present moment, able to let God take her breath away. The work is ambiguous. It is not easy to know if St Teresa is lost in an experience of pleasure or pain.

Maybe it was a mixture. Many people have wondered at the energy Bernini manages to convey in stone. The folds of St Teresa’s habit are made to look like ruffled bedclothes. She is being stirred from rest in order to find a deeper rest, stirred up in order to find true peace. She is both giving and receiving love at the same time. Bernini reminds us that St Teresa is a teacher of the church whose lessons we need to learn.

Michael McGirr is the author of many books including Ideas to Save Your Life (Nov 2021). Books That Saved My Life, Snooze: the Lost art of sleep, Bypass; The story of a road and Things You Get For Free. His religious books include Finding God’s Traces and Doorways into Hope and Joy at Advent and Christmas. He has much experience as a secondary teacher in the realm of Faith and Mission and currently works for Caritas Australia. He lives in Melbourne with Jenny and their three children.


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