The Art of Ecstasy: Teresa, Bernini, and Crashaw
First Saint Teresa had the indescribable experience, and described it in her autobiography vividly enough to fire imaginations from one end of Europe to the other. Then Gianlorenzo Bernini depicted St. Teresa having the experience, in a famous statue of the Cornaro Chapel of Sta. Maria della Vittoria in Rome; about the same time Richard Crashaw was writing the lushest possible devotional poetry in English to celebrate St. Teresa’s experience with the experience; and now Mr. Robert Petersson has written a book about all three of them, with pictures of the chapel, a text of one of Crashaw’s three Teresan poems (what ever happened to the other two?), and some information about the saint herself. It is a study in that baroque mode of thought and feeling where the erotic mingles intimately with the sacred rapture, while the artist plays audaciously with the extreme and incongruous feelings aroused by both.
To be explicit, the matter that concerns the critic is not the experience itself, nor the fact of its use in art, both of which are commonplace. Virgin ladies with strong religious persuasions often as they approach middle years encounter angelic forms who poke them dreadfully with sharp instruments and hurt them delightfully; the heat of divine love burns hot in many bosoms. (A seventeenth-century sister named Maria Villani, whose life was written by the Bishop of Pozzuoli himself, is said to have grown so fervent with the incendium divini amoris that she hissed and sizzled when applying her lips to a glass of water. At the Protestant end of the scale, Joanna Southcott was but one other of a large suffering sisterhood.)
Moreover, any Neapolitan church procession will turn up ecstatic devotional images, and any collection of Renaissance paintings will yield some thinly clad, agonized Magdalenes, reminiscent of Bernini’s lavish, languorous saint. Crashaw’s poetry is more nearly sui generis; yet for him too there are analogues, in Marino, Góngora, and the Continental Jesuit epigrammatists, as well as in a recusant English poet like Robert Southwell.
So the quality that unites Mr. Petersson’s triad is not what they did, but the style in which they did it—a kind of affinity easy to feel, challenging to define, and with clear natural boundaries which confine the study to manageable proportions. Mr. Petersson is a serious and well-informed author; he has made every effort to ground his cross-disciplinary comparisons responsibly in detailed perception and analysis of the objects before him. Atheneum has contributed a well-designed and handsomely produced volume. The omens are all good; what can go wrong? As it happens, only one thing, the importance of which every reader must estimate for himself. The author simply cannot write, either forcefully or imaginatively or correctly.
One starts to feel qualms on the first few pages of the book; one lays it down with a genuine sense of mal de mer. Let two instances stand for many.
The two chapters concluding Teresa’s account of the “fourth water” read like a free-form essay…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.