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 on ecstasy. It is really a synthesis of ecstatic experience, her own and also that of others, which tells, quite informally, what ecstasies are like, from the moment of onset to the final after-effects (p. 35).
The main syntactic blur here is created by the slovenly “it,” which tugs us away from our real subject, the two chapters, to the free-form essay with which they’ve only been compared. As for the tone of the last sentence, it’s pure Doctor Spock, all warm and reassuring—as if to tell us there’s nothing at all to worry about in ecstasies, since they’re all very much alike, perfectly normal, and can be described “quite informally,” as in a neighborly conversation over the telephone.
The problems here are loose syntax and incongruous tone; a summary paragraph on the Cornaro Chapel offers an instance of more ambitious confusions:
The numerous references and cross-references to time and place in the chapel point to a single, simple truth about mystical experience: it cannot be constrained by the grip of time and place. If time points back from the moment Bernini was building the chapel, it also points forward from that moment, by virtue of the chapel’s continuing existence. The mysterious event first occurring in 1559 is also occurring in 1650. Nor does it cease at the moment the chapel is finished, for it occurs again as often as new spectators are there to experience it (p. 83).
The logic of the first sentence is in the highest degree elusive: when a decorative ensemble makes reference to time and place, how does it point to the fact that mystical experience cannot be constrained by the grip of time and place? If I say I had an ecstasy last week on La Cienega Boulevard (the case is hypothetical only), does that show that mystical experience cannot be constrained by the grip of time and place?
But the explanation in the last three sentences is more fuddled than the confusion in the first. Mr. Petersson’s assertion that the Cornaro sculpture points back to 1559 and forward to 1971 could apply to any other work of art, from the Sistine Chapel to a kid’s graffito on my sidewalk; they all refer to events of the past and “recur” after a fashion (not of course an identical fashion: looking at a picture of a man eating a beefsteak is not the same experience as eating a beefsteak) for each new spectator. The mystical experience, which the Cornaro Chapel does indeed suggest or depict, has nothing whatever to do with the temporal ties of a work of art, such as they are. It is a subject like any other.
In short, the reader of Mr. Petersson’s book will have to contend on every page with platitudes, imprecisions, and infelicities of the sort that all too often give American scholarly prose the feeling and appearance of an oil slick between hard covers. It is especially regrettable in a critically oriented book. Mr. Petersson doesn’t depart radically from, or go much beyond, the established studies, Wittkower on Bernini and Austin Warren on Crashaw; he doesn’t aspire to “originality” in the sense of fresh facts or new interpretations. But in its effort to deal carefully and acutely with the problem of stylistic comparison between the different arts, his book could be of considerable value if it were written more artfully and with more insight.
Elegance, energy, audacious exaggeration, vehement imaginative action—such are the traits of the baroque style. Bernini and Crashaw are both bravura performers in their chosen media, and both flourish on the sense of imaginative difficulties overcome, unities imposed on still rebellious incongruities. Thus the recurrent sense of “bad taste” in both artists (Bernini’s illusionism, distortions, and sensationalism, Crashaw’s grotesque metaphors and conceits); as in high tension art generally, the style produces widely refracted responses. Some people are made actively ill by displays of baroque artifice that give other people a sense of difficult, synthetic delight, a kind of frisson that isn’t separate from a strong sense of convention. One locus classicus is Crashaw’s horrid little epigram on the passage in Luke 11 where the woman, speaking to Christ, calls out: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.” Crashaw addresses his epigram to Mary herself:
Suppose he had been Tabled at thy Teates,
Thy hunger feeles not what he eates:
Hee’l have his Teat e’re long (a bloody one)
The Mother then must suck the Son.
This isn’t a casual failure of Crashaw’s, or an aberrant bit of accidental bad taste. He wrote the epigram in Latin before translating it into English, and the kind of “bad taste” that it exemplifies is found in other poems, for example, “On the wounds of our crucified Lord” and “Upon the body of our bl. Lord, naked and bloody.” Whatever it is that he did in this sort of poetry, he was clearly trying to do it; but our definition of what he was trying to do is complicated by the tone of the poem. He certainly isn’t trying to “rub our noses in it”—to make us feel the ghastly, unnatural complications whereby the son’s blood becomes compensatory nourishment for the mother’s milk.
There is a kind of pleased, artificial tone about the epigram, as about many of the images in “The Weeper” and the devotional poems generally, where Crashaw seems to be expounding with a certain detached complacency what he somewhere calls “the wit of love.” Yet it somehow goes with an extraordinary quantity of visceral, violent, and almost perverse imagery. The poet loves to play with blood and milk, kisses and wounds, flaming fountains and weeping fires, the notion of dying over and over again in the erotic as well as the physical and spiritual senses. Over this violence he draws a veil of deliberately artificial wit, of assured and amused antitheses. In this respect, there is a special dimension of comparison with Bernini’s sculptural complex, where the ephebic seraph maintains an insipid, simpering expression that has caused a lot of trouble for viewers.
Indeed, this element of parallelism between Crashaw’s poetry and Bernini’s sculpture is so close, so nearly explicit, that one could wish Mr. Petersson had dwelt on it a little more fully. Crashaw seems to have a very definite picture in mind when he writes, in “The Flaming Heart”:
Readers, be rul’d by me; & make
Here a well-plac’t & wise mistake
You must transpose the picture quite,
And spell it wrong to read it right;
Read HIM for her, & her for him;
And call the SAINT the SERAPHIM….
Doe then as equall right re- quires,
Since HIS the blushes be, & her’s the fires,
Resume & rectify thy rude design;
Undresse thy Seraphim into Mine.
Redeem this injury of thy art;
Give HIM the vail, give her the dart….
Give her the DART for it is she
(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft & THEE.
The point of the poem is that Teresa in the act of surrender is the erotic aggressor; the seraph who stands over her with a dart should be represented as her victim:
Love’s passives are his activ’st part,
The wounded is the wounding heart.
Crashaw was certainly pointing in this poem to some specific work of art; he subtitled his poem “Upon the Book and Picture of the seraphicall Saint Teresa, (as she is usually expressed with a seraphim biside her).” But neither the 1602 nor the 1642 English editions of St. Teresa’s Life (the latter actually called “The Flaming Hart”) has any picture of St. Teresa with a seraph.* Could Crashaw actually have known the Bernini? It is barely possible. Crashaw was in Rome when the Cornaro Chapel was started in January, 1647, and though it wasn’t open to the public until 1651 (nearly two years after the poet’s death, in August, 1649), there is nothing improbable in the notion that a man fascinated with St. Teresa might have made inquiries into the designs for a chapel to be dedicated to her memory.
Even if Crashaw wasn’t thus influenced directly, he and Bernini may have drawn from some common source in the popular illustrations and engravings, a good many of which still survive. The difficulty is that those that survive don’t generally tie the erotic knot between saint and seraph as audaciously as Crashaw and Bernini do, or with the same pronounced reversal of attributes. In many instances the seraph is diminished to a mere glowing, winged face, sometimes a dove is substituted for him, sometimes he is split into a multitude of angelic impersonalities. It wouldn’t seem inevitable to write Crashaw’s poem on the basis of any representation of Teresa and seraph except Bernini’s, and it would be difficult to avoid writing it if one did know Bernini’s work.
Mr. Petersson’s decision to discuss only one of the Crashaw poems is thus regrettable because it leaves this tantalizing crux in the relationship still unresolved. But of course a student of comparative ecstasy is bound to avoid reduplication; the third supreme, indescribable experience is as much an embarrassment to vocabulary as the thirty-third. In actual fact, Saint Teresa, apart from her celebrated transverberation, had a long, active, and various career of communing with spiritual personages, some agreeable, some disagreeable. She saw supernatural toads, monsters, and hideous little black creatures, she was whacked by devils, transported to hell, and had a number of visits from the Savior Himself.
But a historian whose interests are critical and comparative can properly dispense with most of these manifestations—as well as with the veritable snowstorm of Teresan pictures, poems, translations, paraphrases, and imitations that filled the middle and late years of the seventeenth century. Mr. Petersson has concentrated, as a proper amateur of ecstasy must, on the high points, and they are high indeed. By contrast with the Church’s tattered somnolence in eighteenth-century England and Italy, its baroque manifestations in the mid-seventeenth century have a gaudy, purple panache that is rather special. Puritans may identify it with the hectic flush of a consumptive, or murmur about the trappings and bedizenings of her of Babylon; but for those who are attuned to it, there is no equivalent elsewhere for this strenuous spiritual theater, this dangerous artistry on the high wire of faith.
May 20, 1971
Mr. Petersson says flatly (but without citing any evidence) that Crashaw read St. Teresa in the Spanish: perhaps so, though the title of his poem (“The Flaming Heart”) is evidence that he read her in English as well. But the question still remains: what picture answers as closely to the Crashaw poem as Bernini’s statue does? ↩