Thursday, July 05, 2007
Bernini's Statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy
I have been watching a television presentation on the life and works of the great Renaissance artist (sculptor/architect) Bernini, whose most famous work is his representation of "St.Teresa in Ecstasy." Though astute in many ways, the presenting commentator/critic like many other observers does not fully grasp the significance of the moment captured in the depiction, nor does he understand the true nature of spiritual ecstasy.
This amazing sculpture represented a major departure in the history of art, for it ignored tradition and revealed the saint not as a prim, austere piece of marble more or less removed from this world. Rather she is a woman in the throes of what the critic interprets as bodily orgasm, with the angel of her vision hovering over her, an arrow poised to thrust into her heart (the critic here slyly comments that the arrow seems to be pointed down to a lower region, that is, her genital area.) Many viewers have made suggestive comments about this piece, one wag commenting, "If that is the face of spiritual exaltation, I know it well."
What these male critics fail to grasp is that ecstasy is indeed a heightened sense of pleasure, often erotic in tone, something which can carry the human close to the state of physical release, but it need not do so. As one person noted, speaking of the kundalini rapture, "It is like sex, only different." (And I of course think Teresa is experiencing exquisite kundalini arousal, which often produces acute bliss or rapture. I think it is the means by which the divine communes with and transforms the human.)
So--the first error of interpretation of the statue (and of the state of spiritual ecstasy) is to assume that such rapture is the equivalent of physical orgasm. Indeed, bliss--often experienced in certain types of yoga or in the kundalini process--can be spread throughout the body, awakened by a non-sexual stimulus, and seeking no sexual outlet. Erotic in tone, yes, but not the same as the more familiar human experience.
Another major mistake that would be interpreters make about the statue is a misunderstanding about where ecstasy may occur. Ecstasy can arise in some specific bodily location, as the hands or arms (or cheeks or elbows), quite independent of the rest of the body. It can flow through the legs, or envelop the head, even reach into the brain itself.
Teresa said that her angel penetrated her heart again and again with his lance, and those who have experienced the intense opening of the heart charka know that this can be a rapture beyond all others. It is as if the heart itself became an organ of sensuous feeling, not so much a rival as a transcending of the more familiar earthly experience, sensation carried to a new level.
After kundalini awakening, this bliss of the subtle body can be at times be felt by stroking the aura (at a distance of a few inches), or making almost imperceptible movements of the hand, or moving the eyes back and forth. This state is not always reached (indeed, sometimes there is little feeling at all during one's practice), but when such awakening arrives, it indeed seems to be produced by an invisible angel, the "Lover Within," the ultimate Mystery.