Few christian saints can match the popularity amongst non-believers of Teresa of Avila. Teresa lived a varied and eventful life, but the aspect which enamours her particularly to the world of artists, and that which inspires this exhibition entitled Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum; are her mystical visions of encounters with Jesus or angels.
Most famous is the excerpt from her autobiography of her vision of an angel: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”
The sexual connotations of the passage are especially drawn out by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque masterpiece The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Built in the middle of the 17th century in Rome’s church of Santa Maria della Vittoria; the sculpture depicts Teresa lying on her back moaning, the angel standing over her with phallic-like spear in hand. The couple are surrounded by beams of golden light.
In many ways it is this sculpture that has built the legend of Teresa of Avila. In the intervening centuries she has come to represent the expression of feminine sexuality in a time of repressive sexual mores; of a sensual christianity that rejects the ascetic dualism of the religion.
This is well demonstrated in Audrey Flack’s depiction here of Teresa’s moaning face with a stick of lipstick, the angel with a frosted cupcake. Flack describes Teresa as “the antithesis of a middle aged de-sexualized nun, but rather a beautiful vibrant young woman in the throes of intense passionate feelings … That she is a young woman allowing herself to display her sexuality (albeit religious sexuality) is courageous, unique and historically important.”
I’m not sure what Teresa herself would think of this. She was, after all, a nun who took a vow of chastity and devoted herself to lengthy sessions of prayer. As a young Carmelite sister, she was disenchanted with the way her fellow nuns gossiped and socialised with the local (male) gentry. So she founded her own monastery where strict routines of prayer, absolute poverty and vegetarianism were enforced. Her nuns became known as the discalced (shoeless) sisters.
The Teresa who inspires this art exhibition is the sensual orgasmic maiden of Bernini’s sculpture and post-modern mythology rather than the pious nun of Teresa’s actual life and writings. Which is fine, but gives an interesting subtext to the rest of the exhibition.
For one, Teresa’s decision to reject nobility for a life of voluntary poverty is the exact opposite of the scenes of Bacchanalian excess portrayed in works by Pietro Aquila and Girolamo Nerli. It doesn’t have that much in common either with other works in various shades of sexual innuendo that adorn the gallery walls.
Most explicit of these is Salvador Dali’s montage of female faces in orgasmic moans. While the definition of Ecstasy we are given as we walk into the exhibition is one of “self-transcendence”, the depiction of ecstasy here is on very much embodied rather than out of body – the carnal joys of copulation. No question that such desires have inspired much great art over the years, but what relation does it really bear to St Teresa’s ecstatic mystical visions?
Elsewhere in the exhibition the themes stretch further afar. David Wadelton’s sublime Show Them You Want It takes a picture of a couple of AFL stars, and with no more than a change of perspective recasts them gazing heavenwards. Brilliant work of art though it is, it marks a further digression from the transcendence of the divine. Here ecstasy is found in the spectacle of the football.
Chris Bennie’s Mothership, meanwhile, is a video of the artist dancing on his own to trance music, seemingly in his mum’s loungeroom. Bennie says the artwork is about the sublime possibilities of the mundane rather than the mystical. But in its depiction of rapturous dancing to bad electronic music, it brought to mind the most common use of the exhibition’s title these days. In the 21st century, “ecstasy” is just another product you buy – a little white pill to provide instant transcendence. In Bennie’s video, he dances more and more wildly while his surroundings stay exactly the same. Ecstasy is an ephemeral moment of pleasure preceding the inevitable comedown.
In contrast to these come the artworks most closely aligned with the philosophy of Teresa of Avila – engravings by Claude Mellon depicting St Francis of Paola and St Ignatius of Loyola, and Gordon Stephenson’s oil painting of St Stephen; each experiencing ecstatic religious visions.
Francis and Ignatius both founded religious orders, dedicating their lives to poverty and charity. Stephen meanwhile is famous as the first christian martyr – a man who stood on the witness stand facing the death penalty for blasphemy and proclaimed he saw Jesus at the right hand side of God.
In more ways than one these staid old guys don’t fit in with the rest of the artworks. They are certainly a bit more restrained than the scenes of excess around them, but more than that, these pictures show the kind of transcendent experiences that fundamentally change your outlook on the world. The kind of ecstasy you would die, or give up everything you once thought valuable, for. A quest that doesn’t seek ecstasy as a momentary release from our circumstances, but rather attempts to transform the world around us into a more permanent state of joy.
One of the highlights, as he is in any exhibition, is William Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. As ever, it is a hideously dystopian vision of Georgian England. It’s set in a church of religious tricksters – the faith of the people exploited by church leaders motivated by power and lust. The miserable parishioners seeking something to believe in are offered puppets of witches and devils, a clergyman molesting a young girl, and a thermometer of emotions that runs from “suicide” to “raving”. It is of course a critique of the 18th century church, but in the context of the exhibition you can also see in it the marketplace of shoddy salesmen offering the promises of various experiences to liberate us from our daily horrors.
Teresa of Avila’s mystical experiences were the result of and the catalyst for a life of extraordinary resistance to the powers and cultural norms of her society. She rejected the norms of her family, social caste, gender and religious institutions; and faced persecution at every turn. Yet she did it all joyfully out of a powerful belief in something greater. Anyone trying to use her as an exploration of what it means to “transcend the self” would do well to remember that.
ps. The exhibition is over now, but you can view the artworks and read artist statements in the exhibition handbook published digitally here.