I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?


The argument is a little tricky, so let’s go slowly.

The statue is obviously about sex in some sense. The face of the saint, and the turbulent folds of her robe imaging the dissolution of her mind in a moment of ecstasy, are clearly based on Bernini’s own extensive observation of his lovers. Men like that never stop looking. Watch, note, come.

But in what sense? From this point, there are several possible interpretations.

One is Jacques Lacan’s WYSIWYG. It is simply a marvellous representation of a woman in orgasm. The problem with this modern secular take on the work is the context of its creation. It was commissioned by the Venetian Cardinal Cornaro for his tomb, and accepted by the clergy of the church. They all must have seen it as something else. Above all, the theory is not a believable reading of Bernini’s motives.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a hugely and multiply talented artist, and a very hard-working one. To be the Pope’s principal artist, he must have been a formally practising Catholic, and for all I know he may have been devout – piety is quite compatible with sociopathy. We don’t however need to rely on any such supposition.

He was also personally a very nasty piece of work. Wikipedia:

In the late 1630s he engaged in an affair with a married woman named Costanza (wife of his workshop assistant, Matteo Bonucelli, also called Bonarelli) and sculpted a bust of her (now in the Bargello, Florence) during the height of their romance. She later had an affair with his younger brother, who was Bernini’s right-hand man in his studio. When Gian Lorenzo found out about Costanza and his brother, in a fit of mad fury, he chased his brother Luigi through the streets of Rome, intent on murdering him. To punish his unfaithful mistress, Bernini had a servant go to the house of Costanza to slash her face several times with a razor. The servant was later jailed, and Costanza was jailed for adultery.

This behaviour went far beyond the abuse of women endemic in a patriarchal society. His patron protected him from any sanction worse than a fine, while his victim went to prison (nice work, Gian Lorenzo). But the incident may have helped him lose favour when Urban VIII (Barberini) was succeeded by Innocent XI (Pamphili) in 1644. Borromini was in, Bernini out. The Ecstasy was designed as a bravura piece to win back favour with the one patron he needed to carry out big commissions. The work is surprisingly small – the wow effect is achieved within a small volume and a limited budget.

Can you believe that a hugely ambitious careerist like Bernini, whatever his personal faith, would be so reckless as to pass off a secular erotic sculpture as a religious one, deceiving the very astute clerical bureaucrats who held the keys to his artistic life? We are forced to conclude that the sculpture is indeed an authentically religious one.

The second interpretation is Simon Schama’s:

He [Bernini] would take his own, ample carnal knowledge and turn it into a sacred shock. ….. Some of us stubborn heathens may have a hard time kneeling when we see Theresa caught in her spasm of rapture. But we stare and stare none the less – as we stare at no other sculpture ever made. Perhaps the force of the spell comes from the realisation that Bernini has used the power of art to achieve the most difficult thing in the world: the visualisation of bliss.

I understand Schama as saying that sexual climax and mystical ecstasy are parallel but distinct forms of experience. Bernini is using the familiar former as a way to imagine the very rare latter.

There are still great difficulties here. One is general biological implausibility. We are invited to believe that there is a special faculty of mystical experience, presumably rooted in a particular piece of neural circuitry. Why should nature evolve this odd faculty? It’s not as if mystical trances would be very useful to ancestral hominid hunter-gatherers on the African savannah. If the faculty were useful in some unheard-of way, like the ability to do mental arithmetic, why don’t we all have it?

The statistics here are inconclusive. About half of adult Americans surveyed by Pew in 2009 reported having had a religious or mystical experience in their lifetime – even a fifth of atheists; the phenomenon is undoubtedly real. Very intense and repeated experiences like Teresa’s are much rarer. Hers came after many years of disciplined prayer, following guides written by earlier mystics.

These facts do not fit the hypothesis of a recessive distinct mystical faculty very well. The economical hypothesis is that they reflect a selective and trainable repurposing of the faculty all humans do have for intense pleasure, that of sex. To quote Simone Weil:

To reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colors composed of material substances. We haven’t anything else with which to love.

IANAC but as I understand it, Catholic teaching on saints is that they are not Marvel heroes with weird superpowers but ordinary men, women and even children who have fully exercised faculties common to all of us: those for moral discernment, selfless action, and communion with the divine. This looks sensible, and parallels the biological argument from economy.

The final and decisive piece of evidence is Teresa of Ãvila’s  own words. She describes her ecstasy thus – my italics:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s 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 soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

Teresa was a very intelligent woman, and by common judgement one of the masters of Spanish prose and poetry. Her converso grandfather had been persecuted by the Inquisition, which was suspicious of mysticism (a form of thinking for yourself) and had also come after her unsuccessfully, so she had to weigh her written words. She was heterosexual like Pope Francis. She was one of 10 siblings in a prosperous merchant family. No doubt they talked. The household also presumably had women servants, some married, others with boyfriends. She had belonged to a large and rather lax community of nuns, and had fought and won a battle to set up and lead her own much stricter order. Running a convent includes dealing with the pyschosexual problems of its members.

The author of these lines was a very formidable, mature and knowledgeable woman. When she wrote “the body has its share in it” and “the caressing of love” she meant it. Catholics, including the Curia, should mind that she has been certified by the Church as a saint and therefore a reliable witness.

I conclude from all this that we should classify Teresa’s ecstasy as a sexual religious experience, and Bernini’s representation of its dual character as fundamentally accurate.

If that is so, then the Vatican has to revise its doctrine of sex. For if mystical experience is a form of sex, it is not reproductive at all; and sex has several functions, not necessarily simultaneous. If non-reproductive extreme sex serves to bring us closer to God, why can the regular variety not serve to bring us closer to each other?

Jettisoning the old baggage would allow the Catholic Church to rejoin not only Protestants but the common view of most of the world religions. Hinduism has Krishna and the milkmaids. The Sufis have long recognised the close connection between sexual pleasure and mystical enlightenment. Ibn al ‘Arabi:

The witnessing of Allah in women is the greatest and most perfect witnessing.

No Sufi Teresas it would seem, it’s all a boy thing.

Closer to home, the Church long ago accepted the judgement of the rabbis that the Song of Solomon has its place in the Tanakh. The pious have read it as a mystical paean, but it is basically a song of fully requited sexual love:

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.

With not a baby in sight.


Postscript 1
Wasn’t it lucky for the Vatican when an unthreatening and submissive French saint  died young in 1895 with the same name? Sidelining Joan of Arc and Teresa of Ãvila in one canonisation! No wonder they rushed it through in record time.

Postscript 2
Bernini’s tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore. Comment is superfluous.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!