Saturday, October 15, 2011

Teresa of Avila – Mystic, Practical Woman, Doctor of the Church

Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens
St. Teresa of Avila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, 1630-1633
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nada te turbe. 
Nada te espante. 
Dios no se muda. 
Todo se pasa. 
La paciencia todo lo alcanza. 
Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta. 
Sólo Dios basta.

"Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee:
All things pass;
God never changes.

Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing:
God alone suffices."


Saint Teresa of Avila, "Poem IX".1 

October 15 is the feastday of Saint Teresa de Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.

Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Alhumada was born in the Spanish town of Avila in 1515. In 1582 she died in one of the convents she had founded. Between these two dates she lived a life of intense prayer, intense work, frequent illness and some controversy.

She was canonized within a short period of her death (in 1622) and, in 1970, she was named a Doctor of the Church (one of four women Doctors of the 33 saints that have been honored with this title since 1298, when it was first used). A Doctor of the Church is a saint whose personal holiness and writings have contributed greatly to Catholic theological understanding.






Nineteenth Century Copy of the Only Known 
Portrait of St. Teresa Done from Life
by the Carmelite Fray Juan de la Miseria
Spanish, 1877
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Like her three female colleagues among the Doctors, Teresa’s contribution is mainly to the understanding of prayer and of the mystical life.2  She is one of the classic guides and sources for those seeking a deeper personal union with Christ. Her description of the stages through which the soul passes as it moves to greater and greater union with God is based on her own deep personal experiences, which began when she was still quite a young woman.


However, Teresa was not just a contemplative visionary, she was also a woman of action. Based on the insights she had gained from her prayer and mystical experiences, she undertook a reform of the Carmelite order, eventually establishing the branch order of the Discalced (Unshod) Carmelites.

Possibly Jusepe de Ribera, St. Teresa of Avila
Spanish, 1644
Private Collection










Her reform affected not only the women’s branch of the Carmelites, but, with the help of the Carmelite monk, her friend, fellow mystic and fellow doctor of the church, St. John of the Cross, and others, it extended to the men’s branch as well. The goal of the reform was to return to a more primitive, even stern interpretation of the Carmelite monastic rule.
Benito Mercade y Fabregas, St. Teresa Defending
Her Reform Before Gratian
Spanish, 1868
Madrid, Museo del Prado






The work of reform and the consequent work of establishing daughter houses for her nuns involved Teresa in much travel and practical work, not easy for a woman who was often in poor health and who would have preferred to spend most of her time in prayer.
Alonso Cano, Apparition of Christ
Crucified to Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, 1629
Madrid, Museo del Prado











Peter Paul Rubens, St. Teresa's Vision of the Dove
Flemish, 1613-1615
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuninger














While St. Teresa is a highly respected saint, owing to her writings, her holy and hard-working life, her many convent foundations, the inspiration she has been to the daughters and sons (nuns, brothers and priests) who continue to follow in her footsteps and her own visionary experiences, she is not exactly a favorite saint of artists. However, that might be because of the fact that one artist who responded to her story not long after her death is such a hard act to follow.

Gianlorenzo Bernini was the pre-eminent artist of the Italian Baroque. Indeed, he has often been credited with the creation of the Baroque style. Born in 1598, the son of the successful late-sixteenth-century sculptor, Pietro Bernini, he exhibited an unusually precocious talent in that difficult field (marble sculpture), while still a young boy. Very few people have ever handled marble with greater sensitivity or virtuosity.

But Gianlorenzo’s talent was not limited to marble alone, or even to sculpture alone. He was also a superlative architect, painter and creator of stunningly memorable, highly intellectual, decorative schemes. While the structure of St. Peter’s Basilica is largely the product of the great Michelangelo Buonnaroti, the interior is primarily the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. As Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) is reputed to have told Bernini shortly after his election “It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini Pope; but We are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of Our Pontificate”.3  Urban’s statement would be echoed by several of his successor as Pope.

One of Bernini’s greatest works, recognized as such in his own lifetime, was inspired by an experience described by St. Teresa, her Transverberation (the piercing of her heart). In her autobiography Libro de mi vida she describes the event:
Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of this kind: I saw an angel close to me, on my left side, in bodily form…. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful–-his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire….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, even a large one. 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." 4

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria
Bernini’s interpretation of the scene reveals him at the height of his creative powers, using architecture, painting, stucco work, marble, stained glass and bronze to create a great illusion that, like all the best Baroque work, draws the spectator into the “reality” of the scene before him or her. This work is the famous Cornaro Chapel, in the Roman church of Santa Marie della Vittoria (named in honor of Our Lady of Victory, a relatively new title for the Blessed Virgin in Bernini’s time). The chapel was executed between 1647 and 1652 at the behest of the Cornaro family (whose burial vault lies beneath the floor).

The chapel is relatively shallow and is situated to the right of the main altar of the church, which stands on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Rather than describing it myself I’m going to quote the elegant description penned by Rudolf Wittkower, the classic art historian of the Roman Baroque, in his book Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Transverberation of 
St. Teresa of Avila
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel



The Cappella Cornaro, which cannot be photographed in its entirety, is an indivisible unit from floor to ceiling. On its vaulting the painted sky opens, angels have peeled aside the clouds, so that the heavenly light falling from the Holy Dove can reach the zone in which the mortals live. Rays of this heavenly light fall on to the group of St. Teresa, and with the light has descended the seraph whose companions appear in the clouds. In the sculptured group Bernini represented the most important–the canonical–vision of the Carmelite Saint corresponding exactly with her own account of it. She described how the angel pierced her heart repeatedly with a floating golden arrow, whereupon, she continued, ‘the pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but simultaneously I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last eternally. It was not bodily, but physical pain, although it affected to a certain extent also the body. It was sweetest caressing of the soul by God.’ With consummate skill Bernini made this scene real and visionary at the same time. The seraph, a figure of heavenly beauty, is about to pierce the heart of the Saint with the fiery arrow of love and thus effect her mystical union with Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. The Saint is swooning in an ecstatic trance, her limbs hang inert and numb, her head has sunk back, her eyes are half closed and the mouth opens in an almost audible moan. The vision takes place in an imaginary realm on a large cloud magically suspended in mid-air.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel
Sheltered by the large canopy of greenish, grey-blue and reddish marble and placed against an iridescent alabaster background. He group is bathed in a warm and mysterious light, falling from above through a window of yellow glass hidden behind the pediment and playing on the highly polished marble surface of the two figures. 

Along the side walls of the chapel, above the doors, eight members of the Cornaro family appear behind prie-deus which have been compared with theatre boxes. The portraits stand out almost three-dimensionally before a colored and gild stucco perspective in flat relief representing the interior of a church. Since the two sides are made to look like parts of the same interior, the fictitious architecture and the architecture of the real chapel seem to interpenetrate. This creates the illusion that the Cornaro family is sitting in an extension of the space in which we move.

When standing on the central axis opposite the group of St. Teresa, it becomes apparent that the chapel is too shallow for the members of the Cornaro family to see the miracle on the altar. For that reason Bernini has shown them arguing, reading and pondering, certainly about what they know is happening on he altar, but which is hidden from their eyes.
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel






















Gianlorenzo Bernini, Skeleton
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Under the pavement of the chapel is the family tomb chamber, and on the cover of the vault two inlaid skeletons seem to express their surprise at the miracle with lively gesticulation. Thus not only the ceiling and the walls but even the pavement forms part of the grand dynamic unit.


Gianlorenzo Bernini, Skeleton
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel




It is the suggestive characterization, within one integrated whole, of the different realms of Man, Saint and Godhead that substantiates the belief in the existence of this mystic hierarchy of things. Like the Cornaro family, the worshipper participates in the supra-human mystery shown on the altar, and if he yields entirely to the ingenious and elaborate directives given by the artist, he will step beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world. “5




_____________________________________________________

1. From  Complete Works St. Teresa of  Avila (1963) edited by E. Allison Peers, Vol. 3, p. 288.

2.  The other three female doctors of the church are:  Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

3. Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second edition, 1966, p.7. 

4.  Teresa of Avila. The Life of St. Teresa de Jesus, Teddington, Middelsex, The Echo Library, 2006, Chapter XXIX, Section 16-17, p. 197. Accessible at http://books.google.com/books?id=RmgiSHaOUVAC&lpg=PA1&dq=related%3AISBN1420933965&pg=PA2#v=onepage&q&f=false

5. Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second edition, 1966, pp. 25-26.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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