Gianlorenzo Bernini’s St.
Theresa in Ecstasy, 1645-52, depicts an average flesh and mortal human
visited by an angel. St. Theresa was a Carmelite nun in a convent in Spain.
One night as she was preparing to go to sleep, an angel appeared in her darkened
cell. Paralyzed by fear, she could neither move nor talk. The angel, holding
an arrow with a glowing hot point, walked toward her and thrust the arrow
into her side. The feeling was intense and warm. He took it out and the cold
of cell started to settle on her body. He put it in a second time and took it
out, a third time and took it out. Then, he left. Theresa wrote an
account of the evening and sent it to the Papal authorities. Obviously, the
distinction between spiritual ecstasy and religious ecstasy became blurred.
(A male/suitor/Christ visited her in her lonely cell and penetrated her three
to the sculpture, Theresa is represented as naked reality. Her face, hands,
and feet are biologically correct but not idealized. On the other hand, the
angel represents the Neoplatonic ideal because he resides in that higher
realm. Female viewers could narcissistically identify with Theresa as she
looks like them or women they know. Therefore according to Baroque narrative
strategies, the sculpture is true to the story, simple in its presentation,
and inspirational. However, the important message is that miracles can happen
to anyone, any of us.
A similar “common” model was used in Caravaggio’s
painting of the Conversion of St. Paul. The man is not an idealized
hero, posing for the viewer or self-consciously showing off his Neoplatonic
beauty, but an ordinary mortal that had followed Christ, suffered an
emotional and spiritual crisis after the Crucifixion, and in turn suffered.
The painting’s narrative serves as an allegory of self-awareness. People lose
their way, and eventually will “see the light.”