Degree Critical,Fall 2017

Friday 11/10/2017

Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652). Photo: Livioandronico2013 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sexualizing Saint Teresa of Avila

byTom Winchester (Class of 2010)

Since the seventeenth century, a curious number of sexualized representations of Saint Teresa of Ávila have been created. The motivation behind these representations can be attributed to a fetishized reading of her autobiography. Although the narrative contains few specific events that could be considered taboo and would yield depictions of sex, the majority of these representations reference one specific, not explicitly sexual event. This hasn’t stopped artists from sexualizing the Saint, however, and the representations have only gotten more erotic as time has passed.  

A possible contributing factor to the fetishization of the Saint’s autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Ávila, published in 1565, is her rather candid approach to taboo subjects and events. One such event occurred during her teenage years when, she tells us, she was intimately involved with a much older female relative. Because of this relationship, her father sent her to the Augustinian Convent of Saint Mary of Grace, which is the first time the teenager was exposed to life in a convent. [1] The demonization and punishment of her incestuous lesbian relationship assuredly influenced not only how the Saint was to be represented in art, but also seems to have affected her internally, causing her writings to be very apologetic and submissive. She also implies in her writing that her sexual orientation may be her saving grace by repeatedly stating that she has never committed a mortal sin, which in this context is assumed to mean that she’s never had sex with a man.

Another contributing factor may be the ease with which the text can be sexualized. Semantic consideration is necessary when reading the Saint’s writings because she never received much of an education, and didn’t feel qualified to write about her life. She was encouraged by her confessors to publish her autobiographical and theological writings, and did so reluctantly, which include many statements admitting her lack of authorial acumen. Her inexperience makes it easy to imagine how artists looking to sexualize the text can do so without much effort. The specific passage many artists have fetishized occurs late in her autobiography:

In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. [2]

Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652); detail. Photo: Livioandronico2013 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The most well-known depiction of this passage, and arguably the most well-known depiction of the Saint, was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652). This larger-than-life sculpture of the Saint is set on a stage with a spear-clad angel hovering above, and was received at the time of its unveiling, soon after her canonization, as a peep show. [3] The Saint is leaning backward with her eyes closed and mouth agape, toes curled, with the young male angel’s spear pointed directly at her pelvis, and, from the angle of the viewer, his fingers pinching her right nipple. This pseudo-orgasmic sculpture is punctuated by the inclusion of depicted on-lookers, the Cornaro family that commissioned the piece, whose gazes from flanking balconies makes the scene seem less like a night at the theater than a bachelor party. 

Bernini took creative license in the creation of this depiction. Several details from the text are omitted. [4] His interpretation depicts the Saint as young and beautiful girl instead of a “stocky, rather plain middle-aged woman,” and shows the angel on her right side, whereas in the text she states it was located on her “left hand.” [5] [6] Virtually the only characteristics correlating to the Saint’s text are that she appears to be levitating, conveyed by the clouds and an overall left-to-right upwardly diagonal composition, and that the angel appears as a child.

Bernini’s sexually charged work may also shed some light on his intentions in sculptures like Apollo and Daphne (1622–1625), depicting both figures nude, and Truth Unveiled by Time (1646–1652), which omits Father Time and includes only the nearly nude Truth with her legs spread. The much later Ludovica Albertoni (1647) is a sculpture consisting of a young woman laying on a bed caressing her own breast, mouth agape in similar fashion to the Saint, and illustrates how the theme of sex continued nearly until the artist’s death. 
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Ludovica Albertoni (1647). Photo: Sailko - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Nigel Wingrove. Visions of Ecstasy (1989); film still. 
Bernini’s sexualization of the Saint also seems to have influenced artists of our time, such as Nigel Wingrove’s 1989 short film, Visions of Ecstasy. Its title is a direct reference to Bernini’s work, but its content is far more explicitly sexual. This nineteen-minute film overtly names the Saint in its opening credits, then proceeds to cut between a lesbian sex scene and a scene where she’s straddling Jesus on the cross. A clear combination of the passage in which she confesses her teenage incestuous lesbian relationship, the film makes no attempt at innuendo, but rather takes a heavy-handed approach to the text through the lens of an already sexualized artwork.

Another sexualized interpretation directly influenced by Bernini’s artwork appears in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which names the piece during scenes that contain sexually explicit situations and imagery. In one scene, the character Joelle Van Dyne is doing drugs and, just after inhaling, describes the experience as orgasmic. [7] In another scene, the artwork is mentioned when a disabled character is being sexually violated by her father, and the expression on the character’s face is likened to that of Bernini’s depiction of the Saint’s face. [8]

Of course, not all depictions of the Saint are so overtly sexualized. In a 1983 mini-series, the Spanish director Josefina Molina depicts the same event as Bernini, Wingrove, and Wallace with only a hint of sexual innuendo. Her cinematic version depicts the Saint as near age forty-four, which scholars have deduced was her age at the time of its occurrence, and the only sexualized aspects are a few suspect moans and groans overheard by a passing nun. Another film, Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (2007) by Spanish director Ray Loriga, takes a much more surreal approach that seems to be a combination of those by Bernini and Wingrove. In this film, the Saint is depicted as a beautiful young woman, but instead of a hovering angel, this interpretation of the same event shows her in a red dress, head leaning back with eyes closed, and impaled by several spears. [Fig. 6] During another scene, as a means to emphasize its sexuality, the film cuts between the Saint convulsing in ecstasy with images of her nestling a shirtless man. She then goes before a panel of priests and friars to confess the visions she had, which is something the Saint describes in her autobiography as having done several times during her life, using phrases like, “painlessly tearing my flesh, and going deep inside me,” and “it is such severe pleasure.” 
Josefina Molina. St. Teresa of Avila (1983); film still.
Her autobiography describes dozens of events that are far more incredible than the one Bernini and others chose to depict: interactions with God, saints, and devils, many of which are terrifying, all great source material for artists. One such event inspired Peter Paul Rubens for his Saint Teresa of Ávila’s Vision of the Holy Spirit (1612–1614), a more faithful adaptation of the Saint’s autobiography than others. This painting is truer to the Saint’s likeness than those inspired by Bernini’s, showing her as a middle-aged woman kneeling in prayer, which is how she often described encountering these other-worldly beings. Instead of sexualizing the event, Rubens depicts the saint as she sees the holy spirit as a glistening dove. [9]

The fact that the sexualized representations are created mostly by men seems to be an undeniable contributing factor. Bernini, Wingrove, and Wallace, haven’t avoided criticisms of misogyny. Wallace was criticized for creating a 1079-page novel that was so large it seemed to have a subconscious phallic connotation, and he replied to accusations of misogyny by interrupting Charlie Rose during a 1997 interview. [10]  Wingrove’s short film was banned by the United Kingdom under its blasphemy law, and he practically boasted about his fetishistic intent by claiming the film belongs to a cult sub-genre called “nun-sploitation.” Most of all, Bernini was known to have had many sexual partners as a young man and because of this, was encouraged by the Pope to marry in order to properly fulfill his high-profile position. [11] Not to mention that he was living in Rome during a time so dominated by the patriarchal system that he could purchase a wife and sell his undesirable­ daughters to convents. Perhaps if he, Wingrove, and Wallace weren’t influenced by patriarchal societies, then their depictions of the Saint would have been truer to the story as she herself told it.
Peter Paul Rubens. Saint Teresa of Ávila’s Vision of the Holy Spirit (1612–1614); oil on panel. Photo: Museum Boijmans, Public Domain,
The most concrete motivation behind these depictions is that each of these artists had a lot to gain from their sexualized representations. Bernini, who was already a millionaire in today’s dollars, earned more than he ever had for his commission of the Saint. Wingrove still uses the fact that his short film was banned in the U.K. as a selling point. Wallace, who had already become somewhat of a celebrity by the time Infinite Jest was published, ended up writing a New York Times best-seller.

One might consider the Saint as a predecessor to Marie Bonaparte, whose sexual dysfunction is immortalized by Constantin Brancusi’s Princess X (1915–1916). The fact that the Saint’s legacy has been clouded by sexualized misrepresentations seems insurmountable, and it may take a few hundred more years of artists depicting events from her autobiography like those depicted by Rubens in order to combat the lasting effects of Bernini’s initial sexualization. What began as loose allegory a few hundred years ago has, today, become pornography, and, judging by this apparent trend, the Saint’s legend will, at least for now, remain sexualized.


[1] “…a relative whom we often had in the house I learned every kind of evil…I became very fond of meeting this woman…Until I knew her (this was when I was about fourteen or perhaps more; by knowing her I mean becoming friendly with her and receiving her confidences) I do not think I had ever forsaken God by committing any mortal sin, or lost my fear of God, though I was much more concerned about my honour…My father and sister were very sorry about this friendship of mine and reproved me for it. But, as they could not prevent my friend from coming to the house, their efforts were of no avail, for when it came to doing anything wrong I was very clever…When I thought that nobody would ever know, I was rash enough to do many things which were an offence both to my honour and to God…this was not to come about so secretly as to prevent me from gravely damaging my reputation and arousing suspicions in my father. I could hardly have been following these vanities for three moths when I was taken to a convent in the place where I lived, in which children like myself, though less depraved in their habits than I, were being educated. The reason for this was so carefully concealed that only one or two of my relatives and myself were aware of it…It had not been going on for long; and, although they had some idea of what I had been doing, nothing could have been said about it with any certainty…my intimacy with this person was of such a kind that I thought it might end satisfactorily on her marriage; and both my confessor and other persons told me that in many respects I was not offending God.” Saint Teresa of Ávila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Ávila, 69–73.
[2] Saint Teresa of Ávila, 275.
[3] “The Cornaro Chapel has been labeled ‘the most astounding peep show in art.’ This is not simply a postmodern, desacralizing response of the twenty-first century. Shortly after its unveiling, an anonymous critic denounced Bernini’s statue for having ‘dragged that most pure virgin to the ground,’ while ‘transforming her into a Venus who was not only prostrate, but prostituted as well.’” Mormando, 161–162.
[4] “…at least one scholar has gone so far as to declare that Bernini was fundamentally, as the Italians say, “uomo senza lettere,” a man without letters—that is, a person without any substantial academic training or deep interest in the world of books. Perhaps this is too extreme a judgment, but it is revealing that nowhere in the minutely detailed inventory of Bernini’s possessions at the time of his death is there any reference to a library (we presume he had one, however small) or to individual books. Whatever book learning he needed for the production of his art—for example, the relevant pages from Saint Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography or the description of Emperor Constantine’s physical appearance from Nicephorus’s Historia Ecclesiastica—he likely had others find and read for him.” Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, 15.
[5] “In painting Saint Teresa [Peter Paul] Rubens does seem to have followed fairly closely the early portraits and descriptions of the saint, in making her a stocky, rather plain middle-aged woman.” Margaretta Salinger, “Representations of Saint Teresa” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 97.
[6] “I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form—a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely.” Saint Teresa of Avila, 274.
[7] “The ‘base frees and condenses, compresses the whole experience to the implosion of one terrible shattering spike in the graph, an afflated orgasm of the heart that makes her feel, truly, attractive, sheltered by limits, deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God. She always sees, after inhaling, right at the apex, at the graph’s spike’s tip, Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’ behind glass, at the Vittoria, for some reason, the saint recumbent, half-supine, her flowing stone robe lifted by the angel in whose other hand a bare arrow is raised for that best descent, the saint’s legs frozen in opening, the angel’s expression not charity but the perfect vice of barb-headed love. The stuff had been not just her encaging god but her lover, too, fiendish, angelic, of rock.” David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 235.
[8] “Its facial expression [after being diddled by its father] was, in a word, the speaker says, unspeakably, unforgettably ghastly and horrid and scarring. It was also the exact same expression as the facial expression on the stone-robed lady’s face in this one untitled photo of some Catholic statue that hung (the photo) in the dysfunctional household’s parlor… this photo of a statue of a woman whose stone robes were half hiked up and wrinkled in the most godawfully sensually prurient way, the woman reclined against the uncut rock, her robes hiked and one stone foot hanging off the rock as her legs hung parted, with a grinning little totally psychotic-looking cherub-type angel standing on the lady’s open thighs and pointing a bare arrow at where the stone robe hid her cold tit, the woman’s face upturned and cocked and pinched into that exact same shuddering-protozoan look beyond pleasure or pain. The whacko foster mom knelt daily before that photo (and also required that It be hoisted up to do the same).” Wallace, 373.
[9] While in this condition, I saw a dove over my head, very different from those we see on earth, for it had not feathers like theirs but its wings were made of little shells which emitted a great brilliance.” Saint Teresa of Ávila, 366.
[10] “Feminists are saying white males are, ‘Ok, I’m going to sit down and write this enormous book and impose my phallus on the consciousness of the world’…If that was going on, it was going on on a level of awareness I do not want to have access to.” David Foster Wallace, Interview with Charlie Rose, 1997.
Referenced 11.10.17
[11] “Summoning the artist to his presence, Urban ‘suggested’ that the artist get married and offered his help in finding the best match in Rome. Bernini was smart enough to know that, however graciously put, the pope’s suggestion was a command…The reputation as a sexual wild man that he earned for himself prior to 1639 seems to have stayed with Bernini for a long time thereafter.” Mormando, 105, 106.