I saw an angel close by me. . . 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 be thrusting it into my heart, and to pierce my entrails, and when he drew it out, he seemed to draw my entire being along with it, leaving me on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great. . . it made me moan.
With those words--brazenly sexual in its implications--as inspiration, the 17th-century phenomenon that was Gianlorenzo Bernini created, to the eyes of the world, his life's crowning achievement and, undoubtedly, his most beautiful creation: the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (1647-1652). The centerpiece of the Chapel is Bernini's immortal altar, on which the seizure-ridden Spanish saint/mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, takes center stage, captured by Bernini moments after an angel, perched on top of her, darted an arrow or spear straight inside her heart, so she claims, thus inducing an earth-shattering sensation in her that most people today would immediately recognize as an orgasm and nothing else, for what type of pain is there that could make one faint from such overpowering ecstasy? Whatever the case may be, Bernini's St. Teresa is definitely Baroque at its most baroque. The golden rays of the sun that Bernini so masterfully integrated into the scene add luminosity to the afterglow that Saint Teresa is experiencing before our eyes and God's. Converting pain into carnal ecstasy is a feat in itself for us mere mortals, requiring practice on a regular, preferably daily, basis, but to actually depict the whole thrilling occurrence--in marble nonetheless!--is an altogether superhuman task, but of which Bernini--undisputed master of his instrument--rendered so effortlessly, as though, when he was sculpting the swooning figure, he were merely stroking its contours as he would a mass of clay.