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The Artistry of Dark Erotica
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St. Teresa and her admirers
guest column by Cal
Saint Teresa of Ávila, 1515–1582, was a Carmelite nun who had visions and described them
in books that she wrote.

The poet Richard Crashaw, 1612–1649, wrote “Hymn to Saint Teresa” while he was living in
Cambridge during the 1630s. Here is a slightly modified excerpt from the poem:  

O how oft shall I complain
Of a sweet and subtle pain;
Of intolerable joys;
Of a death in which who dies
Loves her death, and dies again
And would forever so be slain.
. . .  
How kindly will my gentle heart
Kiss the sweetly-killing dart!
And close in my embraces keep
Those delicious wounds that weep
Balsam to heal themselves with.

In 1646 Crashaw went to Rome, a year before Gian Lorenzo Bernini started work on his
sculpture “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” But Bernini didn’t finish the sculpture until 1652, so
Crashaw, who died in 1649, probably never saw it.

The sculpture depicts one of Saint Teresa’s visions. Here is a slightly modified excerpt from
the text she wrote describing this vision:

Beside me . . . appeared an angel in bodily form. . . . He was . . . very beautiful. . . . In his hands
I saw a great golden spear. . . . This he plunged into my heart several times so that it
penetrated to my entrails. . . . The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans.
The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to
cease. . . . This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it--
even a considerable share.
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Comment from: egeek
Date: August 12, 2012

while it's a interesting thing to share on here. It does have death and beauty
blended in. While there is people who don't care for certain taboo themes in
stories really. I'm the same way when it comes to religion. So I have mix feelings
regarding this piece.

Comment from: Paul Smith
Date: August 19, 2012

Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" has turned me on since I was a teenager.  The
expression on the face is at once so utterly erotic, and yet she looks dead, too.  
Like egeek, I have problems with the religious element to the piece, but I have
appreciated it from a death-fantasy perspective for decades.

It is interesting that St. Theresa's own mystical experience had so clear a
masochistic component.  This speaks volumes not only about her, but also about
the impulses behind the spirituality of her day.  Of course, this was the age that
also produced images of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, and the paintings of
Bosch, suggesting that a dark sexuality was a potent, if hidden aspect of the
culture of the time.

However, there is a difference between the darkness of the 17th century and that
of today.  For us, it's just fantasy.  But the exact same Church that commissioned
Bernini was torturing and murdering accused witches by the tens of thousands,
and was involved in the Thirty Years' War, in which Protestants and Catholics
warring against one another killed something like five million people, *without*
the assistance of modern weapons and organizational methods.  Throw in
epidemics and occasional famines, and it is clear that Saint Theresa lived in a
world of horrors we can scarcely comprehend, though maybe our World Wars
give us some idea.  

But I've always loved that sculpture, and that *expression*.

Comment from: Cal
Date: August 23, 2012

Hi egeek, hi Paul.

The religious context in which Saint Teresa, Richard Crashaw, and Gian Lorenzo
Bernini produced these works is hardly remarkable. Back in their day, everything
had a religious context. What is striking is their obvious fetish, and how similar it
is to ours today. The roots of that fetish must be the same over the centuries,
don't you think?

Paul, this would be a good place to instance the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, as
you did in another thread. Many paintings of the subject have an obvious