Saint Teresa's love of God and her desire for spiritual union with him found expression in a vision in which an angel pierced her heart with a golden spear and sent her into a trance. The erotic intensity of her vision is vividly suggested in this image by Teresa's swooning expression and languid pose, and by the deep folds of drapery, which convey her agitation.
Artist: Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
Sculpture: marble, Life-size group
Date: 1645-1652 CE
Site: Italy: Rome
Location: Italy: Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel
Teresa is clothed from head to foot in a loose hooded garment. Her feet are bare, the left one prominently displayed. Her eyes are shut, her mouth opened, as she swoons in ecstasy. Standing before her is the figure of a winged youth. His garment hangs on one shoulder, exposing his arms and part of his upper torso. In his right hand he holds an arrow that is pointed at the heart of Teresa.
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was a Spanish mystic who lived during the Counter-Reformation, a period of religious turmoil in Europe. Teresa founded several houses for discalced (or "barefoot") Carmelite friars and nuns, who sought to live according to the original rule of the order. This was a more primitive and ascetic form of monastic life than was practiced in Spain at that time. In addition, Teresa was author of numerous books, including her Life, a personal autobiography, the Way of Perfection, a handbook for her nuns, and Interior Mansions, in which she describes the many different steps taken on the path to mystical union with God.
Teresa described the soul's intense desire for God in the language of erotic passion. In this, she belongs to a long tradition of mystical experience that is known as bridal mysticism:
"It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely.... In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim.... I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God." (Peers, 197)
The symbolism of bridal mysticism is found already in early gnostic forms of Christianity, where the central sacrament is called the Bridal Chamber. There the feminine soul of the gnostic unites with the masculine spirit and is in this way spiritualized, that is, liberated from the limitations of mundane existence. Related symbolism is found as well in the writings of the early Christian mystic Origen and the Neoplatonic mystic Plotinus. These three forms of mysticism are related and serve as the foundation for the history of mysticism in Christianity.
Probably, the early forms of bridal mysticism were influenced by the myth of Eros and Psyche, which was quite popular during late Hellenism. Indeed, we find a gnostic interpretation of this myth in the anonymous homily entitled Exegesis on the Soul, which describes the sacrament of the Bridal Chamber. During the Renaissance, Greek themes and images were rediscovered in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Certainly, the form of Teresa's vision, and the symbolism illustrated here by Bernini, lies very close to the tale of the god of love and his human beloved. Psyche's name means "soul," and she begins her career as a mortal. It is because Eros loves her and wants her for his bride that Zeus is willing to elevate her to the status of an immortal. For Teresa, the moment in which she experiences the spiritual wound is but one moment in a complex drama culminating in the spiritual marriage, when such wounds will no longer be felt but are supplanted by a complete union of God and the soul on an inner level.
The word psyche in contemporary analytical psychology has taken on at least two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the faculty of the human being that is capable of experiencing the imaginary world as well as the physical world. On the other hand, psyche may refer to the entire realm of experience, both conscious and unconscious. In the first case, the psyche is identified with the soul in the traditional sense; in the second, the psyche is the world of the soul.
The two traditions that are joined in this image of Saint Teresa are that of Greek mythology--the story of Psyche and Eros--and Renaissance Christian mysticism, in which the soul is awakened to spiritual passion. There is, however, one important variation: in the Greek tale (recounted by Apuleius) it is not Eros who wounds Psyche with one of his arrows (in fact, he wounds himself when he first beholds her); rather, Psyche accidentally wounds herself when, disobeying him, she takes up a light to see what he looks like. In Teresa's vision, she as "soul" is completely passive and receives the wound at the hands of an Eros figure. Nevertheless, central to both scenes is the symbol of wounding, the origin of love in pain inflicted from without.
Although it may seem insignificant at first, the suffering caused by the arrow's wound is of the greatest value. It is the pain that initiates the ensuing action, the eventual marriage of Eros and Psyche in heaven and the spiritual marriage of the Bridegroom and the Bride in Teresa's innermost heart. Teresa describes this pain as being filled with fire, being inflamed. What is needed is something to quench the fire, to heal the wound. For Psyche, what follows is a painful period of alienation between her and Eros, until ultimately they are reunited and she gives birth to their daughter, Joy.
The marriage between the human soul and the divine lover represents a creative union of the human self with its transpersonal counterpart. The soul symbolizes the subjective capacity to feel and experience reality--the capacity for consciousness. By uniting with the god of love, the soul gains a permanent connection with the abiding source of all life and love. In the infant, there is not yet the separation that gives rise to a subjective self. In the symbolism of the sacred marriage, a return to the original wholeness is achieved without a regression to the infantile unconsciousness.
Erich Neumann suggests that Psyche cannot truly love Eros in the dark. As Psyche, she requires vision. Her desire to see results in suffering, but also in real love: Psyche's act leads, then, to all the pain of individuation, in which a personality experiences itself in relation to a partner as something other, that is, as not only connected with the partner. Psyche wounds herself and wounds Eros (with the hot oil of the lamp, not the arrow), and through their related wounds their original, unconscious bond is dissolved. But it is this two-fold wounding that first gives rise to love, whose striving it is to reunite what has been separated; it is this wounding that creates the possibility of an encounter, which is prerequisite for love between two individuals" (Neumann 85f.).
The Bernini sculpture celebrates the moment of women's ecstatic union with her animus, or masculine component, and does not therefore go on to complete the image of a divine marriage. That could only come later and in the more symbolic, less personal expression of that inner experience. Saint Teresa developed her relation to the creative animus by becoming a highly articulate and active influence in her order and in the church. The erotic nature of her mystical experience was initiatory and, as it were, pregnated her with her future career.
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Neumann, Erich. Amor and Psyche, the Psychic Development of the Feminine: A Commentary on the Tale by Apuleius. New York, 1956.
Peers, E. Allison. Studies of the Spanish Mystics. London, 1927.
Walsh, William T. Saint Teresa of Avila. Milwaukee, 1943.