Behind Bernini's "St. Teresa"; Madonna for Moms-to-Be

What the “Ecstasy” Was All About

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 20, 2005 ( A call to rise above spiritual mediocrity resounded in Rome in the past week. On Saturday, Benedict XVI exhorted 100,000 first-time communicants to cherish the extraordinary gift of the Eucharist that they were receiving this year. The meeting coincided with the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila whose conversion took place 450 years ago.

“Conversion” in Teresa’s case didn’t mean simply embracing the faith, for as a child in Catholic Spain she had dreamed of running away to become a martyr. But the fire of her youthful devotion waned over the years and Teresa found herself a Carmelite nun who in her own words, lived “a life so beneath perfection that I paid almost no attention to venial sins.”

This state of mediocrity left her in a state where she did not “enjoy God nor did I find happiness in the world.”

At age 30 she underwent a transformation through the intercession of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine. Reigniting her ardor for holiness, she spread this burning zeal throughout her order. Even in our times, the life and words of St. Teresa have spurred people to conversion and spiritual excellence — most famously Edith Stein, who was canonized in 1998.

The all-consuming love of Teresa for God caught the imagination of Gianlorenzo Bernini, and in 1652, he chose to represent the saint in one of her renowned ecstasies, when she was granted divine visions.

The sculpture group, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” in the Roman church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is often misunderstood by tourists who are taken aback by its sensuality, but it shows the Baroque expression of Divine love.

Teresa reclines on a cloud, her relaxed features indicating that she has yielded herself to the will of God. An angel stands before her and, as Teresa described in her autobiography, with a flaming spear pierced her heart. She says that when he withdrew it, “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.”

The entire scene is bathed in golden light from a window placed above the sculptures — the fire of the Holy Spirit ready to ignite the world.

Bernini used this saint’s extraordinary example to incite 17th-century viewers to turn away from worldly things which, being temporal, are mediocre, and to convert or “turn toward” excellence, holiness and God.

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For Smooth Deliveries

In our modern world of high-tech hospitals, the age of difficult and dangerous childbirth seems a distant memory. While women rarely need to fear loss of life in childbirth, delivery is rarely pleasant and marks the beginning of many sacrifices involved in raising their children. In the beautiful Church of Sant’Agostino near the Piazza Navona, the Virgin Mary, patron of all mothers, was celebrated on Oct. 9 during the feast of the Madonna of Childbirth.

While there are many associations between this church and motherhood, this feast involves a famous statue housed in its own special niche at the back of the church. It has been venerated by thousands of Romans over the centuries as the Madonna of childbirth.

Carved in 1521 by Florentine sculptor Jacopo (“il Sansovino”) Tatti, the statue is placed in a marble triumphal arch. The Blessed Mother holds her Son on her knee and both are gilded with gold accents. Sansovino created an image of a strong, voluminous Mary, a woman who to the Renaissance eye could withstand the arduous task of childbirth.

She also tolerates the pains of motherhood. She protectively holds her Son with one hand, but as the Child’s front foot suggests, the time will soon come when Jesus will leave her to take up his mission.

For almost 500 years, Roman women have prayed to Blessed Virgin before this statue asking for safe deliveries and healthy babies.

The Madonna del Parto rarely disappoints. Hundreds of silver ex-votos arrayed around the niche attest to her many interventions deemed miraculous by those who lives were saved. Silver hearts, plaques and baby announcements remind women that their courageous acceptance of motherhood holds a special place in the heart of the Madonna and Child.

Particularly moving are the modern offerings such as the pink and blue bows used to adorn a house where a baby has just been born. Photographs abound, with dozens of radiant faces of beaming mothers and babies tacked to the walls of the shrine.

The feast of the Madonna of childbirth lasts five days. The first three days consist of preparation, like Advent before Christmas or the months of gestation. Participants attend liturgies, rosaries and penance services while awaiting the big day. Saturday evening began the festivities with a Mass for expectant mothers. Archbishop Angelo Comastri of Loreto, site of the Holy House of Mary and Jesus, celebrated the Mass for the numerous radiant mothers-to-be in the church.

Sunday was an ongoing celebration of the family — Mass for wedding anniversaries, renewal of vows of consecration and blessings of small children followed one after another all day.

This lively, colorful happy Mass brought together the Catholic families of Rome — families that are menaced today not by unsafe medical conditions or infant mortality, but by the dwindling European birthrate and the legal redefinition of the very word “marriage.” This joyous group of faithful entrusted itself to the protection of the Madonna of childbirth.

Even after the first tricky years of infancy when children were once prey to many illnesses, parents found that as their offspring got physically stronger, new, spiritual ills, emerged to beset them. The Church of Sant’Agostino also addresses the perils of youth with another great patron of mothers.

To the left of the main altar lies the burial chapel of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine. As a mother whose prayer and tears negotiated a wayward teen-ager into a Father of the Church, she seems certainly a fit intercessor even for modern parents.

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The Art of Scripture

The Vatican Museums opened a new exhibition in the Pio Christian museum on Sept. 29. This show, titled “The Engraved Word: The Bible at the Beginnings of Christian Art,” did not borrow any work from an outside collection, add any new piece or move any existing ones. Instead it invited visitors to look at a 40-year-old museum with fresh eyes, not focused on aesthetics but on “The Word made Flesh” or the Invisible rendered visible.

The exhibit commemorates the 40th anniversary of the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum” which declared that “easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful,” and as a result promoted translations of the Bible in many languages even those “produced in collaboration with the separated brethren” (No. 22).

Organized by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the United Bible Societies, the show highlights several fourth-century sarcophagi contained in the Pio Christian collection which testify to a common root among Christian people, the Bible.

The marble relief panels illustrate stories from the Old and New Testament, images meant to teach, propagate and reaffirm the faith of the early Christian community. Only a relatively few stories are depicted and those that were chosen were represented over and over again. The themes of the narratives reflect the principal elements of the story of salvation: original sin, the hope for deliverance, the Incarnation and the Redemption.

Visitors are encouraged to start their visit at the memorial stone of Abercius, bishop of Hieropolis, the earliest recorded Christian inscription, dating from the late second century. Abercius traveled in the footsteps of St. Paul and spoke of the apostle as his “shepherd” who “taught me the Scriptures worthy of faith.”

This introduction prepares the way for the
array of biblical scenes intended to teach the doctrine of Divine Revelation. Most were done after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration which inaugurated the Peace of the Church in A.D. 313, and they reflect the many questions and problems arising during the “golden age” of the Church Fathers.

The next work addresses the question of the divine and human natures of Jesus. The Good Shepherd statuette symbolizes Christ and shows him with a youthful, idealized face, the same type of visage and expression taken on by the god Apollo when he put on mortal disguise. Most early images of Christ represent him as physically like the god of light to help people understand how he could be man and God in one.

Then the visitor is surrounded by images of Jonah. Everywhere one looks, Jonah is being thrown off the boat, swallowed by the whale and then resting under the vine. For an early Church reluctant to show images of the crucifixion, these scenes alluded to the death and resurrection of Christ in the same way that Jesus himself did when speaks of “the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

Surprising images are revealed throughout the exhibition. The so-called Dogmatic Sarcophagus contains one of the earliest attempts to portray the Trinity in the period post Council of Nicaea (325). Several reliefs show Jesus healing people by touching their heads, eyes or hands. For pagans accustomed to distant and uncaring gods, what a shock the Christian God must have been.

As one prepares to exit, there is one last radical Christian moment represented — the Epiphany. Dozens of panels show Mary seated with her Son on her lap, as three men come forward with gifts. In these reliefs, the men wear peaked caps, which in ancient iconography represent the foreigner. God-made-Man revealed himself to everyone, the expression of the universality of the Church.

The office of Christian Unity looks to precisely this universality to construct dialogue with other Christians. To this end, the United Bible Societies are offering visitors copies of the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Jonah printed in six languages. A common Scripture of a common history of salvation told through images created by and for an undivided Church.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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