“Saint Teresa of Avila—and the artists that so magnificently rendered her likeness on canvas and marble—reminded the faithful of the presence, wonder, and love of our Lord.”
By Molly McKenna
Faced with the daunting task of revitalizing the Church amidst the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, leaders in Rome turned to art. They commissioned a profusion of altarpieces, frescoes, oil paintings, and sculptures intended to reestablish piety among the faithful.
Saint Teresa of Avila, canonized in 1622, became a prominent subject for artists. She was indeed a paragon of holiness, and one that resonated with the people. Depictions of such holy men and women served to inspire the faithful. While Protestants whitewashed walls, the Catholic Church used pigment and marble to limn truth and virtue.
In the late 1500s, Teresa, casting off the beauty and riches that marked her childhood, channeled her great love for God into the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites. She worked to revitalize monastic life with asceticism and a greater detachment from the world.
Throughout her later life, Teresa experienced numerous visions of Christ, Mary, and Joseph. One of her most famed visions occurred in 1559. In this vision, Teresa’s heart was pierced by an angel’s burning arrow that represented the love of Christ. She experienced physical ecstasy and, according to her accounts, was set ablaze with love for the Lord. This vision inspired artists to further substantiate such evidence of the Divine through painting and sculpture.
Another influential vision occurred shortly before the founding of the Discalced Carmelites. Teresa, in this vision, was told by Christ that her friend Don Bernardino de Mendoza could be saved from Purgatory once Teresa’s convent was established. Because of the magnitude of this vision, de Mendoza sometimes appears in renderings of Saint Teresa.
One common way to represent the saint’s visions on canvas was to place her in the work twice—once as part of the vision and a second time as the Teresa grounded in reality, experiencing the vision. The vision is often the central focus, with the “real” figure of Teresa in the background. Not only were these mystical experiences visually interesting, but they also promoted introspection on the audience’s part. When viewing works of the saint’s connection with Christ, one is led to dwell on his or her own relationship with the Lord. This was part of the Church’s aim in commissioning such works. Introspection led viewers to contemplate the faith and, therefore, drew people back to the Church.
The saint’s prolific writings explored the nature of these visions in detail, making it easier for artists to accurately depict them. Teresa completed her autobiography in 1565, and this became the basis for most of what is known about her mystical experiences. She wrote vividly of her visions, sometimes comparing them to paintings. Some of her descriptions call to mind well-known works such as Piero della Francesca’s Virgin of Mercy and the Ghent Altarpiece. These pictorial descriptions provided artists with material for their own pieces.
Indeed, her writings provide the basis for a common element seen in depictions of Saint Teresa— a dove. Generally, the dove serves as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In works focusing on Teresa, the dove alludes to a mystical vision that she had on Pentecost. In her autobiography, Teresa writes that, during a period of intense prayer and meditation, she saw a large dove with irradiant wings over her head. This luminous symbol found its way onto many canvases.
The ecstasy that resulted from Teresa’s visions lent itself perfectly to the dynamic style of Baroque art. Mysticism and the Baroque both seek to portray intangible ideas with physical objects. Teresa relates this method in her autobiography when describing her prayer life by comparing it to wooden sculptures of Christ and Mary that are paraded through Spanish towns during Holy Week. She would think about these statues, known as pasos, and imagine their presence while praying.
Furthermore, the soul and body are the primary actors in both Baroque art and mysticism. Baroque art seeks to convey the contrast between the physical and spiritual, while mystical visions naturally exemplify this very contrast. Teresa’s writings highlight this, as she must constantly refer to her corporeal experiences to fully explain her visions. Artists sought to depict these distinct but dependent realms in their pieces by visually separating visions from reality.
Teresa was known for her beauty, but artists typically did not portray her pleasing porcelain complexion and fine figure. Rather, they painted her with plainer features, dressed in the austere Carmelite habit. This softening and subduing both made her appear more human and relatable and brought the focus upon the virtues of her spirit, rather than of her physical being.
Finally, artists portrayed Saint Teresa’s deep unity with Christ. This was often conveyed via Christ’s presence alongside Teresa and their locked eyesight. Some artists even included an image of Christ that Teresa would have used as a devotional piece. The hope was that, upon witnessing the works, viewers would desire a deeper relationship with Christ for themselves.
Though too often regarded as a beautiful but nonessential aspect of our faith, art actually played a crucial role in returning piety and reverence to the Church during a tumultuous time. Saint Teresa of Avila—and the artists that so magnificently rendered her likeness on canvas and marble—reminded the faithful of the presence, wonder, and love of our Lord.