Posted by: mkl325 | May 4, 2013

Bernini, Sex and the Loss of Agency

I am currently working on my final paper for my class on Bernini. I knew I wanted to talk about three sculptures in particular – Pluto and Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and as a result had to find a way to bring these three sculptures together. The obvious connection between these works is sex.

Sex is a running theme through art, last semester I wrote a paper about William Morris’s attitude towards women, which ended up being about Morris’s writings on the sexual liberation of women. If this is a theme found in the works of a fabric and wallpaper designer, such as William Morris, it is definitely found in the works of Gianlorenzo Bernini. However, since it is such an obvious focus of his work, I have been doing my best in order to tie the sexuality of the women in these sculptures to something else. Eventually I came across the idea of the loss of agency.

Albert Bandura, the psychologist, claims that in order to have agency one must “influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances”. This definition means that a person must have the ability to plan their lives with goals, the anticipation of likely outcomes, the ability to execute plans of action to obtain those goals and the capability to reflect on their thoughts and actions in order to be considered an agent of their lives. Therefore, as Bandura defines it, agency is accomplished is four parts; intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Many cultures, including that of 17th Century Italy, are patriarchal and exert their dominance through the subjugation of women, thereby taking away their right to agency. As a result, this loss is represented within the art of these cultures, as it mimics the society in which it is formed, and many times is attached to the sexuality of the female subject. The female figures in the sculptural works of Bernini, particularly Pluto and Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, are clear examples of the loss of agency of women.

The easiest understood example of a woman’s loss of agency is seen in the act of rape, where sex is forced upon a woman without regard to her feelings and actions. Bernini’s sculpture, Pluto and Persephone, is described as the rape scene of the story of the God of the Underworld and his wife. However, it is not necessarily rape in the way we think of it today. When the story of Pluto and Persephone was written down by Ovid, the ancient Romans used the term “raptus” which is translated as “carrying off by force”. It was a serious crime, but was applied to any kind of theft, not just the stealing of women. It was a crime that was not seen from the woman’s point of view and was seen as a crime committed against the woman’s husband or guardian. However, in the story of Pluto and Persephone, her father, Zeus, gives Pluto his permission to take Persephone when Pluto expresses desire for her. Here we see the way in which women were treated as material possessions, her father without her consent or consideration gives Persephone away. Bernini depicts Persephone in a state of anguish, with her mouth open in an almost audible cry for help and a tear streaming down her face. Although she is fighting for her freedom, she has no control over her own life. While Pluto is an imposing part of Bernini’s sculpture, it is Persephone that draws the eye of the viewer. Bernini makes her the animated figure within the sculpture, emphasizing her loss of control to the men in her life.

Pluto and Persephone

Pluto and Persephone

The loss of agency for Daphne in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is different from that of Persephone’s because the reactions and motivations of the men of the story are different. Where as in the story of Pluto and Persephone, Zeus and Pluto are the ones in complete control of Persephone, Apollo is not completely in control of himself, and Daphne’s father does answer her call for help. Apollo has his desire forced upon him by Cupid who, in retaliation for Apollo chastising Cupid for his use of a bow and arrow, strikes him with a golden tipped arrow. At the same time, Daphne already expressed a desire to live a chaste and virginal life when Cupid strikes her with an arrow of lead, so her feelings are not changed by this interference. As she runs from Apollo, Daphne calls to her father for help, to take away her beauty that has bewitched Apollo, so she can live her life chastely. Daphne’s father, Peneus, the river god, transforms Daphne into a laurel tree just before Apollo is able to take hold of her. The moment that Bernini chooses to depict is that moment of transformation. Again, Bernini depicts a look of terror on Daphne’s face as she transforms into the laurel tree. She is not only terrified by the fact that Apollo almost has caught up with her but also that she can no longer run from him, as her toes are transforming into roots and attaching to the earth. This transformation is not what she asked her father for and Bernini shows her reaching away from Apollo while the transformation forces her to endure his embrace. Even as a tree, Daphne maintains her beauty and Apollo uses the laurel as his symbol from that point on. She is forever united with Apollo without any ability over her own choices.

Apollo and Daphne

Apollo and Daphne

The final sculpture that I am going to talk about is that of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. St. Teresa was a Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun who was known for her visions. The one that Bernini depicts is that of the angel stabbing St. Teresa in the heart with a golden spear, much like the golden arrow that Cupid uses on Apollo.  She says about this experience in her autobiography,

“I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form … He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire … In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”.

 

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

This experience, although she gives herself into it, is not something that she sought out and causes her great pain as well as ecstasy. The moment that Bernini chooses to show is when the angel has withdrawn the golden spear and is about to stab Teresa’s heart once again. The expression on her face and her bare foot, hanging over the edge from outside of her skirts, proves her loss of control. Again, this loss of control is caused by another being therefore illustrates a loss of agency. Not only does this moment show control over St. Teresa by another, in this case the angel is acting as an emissary for God, but is also being watched by the male members of the church. Considering the fact that one of St. Teresa’s most important fights was trying to get autonomy for her order from the Catholic church, it is an added emphasis of her loss of agency that she is unable to experience God without the rest of the church looking on.

Cornaro Chapel

Cornaro Chapel

Cardinals of Cornaro Chapel

Cardinals of Cornaro Chapel

There are still many things that I need to add in from my research. For example, the history of “heroic” rape imagery from Ancient Greek and Roman art and the transformation of rape imagery during medieval times would have been an influence on Bernini, as he had studied ancient sculptures and would have been aware of many of the medieval drawings. I also need to address the concept of marital exemption of rape and the political connections, in both the secular world and the church. I am contemplating discussing Bernini’s sculpture of his mistress, Constanza Piccolomini, whose face he had slashed when he discovered her affair with his brother, Luigi. However, I am not sure that I will be able to fit it accurately into the study. Either way, the information surrounding Costanza’s life gives a good insight in the control of women of 17th Century Rome, adding some concreteness to the theory that Bernini was aware of the loss of agency of women within his society and represented it in his work. The moments that Bernini chooses for the three sculptures above, illustrate the loss of agency of the female figures. The influence of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, as well as medieval art, would have no doubt had an influence on Bernini, here’s hoping I can organize my research into a paper in the next couple of days that proves this point.

Costanza Piccolomini

Costanza Piccolomini

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