Monday, December 10, 2007
Pressing the Flesh
Did anyone ever make marble look more convincingly like warm flesh than Gian Lorenzo Bernini? Born December 7, 1598, Bernini sculpted the magnificent Rape of Proserpina (above) from 1620 to 1621. As Proserpine resists Pluto, pushing his shaggy head away, Pluto’s fierce fingers press into the flesh of her leg and leave indentations. Touching sculptures in museums, especially something almost four centuries old, is verboten, but I always wondered what it would be like to touch this sculpture and feel the chill of the marble when my eyes clearly register the warmth of human flesh. With such works, Bernini announced his claim to Michelangelo’s title as the greatest sculptor of the human form.
Bernini took on Michelangelo directly in creating his version of David (above, from 1623-1624). Whereas Michelangelo’s David assumes a pose of complete classical composure as the confident future king, Bernini’s David sweats and strains in a gesture of pure torque and tension. Bernini’s David captures a sense of movement and effort that Michelangelo’s figure lacks in its effortless cool. Both Davids capture different aspects of the Biblical figure and represent their creators and their times equally well. Michelangelo’s David stood for a Florence and Italy that needed a symbol of pride to rally around. Bernini’s David stood for a nation and a church that knew it had some work to do.
With The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (above, from 1647-1652), Bernini made a cosmic leap in the world of religious sculpture. Religious and sexual ecstasy blur together in the expression of the saint as the rays of glory penetrate her soul. Simon Schama’s The Power of Art looked long and hard at St. Theresa’s moment of ecstasy, which marks a high point of the Counter-Reformation re-selling of Catholicism to the masses, now with the added element of sex to spice up the story. Schama does a good job of acting coy about the sexuality of this figure, but that eroticism is as obvious to us today as it was to the uneducated masses of the seventeenth century. Bernini worked hard to obtain the favor of the rich and powerful, which meant in most cases the Catholic Church hierarchy and those surrounding it. The fact that sex sells was as true then as it is today.