Thursday, 5 January 2012

Staging Religion.

Last morning in Rome. We walked to Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini's famous statue of The Ecstasy of St Teresa. The small church was crowded and it was a bit like queueing at a bar, shuffling forward, moving into gaps, before finally arriving in front of the sculpture.

The most noticeable thing was how theatrical the whole composition was. Less a spontaneous moment of joy and much more a careful scheduled erotic display, complete with voyeuristic witnesses (members of the patron Cornaro's family) peering over the edge of a box carved into the side wall. The angel's left hand tenderly touches the nun's dress, almost pulling it aside in order to hit the spot. It's as clear a representation of the staging of faith as I've ever seen and it makes me wonder at the place of mystery in such a clearly choreographed and artificial arrangement. The orgasm is for every bodies benefit. The release, the passion, the little death enjoyed by a clamouring crowd.

The special effects continue. Natural light falls from a skylight above, but this is reinforced by a background of thin metallic bars representing the the sun's blinding rays and pulling the eye into the central arrangement. There is no contradiction here between a miracle and carefully stage managed moment of scenographic action. I still find it impossible to see religion, like theatre itself, as anything other than a persuasive metaphor. It might help reveal a truth, but it can only do so through a mask of artifice. The Baroque masters understood this more than anybody.

We headed over to the Vatican Museum, more on the off chance, than with any hope of avoiding the queues, but it was a slow day and so we found ourselves quickly within and able to explore for a couple of hours. Once again I was charmed by the Carte Geografiche and the Museo Pio-Clementine, but disappointed by the cattle market in the Sistine chapel - where a loud speaker blares out pleas for silence in six different languages. Good to feel with time against us that we'd only time to scratch the surface.

And so a quick dash back to the hotel to pick up the luggage and off to airport for a bumpy early evening flight home. Term starts tomorrow.


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