Juha Saitajoki | Doctor of Arts

Doctoral dissertation
"The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: Saint Teresa of Jesus, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Me”

My doctoral dissertation consists of a research component and documentation of art works completed during my period of research.

The research component of my work focuses on the conception of religious experience propounded by the Catholic mystic Saint Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582), in which she envisions being pierced through the heart, recorded in her "Autobiography" (29,13): "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 this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God."

I juxtapose an examination of this passage with the sculpture by the architect and sculpture artist Gian Lorenzo Berninin entitled "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" (1598-1680), which sits in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The sculpture shows the peak of a religious experience. The nun is in a semi-reclining position with her eyes nearly shut and her mouth half-open. On her right stands an angel smiling gently, who has just pierced her heart with a golden spear he holds in his hand.

According to several researchers, the sculpture takes the religious experience described by Saint Teresa of Jesus as its starting point.

The force of the mystical state makes Teresa turn inward. She can only react in silence. After the experience she is in great pain after which she enters a state of ecstasy in which she feels only pleasure.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, however, chooses to externalise Teresa's inner state and her silence. The sculpture expresses the ecstasy of the climax of religious experience in which the nun is mystically connected to God.

Teresa of Jesus represents the Medieval conception of monastic and religious experience as the highest ideal to which the faithful could attain, which consisted of turning away form the world and turning inward into the silence of the convent and prayer. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, however, brought the state of mystical silence outside the walls of the convent. As a representative of Baroque art he externalised the silent piercing of the heart in the sense that the sculpture reveals the evidence of the presence of God in the nun's experience, in that all the outward signs of ecstasy are clearly visible. The nun is in a state of sweet ecstasy in which she feels a perfect union between her and Christ, the object of her love. This is not the case in Teresa's own description.

The artistic component of my dissertation consists of three pictures which document the exhibitions I put together during my research. The first exhibition, "Ecstasy", took place in the Kluuvi Gallery in Helsinki. The second exhibition, "Dark Night", was held in the Valo and Katve Galleries of the University of Lapland in January, 2002. The third exhibition, "Piercing of Heart", ran at the Rovaniemi Art Museum from 16.11.2002-12.1.2003. The last show featured both my earlier work and pieces made in 2002.

Writing my elaboration of the description from the "Vida" by Teresa of Jesus of her experience of having her heart pierced in gold letters brought the nun closer to my imagination. Photographs I took in Rome of Teresa's skull, and pictures of her relics in postcards, betrayed, on the other hand, my temporal distance from the nun's relics and the world in which the sculpture was created.

I did not make the pictures before writing the text. If I would have done so, I might have found myself in a situation in which the text would have become shaped to work as a foil to my artistic work. The writing could in this case easily have turned into explanations of the pictures, which in this type of project would have made them an unnecessarily dominant factor in the working process as a whole. Nor did I write the text before making the pictures, as doing so might have rendered the artistic work a mere auxiliary to the text, a kind of after-the-fact visual realisation of the text. The writing process and my art work have, rather, both been present and overlapped during the course of my work on the project.

This study has taken me places which would have otherwise remained blank, unknown areas on the map of my knowledge. My travels to Mexico, Rome and Alba de Tormes and Avila in Spain enabled the form of artistic work that I put forward in this study. I have realised an artistic affinity for the ornamentation and exuberance of the southern European Catholic world of images and colours, which has been refreshing on a personal level and pleasing in contrast to the stark, white surface of northern reality.

Juha Saitajoki

defended his doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Art and Design on 15.11.2003.

Publication details:
Saitajoki, Juha: "Pyhän Teresan hurmio. Pyhä Jeesuksen Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini ja minä". Rovaniemi 2003. 110 pages. Acta Universitatis Lapponiensis 61. ISBN 951-634-886-6