“With avid eyes and passionate mouth, Raoule approached the altar of her god and in her ecstasy sighed: “You alone exist, Beauty. I believe in you alone.””
Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Giovanni Bernini
Medical Venus, Clemente Susini
This quotation instantly evokes the image of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa—the parted lips and averted gaze of Bernini’s masterpiece are reminiscent of Raoule in rapture: “with half-closed eyes and half-open mouth, her head falling on a shoulder raised intermittently by a long, calming sigh…” (19). Interestingly enough, this characterization from the infamous carriage scene aptly describes the classic representation of the Anatomical Venus. Thus, we can use these works to help navigate the tenuous relationship between religious reverence and sexual transgression in Monsieur Venus.
In the Ecstasy, Bernini conflates the sexual and the religious: he captures Teresa in a moment of spiritual intimacy; her head is thrown back, and her fingers and toes are curled in pleasure—or is it devotion? Federico Coronaro commissioned the Ecstasy for his family crypt in Rome at the height of the Baroque. Much like Monsieur Venus, contemporary audiences were scandalized by Bernini’s sensual portrayal of St. Teresa de Avila, a Catholic mystic renown for her direct communion with God. Bernini, like Rachilde, may be motivated to shock his audience. Certainly this is not the first time that art has incorporated erotic overtones, but a sexualized pagan goddess is different than a sexualized martyred saint. The Teresa was constructed as a figure of worship; she should not be depicted in the throes of orgasm. In this, Bernini argues that passion is passion, whether divinely inspired or corporeally conceived.
The tension between the sexual and religious in the Ecstasy of St. Teresa is also present in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus. Nevertheless, it is much easier to explain the “gothic arches” and the “stained glass windows” in this “temple of modern paganism” (177, 177, 183). The inclusion of the religious imagery contains an ironic element. Raoule repurposes traditional Christian iconography for aesthetic appeal, and in doing so, desecrates one religion to give rise to another. For Raoule, there is no difference between love—no matter how perverted and twisted it may be—and religion. During the wedding night, she describes her desire for Jacques as a “delicious martyrdom” (181). In this exchange, Raoule appropriates religious language to give a Decadent gravitas to her declaration. This statement is hyperbolic in nature: she is not a true martyr; she does not suffer in the flesh. Raoule suggests, however, that it is a spiritual torture to be without Jacques (or at least, her idea of him as Beauty incarnate). In addition, she argues that the conflation of pain and pleasure is “delicious”; there is an aspect of perverse gratification in this. We must not forget that for the Decadents, terrifying, tyrannical depictions of love are just as valid as traditional ones. It is evident that Raoule is totally consumed by the cult of Beauty, and a kiss is just one way to pray.
Yet both works are characterized by an element of purity. Bernini fashioned his masterpiece in white marble, and despite the sexual insinuations, Teresa remains a virginal saint. Similarly, in light of her liaisons with Jacques, Raoule continues to be infertile. We know that “the means of bringing someone into the world have been absolutely denied her” (179). This becomes increasingly apparent in the bedroom scene, from the presence of the seashell-shaped bed to the appearance of Raoule’s milkless breast. Raoule’s sterility is significant and subversive; it robs her traditional function as a woman. This allows for increased sexual freedom while reinforcing her masculine persona.
It is also interesting to note the parallel between the Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the Anatomical Venus. They are highly eroticized; both Teresa and Venus lay supine, couched in silks and satins. Their tilted heads and tangled legs betray their intent as objects of devotion and study. This is yet another illustration of the conflict between sexuality and religion. Furthermore, the Ecstasy and the Anatomical Venus represent classic examples of the Decadent obsession with Eros and Thanatos—sex and death. As previously mentioned, the Ecstasy is located in the chapel of the Cornaro crypt; Teresa, in spite of her euphoric exuberance, resides in the house of Death. And though the Anatomical Venus appears to be a lifelike portrayal of a sensuous young woman, when disassembled, she is reduced to a lifeless wax figure surrounded by her own entrails. This is not to say that their beauty is not preserved in the state of death—it just takes on a new, Decadent meaning.
This brings us to Jacques; we know that he becomes a mechanized sex puppet akin to an Anatomical Venus, but as we discussed in class, this is as much an act of creation as destruction. This also implicitly alludes to fairytale; in a sense, Jacques has become a Sleeping Beauty. And, we must also consider Jacques’s relationship to the Ecstasy. The cherub poised above Teresa is not unlike the Eros figure described in the bridal chamber. However, the association runs much deeper. In the Ecstasy, Bernini’s cherub holds a golden arrow and thrusts it towards Teresa’s heart. The phallic connotations are undeniable.
Thus, the desire for penetration creates the (quite literal!) climax in both the Ecstasy and Monsieur Venus. Jacques ultimately rejects Raoule’s love, and essentially, her religion, because she “just can’t be a man” (183). Though Raoule fits neatly into the social constructs of masculinity—she is domineering, she provides for Jacques, etc.—she lacks the physical, material component of manhood. She cannot complete (read: penetrate) Jacques in the way he wants her to. Ultimately, this unfulfilled desire causes the decay of their aesthetic love.