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The Transverberation scene in four films featuring the life of Saint Teresa of Avila
by Sherry Velasco

A comparison of the Transverberation scene in four films featuring the life of Saint Teresa of Avila

Teresa de Jesús (1962; Dir. Juan de Orduña):

The 1962 film adaptation of St. Teresa of Avila’s life includes a modified version of the famous transverberation episode from chapter 29 of the sixteenth-century saint’s autobiography.  Unlike the original text (which depicts a cherubim penetrating the nun’s heart with a blazing spear) Orduña’s film merely suggests the iconic vision by revealing a bolt of light from a large crucifix passing through the saint’s heart.  The transverberation is implied when the actress (in a medium long shot) falls back slightly while kneeling during prayer.  Unlike other film versions, this scene avoids any close-up shots.  One wonders whether this Franco dictatorship-era film foregoes more specific references to the transverberation due to a fear of the potential sensuality of the scene.


St. Teresa of Avila (1983; Dir. Josefina Molina):

This eight-part post-Franco television mini-series includes the iconic vision of the transverberation but without portraying the actual episode (a small angel with enflamed arrow piercing Teresa’s heart).  Instead, this scene begins with another nun who happens to overhear the suggestive moans of the saint through a closed door.  When she opens the door she discovers Teresa in mid-ecstasy, collapsed on the floor experiencing the pain/pleasure of the famous vision.  When the other nun rushes to her aid, Teresa then narrates the text from chapter 29 of her life story.  The scene maintains a medium close-up shot framing both nuns accompanied by dramatic and somewhat ominous off-screen background music, as if contesting Teresa’s celebratory smile while recounting her mystical vision.  Like the voyeuristic witness, we are not allowed to actually see the small angel penetrating the saint’s heart repeatedly with the long spear.  The scene ends with a red fade-out.


Teresa Teresa (2003; Dir. Rafael Gordon):

This film is unique as it explores Teresa of Avila’s life through the format of a 21st-century television talk show in which the saint appears as a guest in the form of a virtual image.  A discussion of vanity and love leads into Teresa’s narration of the transverberation episode, which, like Molina’s version, is recited directly from the original text.  The scene begins with a medium close-up shot framing both actresses, as Teresa narrates the vision for her listeners (the talk show hostess and the studio audience).  As the action and rhythm of the narrated episode intensify, the camera moves in closer to frame Teresa alone.  Her head reclines subtly, as if she were re-experiencing the original ecstasy (and perhaps suggesting the even more iconic sensuous representation in Bernini’s famous sculpture).  As she recalls the pain and pleasure of the vision, her voice becomes higher and faster until she abruptly pauses to clarify that the experience is not physical but spiritual (thus defusing the erotic charge of the scene).  At this point the camera pulls back slightly to frame both actresses together in a close-up shot until the scene ends.


Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (2007; Dir. Ray Loriga):

This controversial film based on the life of Teresa is the most sexualized version to date (with the exception of the 1989 British ''Visions of Ecstasy” -a 19-minute film written and directed by Nigel Wingrove depicting St. Teresa caressing and kissing Christ with crosscut shots of her being erotically touched by a female character representing her psyche).  The transverberation scene in Loriga’s 2007 film is first suggested indirectly in a scene that portrays Teresa slightly reclined during a trance, wearing a red dress (not a nun’s habit), and with numerous long spears emanating from her body.  In a subsequent scene we see quick flashes of a handsome male angel, making this the only feature-length film to show an angel with Teresa (portrayed by Paz Vega as a beautiful young woman despite the fact that Teresa de Jesús was 44 years old when she experienced the transverberation vision).  These shots are dream-like flashes that crosscut with the nun convulsing in rapture during prayer while dramatic music provides the tension during the vivid intercut scenes.  The last scene addressing the transverberation is another verbal narration of the episode by Teresa, who is defending her experiences to a group of hostile ecclesiastics fearful of the Inquisition.  Dressed in nun’s habit, Teresa’s narration does not follow her autobiographical text but paraphrases and selects passages interrupted with comments and reaction shots of the male clergy.     

Teresa in red dress with lances
Teresa in trance with angel
Narration of transverberation to ecclesiastics

After viewing different cinematic representations of the famous transverberation scene one must wonder why no film to date has attempted to visually depict the angel thrusting the fire-tipped arrow into the saint’s heart.  As a result we are denied Teresa’s point of view directly during the vision.   While some filmmakers have incorporated the latent eroticism of the mystical rapture (frequently inspired by Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”), perhaps it is the potential for violence in an image of an angel repeatedly stabbing the vulnerable nun has discouraged directors from filming the sequence from the point of view of Teresa during the vision instead of narrating it after the fact.  

Teresa de Jesús (1962; Dir. Juan de Orduña) by Juan de Orduña (1962) A Franco-era adaptation of St. Teresa of Avila’s life includes a modified version of the famous transverberation episode.
St. Teresa of Avila (1983; Dir. Josefina Molina) by Josefina Molina (1983) This eight-part post-Franco television mini-series includes the iconic vision of the transverberation but without portraying the actual episode (a small angel with enflamed arrow piercing Teresa’s heart).
Teresa Teresa (2003; Dir. Rafael Gordon): by Rafael Gordon (2003) This film is unique as it explores Teresa of Avila’s life through the format of a 21st-century television talk show in which the saint appears as a guest in the form of a virtual image.
Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (2007; Dir. Ray Loriga): Scene 1 by Ray Loriga (2007) Teresa in red dress with lances
Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (2007; Dir. Ray Loriga): Scene 2 by Ray Loriga (2007) Teresa in trance with angel
Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (2007; Dir. Ray Loriga): Scene 3 by Ray Loriga (2007) Narration of transverberation to ecclesiastics