Submitted by and date: Sarah Banks 2017
On a recent trip to Spain I drove west from the capital at Madrid into the wild west of the 16th c, Extremadura—home to saints, mystic poets, and soldiers of fortune. My first stop was Ávila, a chance to ponder a statue to Santa Teresa of Ávila in her birthplace and consider her contribution to the Age of Conquest as a mystical writer/ reformer saint associated with the Counter-Reformation. My next stop was Trujillo, a small town surrounded by cork oak and olive trees where the only nighttime sound is the ringing of sheep and goat bells. The Plaza Mayor is one of the prettiest in Spain; in a corner of the plaza rises the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro—Hapsburg-like chin pointing off to distant lands. He’s encircled by 16th century palaces built with his plunder from New World adventures. His motives were pure—an adventure in pursuit of wealth, with only the King sharing the spoils. The wealth extracted was so phenomenal, and the cost so high to the conquered peoples, that eventually it was necessary to recast the Spanish wars of conquest as a moral crusade, a crusade to civilize and Christianize. And it started here in Extremadura with these huge personalities—plunder, and prayer.
Easy money. It wasn’t long before the Spanish Empire grew addicted to gold. Instead of using it to invest in the country’s future—irrigation canals, improved agriculture, sanitation systems, industry, education—the gold went into ostentatious display in churches and palaces, and funded wars of expansion. Within a century, Spain had spent itself into debt—a resonant story. While wars erupted in its colonies, famine and plague swept through Old Castile. A people so weakened, eventually the Inquisition became the ultimate moral arbiter. But long before then, Pizarro had enjoyed his spoils. And Santa Teresa her ecstasy.
And that’s what I was thinking about on a wet autumn day in Rome as I contemplated the meaning of Bernini’s Santa Teresa’s Ecstasy in the lovely Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.