In love, one feels simultaneously vulnerable and strong, united with the beloved and isolated in a heightened sense of self, abased and exalted – delicious emotions that well out of one’s innermost being and gratitude for the splendors of the objective real. Almost the same words serve to describe an encounter with the divine.
To most people, the tidal swing of emotion culminating in the ecstasy of sexual embrace is the most they will ever know of mystical union and transcendence. Not surprisingly. World literature and art – notably those of India, China, and the West – have seen fit to conjoin the two. There was then no cover-up, no sense of a split between body and soul, the “low” and the “high”. In the absence of such a sense of split, a body evokes feelings that merge and rise effortlessly to the realm of the spirit.
In the West, Solomon’s poetry (Song of Songs) provides an early and familiar model of how a charged erotic language can call forth the passion and mystery of divine union. Again and again, Western mystics and poets have availed themselves of this model, outstandingly St. John of the Cross, whose Spiritual Canticle contains images that could shock even W. H. Auden, a very worldly and modern poet.
In sculptural art, the voluptuous forms of gods and goddesses, the transparent identification of sexual congress – the herd girls’ desire for Krishna – with mystical ecstasy, richly adorn the exterior of Hindu temples. Almost as gloriously unselfconscious are works of Western sculpture and painting from classical antiquity to the seventeenth century. Over and over again, the perfectly formed human nude is made to serve as a symbol of spiritual perfection. In medieval times, sculptors saw nothing amiss in using pagan Nereids to represent blessed souls on their way to heaven. During periods of religious fervor, outstandingly the sixteenth century, the line between sacred and profane ecstasy was exceedingly fine. Saints, daringly uncovered, turned their eyes to heaven in bliss. Michelangelo’s drawing of the risen Christ (housed at Windsor) shows him completely nude, with exposed genitals. To the art historian Kenneth Clark it is “perhaps the most beautiful nude in ecstasy in the whole of art.”
Source: ‘Sacred and Profane Ecstasy’, from Escapism, by Yi-Fu Tuan