Inspired by Gavilán Rayna Russom’s recent Transverberation album, Writer, Artist and Activist Morgan M. Page guides us on a labyrinthine journey through a shimmering spectrum of trans experiences of the saintly.
In the city of Rome, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, in the chapel of Cornaro, behind a heavy metal cross and four candle sticks, Santa Teresa d’Avila moans in ecstasy. Above her reclining form, the smiling marble face of a cherub holds onto her rumpled robes with one hand, balancing an arrow delicately in the other. Behind them rains down the light of God. The Saint herself writes,
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.”
Transverberare: to pierce through. Ecstasy is the moment when Heaven tears through the veil to caress the earth, when spirit and matter touch. As the angel thrust his burning spear into her, Santa Teresa felt God.
“The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it,” the Saint continues. “The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
Born in 1515, Santa Teresa was a Spanish Carmelite nun consumed with a passion for God that it would be hard to describe in anything other than romantic terms. Afflicted with headaches and embarrassed by uncontrollable raptures - including, supposedly, spontaneous levitation - the mystic Saint saw herself as spiritually married to God, having navigated with much difficulty the seven mansions of the interior castle of the soul. In other words, she was immensely horny for God.
“I have had sixty plastic surgeries and procedures,” Nina Arsenault told a silent auditorium at Toronto’s Idea City in 2010, a homegrown knock-off of the then-new TED Talk series. “It was a[n] arduous project to redesign my body, but also thrilling. And it was full of both ecstasy and suffering.”
Though many of the girls, particularly those who - like Nina - make their money and fund their art primarily through the sex industry, have dropped six figures into the coffers of surgeons and walked out with the glorious and uncanny plastic aesthetic that presaged the rise of the Kardashians and their social media clones, Nina has always seen her body as an artistic material. Drawing on lineages of feminist performance art, Nina positioned her body alongside French artist ORLAN, who famously broadcast herself receiving a number of plastic surgeries to look closer to elements of Western cultural depictions of women. The forehead of Mona Lisa, the chin of Boticelli’s Venus. So, too, did Nina recreate her flesh, but instead taking the wreckage of late 20th Century hyperfemininity for her inspiration: Pamela Anderson, Jessica Rabbit, Barbie. A self-conscious living mannequin, she quipped in her 2009 play The Silicone Diaries, “If you cannot look like a normal woman, sacrifice being normal.”
But nowhere did she make the connection between her body’s suffering and her spiritual ecstasy more clear than in her endurance performance piece, 40 Days + 40 Nights: Towards a Spiritual Experience. Shown as part of the Summerworks Festival in 2012, the final eleven nights of the forty day experience were open to the public from dusk to dawn. Living in Toronto at the time, I made my way down to the small pop-up gallery on Queen Street West for five out of the eleven performances.
Throughout each night, Nina would cycle through a series of actions without breaks: automatic spirit writing on the walls, moments of prayer and meditation with a red woman-shaped botánica candle balanced on her head, her own re-embodiment of Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, and the infamous exercise bike on which a nude Arsenault - sometimes wearing a disturbing pig mask - literally whipped herself into a frenzy to a mix of classical music and meth-inspired Madonna remixes. From the artist statement, we were told that in the weeks preceding the gallery event, she had tried to induce an ecstatic experience by performing not only these actions, but also spending days at a time with no light - even taping the edges of the doors and windows - and no sound.
The hours-long performance would reach its crescendo every night, always at a different time, with the staged telling of Nina’s latest surgical journey to Mexico. Putting her life into the hands of a certain doctor notorious for never saying no, never saying you’ve had too much - a moral failing that has cost the lives of more than one of the women who worship his work - Nina asked this time to remain awake during her facelift. Perhaps as inspired by ORLAN as by the harsh reality that the body can only take so much general anaesthetic before it decides never to wake up again, Nina wanted the invasive procedure performed under a local only.
As they wheeled her into the operating room, past a life-size statue of the Archangel Saint Michael, Nina laid bare the true power dynamics between the plastic girls and the men who cut into them. This monologue, “The Ecstasy of Nina Arsenault,” described plastic surgery as the ultimate form of bottoming, one in which pathological sadists play the role of surgeon. Like Santa Teresa, Nina was indeed horny for her own creator. But as the skin lifted from her face, and she stared up into the dull glare of the operating theatre lights in Guadalajara, regretting her anaesthetic decision, Nina witnessed a vision: a golden serpent slithering down from the ceiling. This spirit guardian carried her through the procedure and indelibly marked her understanding of the universe.
The year I was born, on the opposite side of the earth, in the Philippines a ten year old child would begin receiving visions. Accompanied by trumpet blasts and angels singing Salve Regina, the Virgin Mary appeared to the young child. Standing atop a guava tree, on a cloud, with seven roses at her feet and a six-pointed star on her forehead, Our Lady of Agoo, Immaculate Queen of Heaven and Earth gave young Angel de la Vega a mission.
Already becoming sought out for his miraculous faith healing powers, the small kid was now afflicted by what many believed to be a true Marian apparition. At his touch, the host of the Eucharist turned to flesh and blood. On three occasions, Our Lady of Agoo’s statue cried tears of blood. Over the next six years, Angel’s manifestations of the Holy Mother would draw the belief of many Filipino Catholics. At the very height of his renown, on March 6th, 1993, over a million people gathered on what became known as “apparition hill” to witness the young Angel de la Vega’s miracles. The scent of roses filled the air while devotees shared a vision of the sun dancing. Cardinal Jaime Lachina Sin celebrated Mass on the hill, struck by his total belief in this newest manifestation of the Most Holy Virgin.
The child seemed well on his way to become, like Santa Teresa, one of the most important mystics in Catholic history. But doubts began to surface. Angel’s family, the Nievas, started to get a reputation for profiteering, doing what many poor people the world over do when a rare opportunity lays itself out for them: trying to make the most of it before it is inevitably snatched away like so many other lost dreams. Then blood from the Virgin’s tears, announced in the Filippino press as human type O, was tested and found to be pig’s blood.
But the most definitive proof would come when the mystic seer, now a teenager, was found walking the streets in women’s clothing. Angel de la Vega’s transsexuality - an affront to mainstream Catholicism - was all the evidence the public needed to tear Our Lady of Agoo, Immaculate Queen of Heaven and Earth down from her pedestal, and Angel along with her.
In the early 2000s, Angel de la Vega would create herself anew - now a woman. Appearing in a number of films and TV shows in the Philippines, the young actress sought to make a fresh name for herself. But the media remembered her past as a visionary and when asked about what motivated her sex change, Angel answered earnestly, “This is what the Beloved Virgin Mary willed for me.”
In 1791, it was the will of the Virgin Mary that called one coffee plantation owner to gather an army - thousands strong, male and female, Black and petit blanc alike - on their land. Dressed in women’s clothing, covered in rosaries, saint medallions, and ribbons, with the plume of a rooster or perhaps a peacock jutting out the top of their turban, Romaine-la-Prophetesse heeded the Virgin’s holy directives and began what would be one of the most successful and terrorizing insurgencies at the start of the Haitian Revolution.
Of course it’s absurd to claim in an uncomplicated way that La Prophetesse was trans as we know it today - just as it be equally absurd to claim that anyone in history was heterosexual before Austro-Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny invented the term in 1869. But the illiterate Romaine’s insistence on the feminization of their name and title, combined with their mode of dress, certainly make a strong argument for how they might identify if they were alive today.
Equally shocking to French colonial authorities as Romaine’s femininity was their mystical union with the Virgin Mary. Like Angel de la Vega would centuries later, Romaine received direct messages and visions from the Blessed Mother. In the chapel they constructed on their plantation at Trou Coffi, in the hills outside Léogâne, this free person of colour would move past the dozens of statues and votive candles, placing their head inside the tabernacle to hear the words of the Virgin herself.
Those words, scrawled on pieces of paper by the illiterate plantation owner, called for war. La Prophetesse’s army first razed the neighbouring plantation of Joseph-Marie Tavet, and then began what whites would describe as a “reign of terror,” torching all of the plantations surrounding the coastal town, murdering all but the oldest whites and the few who defected, becoming La Prophetesse’s petit blancs comrades.
At their height, the Trou Coffi insurgency would wrest control of both Léogâne and Jakmel from the whites, all following the prophecies of Romaine Riviere, the self-described “Virgin Mary’s godson.” Whether we could consider La Prophetesse as strictly Catholic is questionable, from the scant historical record it is difficult to deny that Romaine incorporated elements of Kongo religious practices into their worship including the concoction of herbal remedies. It may be perhaps more true to say that La Prophetesse practiced an early form of what is today Haitian Vodou.
Though their army would be defeated and dispersed in March 1792 by the French Commissioner Edmond Saint-Léger, unlike nearly every other insurrectionary leader, La Prophetesse would never be caught and executed for their revolutionary crimes. Perhaps it was the messages that the little Virgin whispered into their ear that saved La Prophetesse from hanging. Either way, they would disappear into the forest, possibly crossing over to their native Santo Domingo, never to be heard from again.
It was crossing the border that brought Arely Vazquez to the bony feet of La Flaka - the Skinny Lady. Born in Tlapa, Guerrero, outside Acapulco, Vazquez grew up under a growing threat of homophobia and transphobia. Though Indigenous cultures in Mexico have long held - and in some places still do - special respect for gender variant people, the colonial imposition of Catholicism and the more recent rise of the far more homophobic Charismatic Christianity of the Pentecostal movement, has made many parts of Mexico a difficult and dangerous place to be trans. Like many women with few opportunities and the looming threat of violence, Arely made the perilous journey across the US-Mexico border.
Against treacherous odds, she managed to arrive in Queens, New York where she had family. But as a transsexual who did not speak English, her struggles were by no means over. Sex work and drag performance were two of the only options available for someone like her. Sensing Arely’s vulnerability, a friend brought her a statue of la Santa Muerte - Saint Death. Represented by the traditional European-derived image of the Grim Reaper, often mixed with the Mexican patroness la Virgen de Guadalupe, devotion to the Bony Lady is one of the fastest growing new religious movements in Mexico and the United States. Because death does not discriminate - rich or poor, law-abiding or narco, straight or gay, cis or trans - some of her cult’s most fervent devotees are transsexual women like Arely.
“She used to frighten me very much, like she was testing me,” Arely says in the 2013 documentary Loving the Bony Lady. “I said to her one day, ‘I’ll accept you into my house and with pleasure but if you don’t want to be here, then I’ll return you to the person who brought you.” Arely then received a vision in the form of a dream - La Flaquita, as she calls her, was surrounded by all the saints in Heaven. From then on, Arely placed Santa Muerte in the centre of a growing altar of spiritual benefactors in her small apartment in Queens.
Devotion to the skeleton saint provided Arely with the stability and protection she’d been looking for in America. When researcher R. Andrew Chesnut asked her what the biggest blessing La Reina had given Arely, she pointed to her breast implants and laughed. Soon, in gratitude for the many wonders Santa Muerte had given her, Arely began holding weekly prayer sessions for her fellow devotees in her apartment. Eventually these grew into an annual event she throws each August in a banquet hall, complete with Aztec folkloric dances that celebrate La Flaka’s possible origins as the death goddess Mictecacihuatl, attended by dozens of believers in the Mexican community in New York.
Now one of the cult’s most well-known leaders around the world, Arely Vazquez remains humble as she tells us, “Without la Santa Muerte, I think my life would be a disaster.”
In the Cornaro Chapel, at the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Santa Teresa’s head lolls back, her eyes closed, mouth parted as she eternally awaits for the angel to thrust his spear into her again, “piercing [her] very entrails.” To each side of the glorious image, box seats set into the walls are filled with marble men who look onto the sensual image as though at the theatre. As Nina Arsenault once said, “I believe we can be witnessed to death.”
Though anyone can become afflicted with a holy ecstasy, it’s little surprise that people we might today call trans women, across the world and throughout time, are particularly vulnerable to transverberation, to the spirit piercing the flesh. If we reject medicalization, is transness itself not a spiritual condition? One that its witnesses may only watch but not experience? Nearly every culture in recorded history, stretching back to the gala priests of Ishtar in ancient Sumer, seems to think so.
Gavilán Rayna Russom’s latest album, Transverberation, takes Bernini’s baroque tableaux of the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa as muse, representing this spirito-sexual mix of agony and bliss in sound. Caught between jabs of the flaming arrow, is Santa Teresa dying or is she cumming? Like Rayna, for many years I, too, have sat with a piece of Santa Teresa’s writing, one that has animated some of my deepest feelings on both love and spiritual devotion as a trans woman. “As a woman and as a lover, however, I am moved by the sight of my Beloved,” the Saint writes. “Where He is, I want to be. What He suffers, I want to share. Who He is, I want to be like: crucified for love.”
Morgan M Page is a writer, historian, and artist in London, England. She is the co-writer of the upcoming feature film Framing Agnes (dir. Chase Joynt, 2022), and the creator of the trans history podcast One From the Vaults.