Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro Bernini, “Head of Saint Jerome” (ca. 1661). Terracotta, 13 13/16 x 11 5/16 x 9 inches. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds (1937.77).

After a plate of lukewarm gemelli in the Metropolitan Museum cafeteria, an out-of-town friend and I wandered haphazardly into the lower level of the Lehman wing, where the exhibition Bernini: Sculpting in Clay has been in residence since early October.

The show, which consists primarily of terra-cotta studies and drawings that Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) made for his Baroque marble extravaganzas, wasn’t at the top of my list, especially on a Friday night with an hour left to go before the museum closed, and especially after reading The New York Times review by Ken Johnson, who called it “an important exhibition, insofar as it establishes a scholarly baseline for the study of Bernini terra-cotta work.”

Not exactly a line that quickened the pulse. Nor was his follow-up:

“It is not a blockbuster of a show, however.”

I have my own biases, of course, and Bernini’s sculpture — with the exception of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” (1645-1652) in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome — was never something I actively sought out.

The perfect and perfectly elastic bodies of his prophets, angels and saints escape our reality for a jacked-up realm of sunbursts and thunderclouds. We feel less awe-inspired than pummeled into submission; in their presence, our corruptible flesh becomes a liability rather than a common bond.

“The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” however, with its melding of spiritual transcendence to cascading orgasm, cedes an equivalence between the sacred and the corporeal, underscoring our twinned natures of god and animal. It’s an indelibly modern image.

The clay models, or bozzetti (sketches), in this exhibition are preparatory notes for the same pantheon of divinely endowed contortionists that, when executed in marble, seem at such a remove from our mortal state.

And yet as material objects, the studies feel supremely human rather than superhuman, as if their extraction from the earth’s crust has anchored them to this world with little regard for the next.

In his review, Johnson describes the sculptures this way:

But while not spectacular, they are wonderfully deft and will be a revelation for viewers unfamiliar with Bernini’s working methods.

While I agree that they are “a revelation for viewers unfamiliar with Bernini’s working methods,” I must demur that these lumps of mud are indeed spectacular pieces of art.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Angel with the Superscription” (detail) (ca. 1667–1668). Terracotta, 14 1⁄4 x 7 5/8 x 7 1/8 inches. Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, Rome. Photo by Anthony Sigel.

Scraped, squeezed and gouged by the artist’s fingers, the clay’s inert mass mutates into rippling manifestations of pure energy. Architectures abound: angels’ wings become ramparts; the robes of a Virgin and Child sweep upward like a Gaudi bell tower.

The pleasure of tracing an artist’s progress as he works through a concept, however, does not exclude such familiar satisfactions as gazing into his character’s faces, which range from quick gestural notations to limpidly rendered portraits.

For the more historically minded, there are wall texts on Bernini’s life, his fountains, statuary and monuments, as well as a detailed description of his use of clay. There is even a tastefully unobtrusive video presentation on the urban development of Rome during the artist’s lifetime.

But all of this would be purely academic if not for the show’s uncovering of the gritty life coursing beneath Bernini’s cold stone virtuosity.

If a blockbuster is measured solely in terms of the fame of the artist, the scale of the exhibition and the size of its carbon footprint after shipping artwork all over world, then Bernini: Sculpting in Clay falls short.

But what do you call a show that probes so deeply that it turns our idea of a significant artist on its head? It’s hardly quantifiable, but epiphany springs to mind.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 6, 2013.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.