bernini ecstasy of saint teresa cornaro chapel
To begin with, the Cornaro Chapel is beautifully designed as a showcase for Saint Teresa. Its spatial construction, use of light, trompe l’oeil mural painting, along with the marble, gilded wood and gilt bronze materials used, is a perfect vehicle for such an expression of piety. The marble sculpture itself – its whiteness contrasting with the polychrome marble surround – precisely poised above the altar as if it were a divine occurrence in mid-air, is a perfect combination of movement and stillness. Yet the drapery also conveys the “agitation” of the swooning nun. And Bernini’s incredible attention to detail is clearly visible in the meticulous carving of the little finger of the Angel’s left hand, and the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Note: In creating his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa it is almost certain that Bernini made use of styles initiated by certain Mannerist artists. For example, we can see the basis for Bernini’s masterpiece in the simple piety, floating drapery and heavenward gaze of the Beata Michelina (1606, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome), a painting by the influential Mannerist religious painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612).
The entire ensemble was overseen and completed by a mature Bernini during the Pamphili papacy of Innocent X. When Innocent acceded to the papal throne, he shunned Bernini’s artistic services; the sculptor had been the favourite artist of the previous and profligate Barberini pope. Without papal patronage, the services of Bernini’s studio were therefore available to a patron such as the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579–1653).
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
Figure 1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645–52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome)
By the time she reached her forties, Theresa had settled down to her new spiritual life, when one day, while praying and singing the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” she experienced the first of the episodes that would accompany her for the rest of her life: a rapture.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
This is Saint Teresa’s description of the event that Bernini depicts: “Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.”
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker