bernini ecstasy of st teresa

Bernini ecstasy of st teresa
The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by Teresa of Avila, a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun, in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1515–1582). Her experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel is described as follows:
The group is illuminated by natural light which filters through a hidden window in the dome of the surrounding aedicule, and underscored by gilded stucco rays. Teresa is shown lying on a cloud indicating that this is intended to be a divine apparition we are witnessing. Other witnesses appear on the side walls; life-size high-relief donor portraits of male members of the Cornaro family, e.g. Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, are present and shown discussing the event in boxes as if at the theatre. Although the figures are executed in white marble, the aedicule, wall panels and theatre boxes are made from coloured marbles. Above, the vault of the Chapel is frescoed with an illusionistic cherub-filled sky with the descending light of the Holy Ghost allegorized as a dove.

Bernini ecstasy of st teresa
The sculpture of Saint Teresa actually consists of two figures, sculpted in white marble: Teresa herself, shown lying on a cloud, and an angel standing above her, holding a golden spear pointed at Teresa’s heart.
Bernini – then the leading sculptor in Rome – worked on the sculpture from 1647 to 1652, during the reign of the Pamphili Pope, Innocent X (1644-55), from whom he received no patronage, owing to his lengthy close relationship with Innocent’s predecessor, the extravagant Urban VIII (1623-44). At any rate, Bernini received the commission from the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579–1673), who had selected the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria of the discalced (or “barefoot”) Carmelites as the site for his burial chapel. The chapel’s interior, a stunning combination of architecture as well as, sculpture and painting, was also designed by Bernini, with his sculpture of St. Theresa as its centrepiece. Bernini’s fee was 12,000 scudi, an enormous sum at the time.

Bernini ecstasy of st teresa
A complete understanding of the aesthetic impact and spiritual significance of the Ecstasy can only be gained in the context of the larger space of the chapel. The work is, in fact, not an independent piece, but the crucial center of a more complex composition that brings together not only sculpture, but also painting and architecture—all designed by Bernini. The dark, patterned marble columns and convex niche in which the Ecstasyis framed, for example, enhance the brightness and dynamism of the scene, while giving the sense that the wall has opened up to reveal St. Teresa’s vision. We are, in a way, looking at a vision of a vision, one that Bernini has created for the faithful who worship at the altar and for the Cornaro family in particular. On each wall perpendicular to the altar wall, an illusionistic window contains sculptural likenesses of family members, some of whom lean over the parapet in the direction of Bernini’s work, rapt witnesses to the miracle.
Located above the altar of the Cornaro Chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa represents an episode from the life of the saint as recorded in her spiritual autobiography. Teresa describes an angel carrying a fire-tipped spear with which he pierces her heart repeatedly, an act that sends her into a state of spiritual rapture. “The pain,” she writes, “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 then content with anything but God.” (The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself, Chapter 29)

Bernini ecstasy of st teresa
Saint Teresa describes her intensely spiritual experience in very physical, even sexual terms. Why? We know that an important goal of Baroque art is to involve the viewer. Teresa is describing this in physical terms so that we can understand. After all, being visited by an angel and filled with the love of God is no small experience. How can we, with our ordinary experiences, hope to understand the intensity and passion of her experience except on our own terms?
Figure 1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645–52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome)

Bernini ecstasy of st teresa
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.”
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References:

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/ecstasy-of-saint-teresa.htm
http://www.learner.org/series/art-through-time-a-global-view/dreams-and-visions/the-ecstasy-of-st-teresa/
http://courses.lumenlearning.com/zeliart102/chapter/berninis-ecstasy-of-st-teresa/
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RKcJvjP9zgY
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa

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