ecstasy of saint teresa by bernini architecture

To fully understand this sculpture it is necessary to understand its relation to the entire church where it is located. It is actually the center of a complete composition that consists of sculpture, painting, and even architecture- all of which was created by Bernini himself. Everything from the dark columns which make the sculpture look brighter to the stained glass windows which illuminate and add to the story work together to form one complete artistic whole.
The nuances of the sculpture are also wondrous to behold, as you can almost feel the sharpness of the arrow and the weight of Teresa’s clothing.

Ecstasy of saint teresa by bernini architecture
One of the greatest sculptures from the era of Baroque art, the marble ensemble known as The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (L’Estasi di Santa Teresa), located in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, was carved by Bernini (1598-1680), one of the leading Baroque sculptors of the Roman school. A deliberately intense work of Christian art, it is regarded as one of the most important examples of the Counter-Reformation style of Baroque sculpture, designed to convey spiritual aspects of the Catholic faith. The work depicts an episode of “religious ecstasy” in the life of the cloistered Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun – Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) – as described in her autobiography “The Life of Teresa of Jesus”. Despite its status as a key work of religious art, critics of the work are divided as to whether Teresa is experiencing an intense state of divine joy, or a physical orgasm. Indeed some devout contemporary observers expressed outrage that Bernini would debase such a holy experience by depicting it in a sexual way. However, Professor Robert Harbison, in his book Reflections on Baroque (2000, University of Chicago Press), has poured doubt on the notion that Bernini, a follower of St. Ignatius of Loyola, intended any such thing. Instead, he believes that Bernini used the erotic character of the experience as a springboard to a new and higher type of spiritual awakening. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a key work in establishing Bernini as one of the greatest sculptors in the history of art.
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.

Ecstasy of saint teresa by bernini architecture

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. 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 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. [3]

The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:

Ecstasy of saint teresa by bernini architecture

“The instance of a single image that appears time and time again in multiple artists’ work is also something that fascinates me. For example, the saint in ecstasy. Bernini, who was greatly admired by many of the Spanish artists who went to Italy and saw his works, is perhaps the quintessential example of a seventeenth-century Baroque creator of ecstasies in art. And the most outstanding of his creations of ecstasy is, I think, the sculptural group that is created to observe the ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Saint Teresa had reverberations all across Europe in the later half of the seventeenth century.”

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.

Ecstasy of saint teresa by bernini architecture
Figure 3. The patron, Federico Cornaro, is 2nd from the right
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?

References:

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/ecstasy-of-saint-teresa.htm
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa
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://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/ecstasy-of-saint-teresa.htm

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