ecstasy of st.theresa bernini
This sculptural group portrays Teresa’s experience of religious ecstasy, as described in her autobiography, when an angel appeared before her with a golden spear: “He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, 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.” [Note that Teresa expresses her intense desire for God in the language of erotic passion, an approach which is part of the long tradition of what is called “bridal mysticism”.]
To represent the true intensity of Teresa’s experience, Bernini shows her swooning in near-erotic rapture, with eyes closed and mouth open, and both her visible limbs hanging limp. The ruffled, heavy drapery of her clothing adds to the movement and drama of the scene, and the texture of the fabric contrasts with the purity of her face. The childlike angel looks lovingly at Teresa as he prepares to pierce her heart with his spear of divine love, completing her mystical union with God.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (alternatively Saint Teresa in Ecstasy or Transverberation of Saint Teresa; in Italian: L’Estasi di Santa Teresa or Santa Teresa in estasi) is the central sculptural group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of his day, who also designed the setting of the Chapel in marble, stucco and paint. It is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It depicts Teresa of Ávila.
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).
When we walk toward the chapel (figure 2) we see that on either side of us, on the side walls, there are what look like theater boxes. In these boxes, seated figures in appear to be talking and gesturing to each other. Perhaps they are kneeling in prayer as they watch and discuss the scene of the Ecstasy of Saint 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?
In her writings, Theresa describes how she would feel suddenly consumed by the love of God, feel the bodily presence of Christ or of angels, and be lifted to an exalted state of ecstasy. Although in her own lifetime Theresa was sometimes ridiculed for such claims, or even accused of communing with the devil, she became a prominent figure in the church. Theresa was one of only three female church doctors and was finally canonized in 1622.
Although some art historians insist that Bernini could not possibly have intended to imbue this subject with an erotic energy, as that would have been inconceivably heretical for that time, in reality the concupiscent implications of this work are unmistakable: the beautiful, bare-chested young angle gently opens Theresa’s dress, preparing to penetrate her with his arrow, while the saint throws back her head with an expression of ecstasy.
Boucher, Bruce. Italian Baroque Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa
Artist / Origin: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italian, 1598–1680)
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Marble, stucco, and gilt bronze
Dimensions: H: 11 ft. 6 in. (3.5 m.)
Location: Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of SCALA/Art Resource, NY