gian lorenzo bernini sculptural depiction of the ecstasy of saint teresa
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.
The sculpture shows a lithe, delicate angel who resembles cupid holding an arrow aloft, poised to strike Teresa. With curly hair and dainty features, the angel has a graceful air. Theresa herself seems to have collapsed. Her eyes are closed and her head is thrown back in what seems to be rapture. Bronze rains down behind the sculpture, seeming to illuminate it, and the figures appear to float on a cloud.
Harris, Ann S. Art and Architecture of the Seventeenth Century Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
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
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.
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”.]
Saint Teresa was a nun who was canonized (made a Saint by the Church) in part because of the spiritual visions she experienced. She lived during the middle of the sixteenth century in Spain—at the height of the Reformation. Saint Teresa wrote several books in which she described her visions.
Figure 2. Bernini, Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
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.
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: