line drawing of the ecstasy of saint teresa
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).
Cornaro had chosen the hitherto unremarkable church of the Discalced Carmelites for his burial chapel. [a] The selected site for the chapel was the left transept that had previously held an image of ‘St. Paul in Ecstasy’, which was replaced by Bernini’s dramatization of a religious experience undergone and related by the first Discalced Carmelite saint, who had been canonised not long before, in 1622.  It was completed in 1652 for the then princely sum of 12,000 scudi. [b]
Following the death of Innocent and the accession of Alexander VII (1655-67) to the papacy, Bernini was restored to prominence. It enabled him to focus on Baroque architecture – notably on his famous project to rebuild the square in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where pilgrims gathered to receive the Pope’s blessing – and on the construction of his two finest churches – S. Andrea al Quirinale, and S. Maria dell’Assunzione, Ariccia, in Rome. All of which greatly enhanced his reputation as one of the top Baroque architects in the city.
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.
Careri, Giovanni, and Linda Lappin. Bernini: Flights of Love, the Art of Devotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
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
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a subtraction sculpture in the round of the Baroque period. Despite this, it is mounted against a wall, preventing the viewer from getting a full, all-around view of the work. The sculpture is dense, yet smooth and intricately detailed, giving the impression of dramatic, flowing fabric.The piece is a depiction of an episode from St. Teresa’s life according to her autobiography, in which she describes having a vision of an angel coming down and stabbing her repeatedly through the heart with an arrow. Her experience was that of spiritual rapture, yet also described in a somewhat sexual nature. Bernini’s sculpture features St. Teresa reclining on a bed of clouds, with a smaller, cupid-like angel hovering over her, delicately holding a golden arrow between his fingertips, aimed at St. Teresa’s heart. The angel smiles looking at St. Teresa’s face, whose features are characterized by closed eyes and parted lips. Most of her body is hidden beneath draped fabric, but her limbs and hands hang limp as she is wholly caught up in the ecstasy of the moment. The sculpture itself measures in at a height of 3.5 meters, but the golden rods reach down towards the figures, extending the scene and giving the work added depth and height. The rods highlight the fiery rapture experienced by St. Teresa, as if coming straight down from the heavens, from God himself. The focal point of the piece is the interaction between the angel and St. Teresa, seen in the invisible line reaching from the angel’s gaze to St. Teresa’s face, displaying the intensely emotional and spiritual nature of the piece.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini created The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (L’Estasi di Santa Teresa) in 1645-1652 using marble, stucco, and gilt bronze. The work was commissioned by the Cornaro family, and resides in Rome in the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria. The sculpture itself is situated above the church altar, positioned so the bronze beams illuminate the marble figures.
The sensuality of the piece is directly inspired by St. Theresa’s own writings, in which she describes her mystical experiences in overtly erotic terms;
Gian Lorenzo Bernini