of bernini’s ecstasy of saint theresa it is correct to say that it was
Here are a few of Bernini’s most famous sculptures.
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.
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).
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
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.
The Cornaro crew’s sober appraisal and rational beard-stroking bearings indicate that they take the scene for what it’s meant to be, a pure and holy vision that brought Teresa closer to God. But what about those of us who see something more in the chemistry between Teresa and that angel who looks for all the world like a pagan Cupid, locked in a dangerous game of earthly pain and spiritual pleasure? The Cornaros would no doubt tell us to get our minds out of the gutter, but I’m not so sure we’ve got it wrong. I think Bernini knew exactly what he doing, and brought together piety and eroticism in a potent cocktail that he was sure would set tongues wagging for centuries to come. What do you think?
Teresa’s route to the spiritual top wasn’t an easy one. In an age rife with suspicions of heresy and the terrors of the Inquisition, charismatic women were viewed with profound misgivings by religious hierarchies. Teresa’s propensity to experience vivid full-body visions and shuddering raptures made her an object of suspicion for theologians fearful of unorthodox expressions of religious sentiment. The saint-to-be was even interrogated by the Spanish Inquisition, who confiscated and censured her steamy writings about divine love. Thankfully things went well for her in the end: the church ultimately ruled that Teresa’s mystic experiences were genuine encounters with God rather than Satan’s temptations, and her path to sainthood was ensured.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
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.