sculpture the ecstacy of st teresa
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 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.
After Innocent X
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.
Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
“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.”
One of Bernini’s most impressive works is the Statue of Saint Teresa of Avila that can be found in the Cornaro Chapel inside the famous Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria—in English, Our Lady of Victory—located not far from the Termini station in Rome and Piazza della Repubblica, a site easily reachable during any of your tour of Rome. Our Lady of Victory was built in the beginning of the seventeenth century by Carlo Maderno a baroque architect who in the same years also completed the facade of St Peter’s Basilica! Years later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who had been as well working at the Basilica of St Peter (building the colonnade of the piazza and the famous baldachin) started a project to build a campanile, a very tall bell tower that had to be demolished even before being finished, because of its excessive weight. After this humiliation, Bernini’s brilliant career took an unexpected turn and he fell in disgrace. In the mid-1640’s, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was going through a tough time. After a few years of living in reclusive misery, he was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro to do a sculpture for the cardinal’s family chapel. He wanted was a statue of Saint Teresa, a Spanish mystic canonized just 20 or so years before. Bernini jumped at the opportunity, seeing it as a last shot at resurrecting his career.
In this work, rightly considered now one of the highest achievements of the Baroque, Bernini represented Saint Teresa in ecstasy, demonstrating not only his theological competence but also that theatrical style that was so peculiar of him. It is an artistic approach directed to give the viewers the impression that a special and incredible event (in fact a miraculous event!) is happening right here and right now, before our very eyes, so that we can believe and nurture our faith. In fact, Bernini’s statue is what we would nowadays call an installation. It is made of white marble, but placed within an edicola decorated with ceiling frescoes, from which a rain of golden steel rays comes down on the Saint. The marble group is like floating in air, and a child-like angel is about to penetrate Teresa’s heart with an arrow. Bernini’s rendering of Teresa’s description of her angelic visions resorts to explicit sexual symbolism. Bernini visualized the spiritual pain that Teresa describes in her writing with a physical experience that has clear sexual overtones; however, Bernini’s work is in fact very faithful to Teresa’s own description. In her autobiography, which was widely read in Rome, Teresa of Avila recalls a vision in which an angel appeared before her and pierced her heart with a golden spear. Teresa describes being repeatedly penetrated by the angel, setting her on fire with a love for God, and causing her to moan in ecstatic bursts of pain.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
Gian Lorenzo Bernini