st. teresa in ecstasy
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:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, 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. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. 
Freudian interpretations aside, the Catholic church has celebrated the sculpture, which is captioned “Mother of Spirituality” and widely praised as a religious masterpiece. Its presence in the transept of Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome has made the church one of the city’s most popular sites for weddings.
It pleased our Lord that I would sometimes see this vision: very close to me, on my left, an angel appeared in human form. In his hands I saw a golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it, and he left me utterly consumed by the great love of God.
The traditional interpretation of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is relatively straightforward. The sculpture portrays the Saint’s overpowering sense of spiritual pleasure in serving Christ. Bernini employs imagery which suggests sensual pleasure, but only in order to convey the tangible nature of Teresa’s experience – a manifestation of her love of God and her yearning for spiritual union with him. The work is consistent with the aims of the Catholic Counter-Reformation art campaign, which sought to convey the mysteries of Catholicism as cogently as possible.
After Innocent X
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin, 1991.
Bernini’s sculptural group shows a cupid-like angel holding an arrow. His delicate touch and lithe figure give him an air of grace. With her head thrown back and eyes closed, Teresa herself collapses, overcome with the feeling of God’s love. Her physical body seems to have dematerialized beneath the heavy drapery of her robe. Twisting folds of fabric energize the scene and bronze rays, emanating from an unseen source, seem to rain down divine light. The combined effect is one of intense drama, the ethereality of which denies the true nature of the work of art. Despite being made of heavy marble, saint and angel—set upon a cloud—appear to float weightlessly.
Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form. . . . He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. . . . In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain wasso severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa.