st teresa of avila bernini
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
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.
Note: In creating his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa it is almost certain that Bernini made use of styles initiated by certain Mannerist artists. For example, we can see the basis for Bernini’s masterpiece in the simple piety, floating drapery and heavenward gaze of the Beata Michelina (1606, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome), a painting by the influential Mannerist religious painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612).
Here are a few of Bernini’s most famous sculptures.
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 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.”
But in The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, eros and agape come together: a scandalous conjunction that has deep roots in Christian theology. The Hebrew prophets, for example, often compared the relationship of God and Israel to that of husband and wife. In the New Testament, the portrayal of Christ as groom and the church as bride meant marriage itself was as a sacrament – a physical sign of a spiritual grace.
You don’t have to be a Freudian to see something suspicious here. The imagery is frankly erotic. Is the expression on Saint Teresa’s face really one of religious ecstasy? Or, if one looks closely and skeptically, does it not rather resemble the look of coital bliss?
 “I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form—a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely.” Saint Teresa of Avila, 274.
Bernini’s sexually charged work may also shed some light on his intentions in sculptures like Apollo and Daphne (1622–1625), depicting both figures nude, and Truth Unveiled by Time (1646–1652), which omits Father Time and includes only the nearly nude Truth with her legs spread. The much later Ludovica Albertoni (1647) is a sculpture consisting of a young woman laying on a bed caressing her own breast, mouth agape in similar fashion to the Saint, and illustrates how the theme of sex continued nearly until the artist’s death.