the ecstasy of saint teresa bernini
Essentially, Bernini designed the chapel as a theatre for his sculpture. The latter is set in a niche above and behind the altar, flanked by pairs of marble columns. It is theatrically illuminated by beams of natural light from a hidden window overhead. This natural light mingles with and reflects off a sheaf of vertical gilt bronze shafts behind the sculpture, sculpted to resemble the rays of the sun. High above, the ceiling of the Chapel is frescoed with trompe l’oeil images of a sky filled with cherubs.
Other Sculptures by Bernini
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 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).
This is her description of the event that Bernini depicts:
Saint Teresa was a nun who was canonized (made a Saint by the Church) in part because of the spiritual visions she experienced. She lived during the middle of the sixteenth century in Spain—at the height of the Reformation. Saint Teresa wrote several books in which she described her visions.
Bernini’s famous sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro of Venice in 1647 for his burial chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, replacing the previous sculpture showing St. Paul in Ecstasy. The Cardinal hired an already famous but down and out Bernini (his reputation was tarnished after his bell tower for the façade of St. Peter’s had to be demolished in 1646) for the fantastic amount of 12,000 scudi (roughly $120,000), a price unheard of at that time.
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa is not just a sculpture, but a total environment: Bernini designed the entire chapel, creating a veritable stage set complete with sculpted audience members.
Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin, 1991.