the ecstasy of st teresa architecture
SWOON – Bernini brings all the passion and rapture of Teresa’s story to represent, perhaps for the first time, the now-immortalized image of a swoon: head thrown back, eyelids half-closed, mouth slightly open as she moans in ecstasy.
CLOUDS – In translating Teresa’s mystical vision into stone, Bernini first captured Teresa’s reports of levitation by having her borne on a bank of marble clouds. (The clouds are hollow, to decrease the weight of the wall-mounted sculpture.)
Other Baroque Sculptors in Rome
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 art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
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).
When we look at the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini we have to consider the entire space of the chapel. The chapel is called the Cornaro Chapel, after the Cornaro family who controlled it and commissioned Bernini to sculpt Saint Teresa.
Saint Teresa describes her intensely spiritual experience in very physical, even sexual terms. Why? We know that an important goal of Baroque art is to involve the viewer. Teresa is describing this in physical terms so that we can understand. After all, being visited by an angel and filled with the love of God is no small experience. How can we, with our ordinary experiences, hope to understand the intensity and passion of her experience except on our own terms?
Harris, Ann S. Art and Architecture of the Seventeenth Century Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Careri, Giovanni, and Linda Lappin. Bernini: Flights of Love, the Art of Devotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.