the ecstasy of st. teresa of avila
Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654)
Noted for his High Baroque classicism, midway between Duquesnoy’s restraint and Bernini’s dramatic naturalism.
After Innocent X
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:
Cornaro had chosen the hitherto unremarkable church of the Discalced Carmelites for his burial chapel. [a] The selected site for the chapel was the left transept that had previously held an image of ‘St. Paul in Ecstasy’, which was replaced by Bernini’s dramatization of a religious experience undergone and related by the first Discalced Carmelite saint, who had been canonised not long before, in 1622.  It was completed in 1652 for the then princely sum of 12,000 scudi. [b]
SETTING – Bernini is praised for his synthesis of sculpture, painting, and architecture. The church was extended so that a hidden window could be added to cast light upon the sculpture, as if from the Holy Spirit. Cherubs painted on the entrance arch bear a banner inscribed with the words Jesus spoke in one of Teresa’s visions: “If I had not created heaven, I would create it for you alone.”
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.
Boucher, Bruce. Italian Baroque Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin, 1991.
Auclair, Marcelle. Saint Teresa of Avila. New York, 1953.
Saint Teresa’s love of God and her desire for spiritual union with him found expression in a vision in which an angel pierced her heart with a golden spear and sent her into a trance. The erotic intensity of her vision is vividly suggested in this image by Teresa’s swooning expression and languid pose, and by the deep folds of drapery, which convey her agitation.