the ecstasy of st. teresa was meant to show teresa
Francois Duquesnoy (1594-1643)
Exponent of a restrained form of classical sculpture.
To begin with, the Cornaro Chapel is beautifully designed as a showcase for Saint Teresa. Its spatial construction, use of light, trompe l’oeil mural painting, along with the marble, gilded wood and gilt bronze materials used, is a perfect vehicle for such an expression of piety. The marble sculpture itself – its whiteness contrasting with the polychrome marble surround – precisely poised above the altar as if it were a divine occurrence in mid-air, is a perfect combination of movement and stillness. Yet the drapery also conveys the “agitation” of the swooning nun. And Bernini’s incredible attention to detail is clearly visible in the meticulous carving of the little finger of the Angel’s left hand, and the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
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:
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).
Born in the Castilian town of Ávila in 1515, Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada entered a Carmelite convent around the age of twenty, but it was not until the 1550s that she began to experience divine visions like the one to which Gian Lorenzo Bernini gives tangible form here.
Careri, Giovanni, and Linda Lappin. Bernini: Flights of Love, the Art of Devotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini created The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (L’Estasi di Santa Teresa) in 1645-1652 using marble, stucco, and gilt bronze. The work was commissioned by the Cornaro family, and resides in Rome in the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria. The sculpture itself is situated above the church altar, positioned so the bronze beams illuminate the marble figures.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a subtraction sculpture in the round of the Baroque period. Despite this, it is mounted against a wall, preventing the viewer from getting a full, all-around view of the work. The sculpture is dense, yet smooth and intricately detailed, giving the impression of dramatic, flowing fabric.The piece is a depiction of an episode from St. Teresa’s life according to her autobiography, in which she describes having a vision of an angel coming down and stabbing her repeatedly through the heart with an arrow. Her experience was that of spiritual rapture, yet also described in a somewhat sexual nature. Bernini’s sculpture features St. Teresa reclining on a bed of clouds, with a smaller, cupid-like angel hovering over her, delicately holding a golden arrow between his fingertips, aimed at St. Teresa’s heart. The angel smiles looking at St. Teresa’s face, whose features are characterized by closed eyes and parted lips. Most of her body is hidden beneath draped fabric, but her limbs and hands hang limp as she is wholly caught up in the ecstasy of the moment. The sculpture itself measures in at a height of 3.5 meters, but the golden rods reach down towards the figures, extending the scene and giving the work added depth and height. The rods highlight the fiery rapture experienced by St. Teresa, as if coming straight down from the heavens, from God himself. The focal point of the piece is the interaction between the angel and St. Teresa, seen in the invisible line reaching from the angel’s gaze to St. Teresa’s face, displaying the intensely emotional and spiritual nature of the piece.
One of Bernini’s most impressive works is the Statue of Saint Teresa of Avila that can be found in the Cornaro Chapel inside the famous Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria—in English, Our Lady of Victory—located not far from the Termini station in Rome and Piazza della Repubblica, a site easily reachable during any of your tour of Rome. Our Lady of Victory was built in the beginning of the seventeenth century by Carlo Maderno a baroque architect who in the same years also completed the facade of St Peter’s Basilica! Years later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who had been as well working at the Basilica of St Peter (building the colonnade of the piazza and the famous baldachin) started a project to build a campanile, a very tall bell tower that had to be demolished even before being finished, because of its excessive weight. After this humiliation, Bernini’s brilliant career took an unexpected turn and he fell in disgrace. In the mid-1640’s, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was going through a tough time. After a few years of living in reclusive misery, he was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro to do a sculpture for the cardinal’s family chapel. He wanted was a statue of Saint Teresa, a Spanish mystic canonized just 20 or so years before. Bernini jumped at the opportunity, seeing it as a last shot at resurrecting his career.
Rome is famous for the Colosseum, for the Roman Forum, for hosting within its perimeter the small but powerful state of Vatican City with the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Rome is a city renowned world-wide for the splendid monuments of the City Center such as, to just name a few, Piazza Navona or the Pantheon: ancient monuments make Rome one of the most rich-in-history and admired cities in the world; but Rome has also been the capital of and art movement that has shocked rules of artistic expression that had been established and followed for centuries—the Baroque—and has produced artists of the caliber of Borromini, Bernini and Caravaggio. Baroque artists loved massive and detailed decorations, curved lines, flowery curls and stucco. Their works often contain an idea of movement and motion that was directed to confuse and surprise—actually, astonish!—the viewers; Bernini’s statues, for example, literally seem to come to life and can be looked at from multiple perspective points. The facades of Borromini’ buildings stretch and bend in a way that make them seem to be on the verge of coming to life. Caravaggio’s original use of light is still studied today by photographers and movie directors for the dramatic effects that it is able to produce.