what church ecstacy of st teresa
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
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:
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 Baroque Sculptors in Rome
Freudian interpretations aside, the Catholic church has celebrated the sculpture, which is captioned “Mother of Spirituality” and widely praised as a religious masterpiece. Its presence in the transept of Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome has made the church one of the city’s most popular sites for weddings.
ANGEL – “He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful,” related Teresa of her vision, “his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire.”
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
Figure 1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645–52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome)
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.
In this work, rightly considered now one of the highest achievements of the Baroque, Bernini represented Saint Teresa in ecstasy, demonstrating not only his theological competence but also that theatrical style that was so peculiar of him. It is an artistic approach directed to give the viewers the impression that a special and incredible event (in fact a miraculous event!) is happening right here and right now, before our very eyes, so that we can believe and nurture our faith. In fact, Bernini’s statue is what we would nowadays call an installation. It is made of white marble, but placed within an edicola decorated with ceiling frescoes, from which a rain of golden steel rays comes down on the Saint. The marble group is like floating in air, and a child-like angel is about to penetrate Teresa’s heart with an arrow. Bernini’s rendering of Teresa’s description of her angelic visions resorts to explicit sexual symbolism. Bernini visualized the spiritual pain that Teresa describes in her writing with a physical experience that has clear sexual overtones; however, Bernini’s work is in fact very faithful to Teresa’s own description. In her autobiography, which was widely read in Rome, Teresa of Avila recalls a vision in which an angel appeared before her and pierced her heart with a golden spear. Teresa describes being repeatedly penetrated by the angel, setting her on fire with a love for God, and causing her to moan in ecstatic bursts of pain.