Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: An All-Encompassing Experience
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
“Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form… He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it - even a considerable share.”
(The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself, Chapter 29)
In 1645-1652, Gian Lorenzo Bernini succeeded in capturing and translating this intense description through the medium of marble; a pretty impressive accomplishment indeed.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is certainly one of the most affecting, memorable, and theatrical works of art I have ever experienced. Bernini himself often referred to it as the most beautiful thing he had ever executed.
The sculptural ensemble is located in the Cornaro Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The Church itself is a Baroque overload; it is bursting with ornament, decoration and movement, and it is positively gleaming with different coloured marbles and paints.
The complex bel composto, that is Bernini’s masterpiece, depicts Saint Teresa of Avila: a nun who was canonized in 1622 for having frequent visions of angels that she would record in written form. The passage above describes the particularly intense vision that Bernini was commissioned to execute.
This work is a tour de force of all of Bernini’s strengths as an artist: he has combined sculpture, architecture, theatre, painting, and more, to achieve his ambitious vision.
Bernini was very much involved in the art of theatre. As well as being a painter, sculptor, and architect, he was also a scenographer and stage director. His knowledge of theatre definitely shows in this work of art which involves the viewer.
The marble sculpture complements and fits with its surrounding architecture to make a harmonious stage set. The protagonists (Saint Teresa and her visiting angel) occupy center stage. They are framed by two pairs of columns, and lit from above by a heavenly light with a mysteriously hidden source. There is movement in the undulating surface of the indented pediment which frames the two figures.
The angel holds his arrow in his right hand; his left fingers ever so delicately and gracefully cup a fold of Saint Teresa’s drapery. His modest yet tenderly sweet smile counteracts Saint Teresa’s expression of pure ecstasy. Her head is thrown back and her eyes are closed. We can almost hear a moan escaping her parted lips.
Notice the rendition of Saint Teresa’s fingers and toes; they exhibit both a grace and tension which echo her expression of rapture.
Despite the heavy cloth that drapes Saint Teresa’s body (it is almost too hard to believe that the dramatic folds are made of marble), Saint Teresa appears to be floating on a weightless cloud, thus enhancing her all-encompassing, all-consuming and highly spiritual experience.
If you gaze upwards, you will notice that Bernini has painted a dove encircled by light in the middle of a heavenly sky. Bernini is creating the impression that the dove, the Holy Spirit, is the source of the light that bathes the two figures in a heavenly glow.
In actual fact, the light comes from a small window behind the broken pediment which, with the help of stained glass, filters the light from the outside world downwards onto the sculptural ensemble, thus illuminating the figures from above.
Bernini has also managed to achieve a sense of colouring on the marble figures. His voluptuous and expert carving of marble (particularly his astonishing rendition of Saint Teresa’s clothing) creates stark shadows that have been enhanced with the addition of meticulously planned lighting that falls on the figures from precise angles from above. In doing so, Bernini has pushed the limits of the monochrome material, and has imbued it with the colour potential of painting.
To enhance Saint Teresa’s spiritual experience, Bernini has added gilded bronze rays which descend upon the pair, and which glisten in the light that comes from above.
Bernini’s rendering has manifested Saint Teresa's spiritual experience in a very physical and almost sexual manner. The emotional intensity, eroticism, and sensuality translated into his sculpture is enchanting and almost unsettling. For the first time, Bernini challenged the Church by depicting such an intense and almost orgasmic representation of the Saint’s ecstasy. In encouraging the viewers to engage with this intense portrayal, Bernini could be seen as having redefined the morals of the church.
Considering this was the time of the Counter-Reformation (when protestants from the north were revolting against any distracting and unnecessary decoration in churches), Bernini is definitely reinstating art’s ability to help viewers connect and access the spiritual world through works of art.
Bernini makes it clear that we are not the only ones experiencing the show. On either side of Saint Teresa, he depicts members of the Cornaro family (the family that commissioned the work) observing the scene from faux balconies that resemble theatre boxes. These sculptural reliefs depict the figures in vehement conversation with each other, as implied by their diverse sight-lines. This implies that Bernini himself was perfectly aware of the provocative reaction his work incited; he is taunting the viewer. The second figure from the right (sitting in the theatre box to the right of Saint Teresa) is Federico Cornaro, the Cadinal of Venice with important ties to Rome, and the patron who paid for the Cornaro Chapel and who commissioned Bernini to execute the sculptural ensemble. The rest of the figures are posthumous portraits of other members of the Cornaro family.
The figures emerge from a very convincing depiction of depth and concavity that has been rendered with a receding perspectival sculptural relief. Faux fabrics, executed in bronze and black marble, fall from the theatre boxes, completing the illusion.
This work of art is definitely one of the most complex installation pieces of art to have been executed at the time. I absolutely love and cherish this work due to the fact that it is so much more than a sculptural ensemble; it is an experience.