The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a marble and gilded bronze sculpture created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1645 and 1652. It is located in the Cornaro Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The sculpture depicts Teresa of Ávila, a Spanish Carmelite nun and saint, in a moment of religious ecstasy. It is generally considered to be one of the masterpieces of the Roman Baroque.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is a white marble sculptural group located in an aedicule in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. It theatrically interprets a mystical episode described by the Saint in her autobiography: her transverberation.
The term ‘transverberation’ derives from the Latin ‘trans verberare’, meaning ‘to pierce’. It indicates an episode of mystical ecstasy in which Christ, or an angel physically pierces the heart of the faithful with a sharp object. The hurled dart is a symbol of divine love.
Bernini interprets the exact scene of transverberation: St. Teresa of Avila is semi-reclining above a cloud that transports her up into the sky, wearing a vaporous robe that blends with the clouds. Above her then, on the left, a Cherubim shoots a dart to strike her, delicately moving the fabric of her robe.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa was commissioned to Bernini by Cardinal Federico Corner, who was building his family’s chapel in the left transept of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. The iconographic choice of Saint Teresa of Ávila is explained by her recent canonization. Moreover, her cult was significant during the period of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The nun had founded the order of the Discalced Carmelites and had been a witness and protagonist of mystical episodes.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicts the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila in the period of the Counter-Reformation. The aim of the Catholic Church in the 17th century was to reconsolidate its influence after the Schism and to bring the faithful back to catholic doctrine. The methods to bring proselytes back were those of persuasion, also through images, and of arousing wonder and engagement through art.
The program of renewal also passed through art, which was spurred on to an increasingly spectacular and theatrical language.
Bernini was the greatest interpreter of the Baroque taste for theatricality and exalted the emotional aspect of his sculptures.
The artist also worked as a stage designer and also simulates a kind of spectacle in the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, turning the space of the chapel into a kind of theatre. The setting on a raised aedicule makes the entire composition theatrical as if the saint were placed on a stage.
Bernini, to scenically illuminate the sculptural group, opened a window in the back wall of the church. In this way, the light hit the figures from above, like a spotlight, and made the atmosphere vibrant.
The transformation of the chapel into a theatre becomes literal with the creation of “stages” on either side of the altar in which half-length figures of the Corner family are sculpted. The private and fleeting event of the saint’s ecstasy thus becomes a public event, which the spectators seem to witness. Moreover, it fulfills the function of emotional involvement, required by the Counter-Reformation Church
Other scholars, such as Maria Bonaparte, have also provided psychoanalytic interpretations of the sculptural group and more generally of the stories of transverberating episodes narrated by St. Teresa. Mystical ecstasy has been interpreted as an erotic impulse sublimated by spiritual afflatus. Some critics have gone so far as to speak of Bernini’s depiction of ‘sacred eroticism’ for this work.
Bernini is famous for his marble sculptural groups and his theatrical and dynamic scenes. The most famous is the series of masterpieces created for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s gallery in Rome, like the Aeneas and Anchises in 1618-19, the Rape of Proserpine in 1621-22, the David of 1623 and the Apollo and Daphne of 1622-25. All the sculptures are characterized, like St. Teresa, by audacious poses, the tension of the musculature, and engaging pathos.
What is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bel composto?
The art historian Filippo Baldinucci coined the expression ‘bel composto’ (translated as ‘fine combination’) referring to Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1682. The term indicated the ability of the artist to fuse painting, sculpture , and architecture into a single work of art. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is also a combination of different disciplines: sculpture, architecture, and theatrical scenography.