Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa
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.
Located above the altar of the Cornaro Chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa represents an episode from the life of the saint as recorded in her spiritual autobiography. Teresa describes an angel carrying a fire-tipped spear with which he pierces her heart repeatedly, an act that sends her into a state of spiritual rapture. “The pain,” she writes, “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 then content with anything but God.” (The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself, Chapter 29)
Bernini’s sculptural group shows a cupid-like angel holding an arrow. His delicate touch and lithe figure give him an air of grace. With her head thrown back and eyes closed, Teresa herself collapses, overcome with the feeling of God’s love. Her physical body seems to have dematerialized beneath the heavy drapery of her robe. Twisting folds of fabric energize the scene and bronze rays, emanating from an unseen source, seem to rain down divine light. The combined effect is one of intense drama, the ethereality of which denies the true nature of the work of art. Despite being made of heavy marble, saint and angel—set upon a cloud—appear to float weightlessly.
A complete understanding of the aesthetic impact and spiritual significance of the Ecstasy can only be gained in the context of the larger space of the chapel. The work is, in fact, not an independent piece, but the crucial center of a more complex composition that brings together not only sculpture, but also painting and architecture—all designed by Bernini. The dark, patterned marble columns and convex niche in which the Ecstasyis framed, for example, enhance the brightness and dynamism of the scene, while giving the sense that the wall has opened up to reveal St. Teresa’s vision. We are, in a way, looking at a vision of a vision, one that Bernini has created for the faithful who worship at the altar and for the Cornaro family in particular. On each wall perpendicular to the altar wall, an illusionistic window contains sculptural likenesses of family members, some of whom lean over the parapet in the direction of Bernini’s work, rapt witnesses to the miracle.
Expert Perspective: Edward J. Sullivan, Professor of Fine Arts, New York University
“The instance of a single image that appears time and time again in multiple artists’ work is also something that fascinates me. For example, the saint in ecstasy. Bernini, who was greatly admired by many of the Spanish artists who went to Italy and saw his works, is perhaps the quintessential example of a seventeenth-century Baroque creator of ecstasies in art. And the most outstanding of his creations of ecstasy is, I think, the sculptural group that is created to observe the ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Saint Teresa had reverberations all across Europe in the later half of the seventeenth century.”
Boucher, Bruce. Italian Baroque Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Careri, Giovanni, and Linda Lappin. Bernini: Flights of Love, the Art of Devotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Harris, Ann S. Art and Architecture of the Seventeenth Century Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin, 1991.
Wittkower, Rudolph. Bernini, 4th ed. London: Phaidon, 1997.