Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome)

Saint Teresa

Canonized (made a saint by the Church) largely for the spritual visions she experienced, Teresa of Ávila was a nun who lived in 16th century Spain, at the height of the Reformation. She wrote about her visions in several books, including this description of the scene Bernini depicted:
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.
Saint Teresa describes an intensely spiritual encounter in physical, even sexual terms. Why? We know that an important goal of Baroque art is to involve the viewer.   Teresa explained her vision in this way to help us understand her extraordinary experience.   After all, being visited by an angel and filled with the love of God is no common event.  How can we, caught up in the realities of life, hope to understand the intensity and passion of her vision if not put in terms of our own human experiences?
Gian Lorenzo Bernini,  Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–1652, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

The Cornaro Chapel

When we look at Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, we must consider the space that surrounds it.  The grouping in the centerpiece of the Cornaro Chapel, named for the Cornaro family who commissioned the chapel and hired Bernini to decorate it.
Members of the Cornaro family, with the patron Federico Cornaro shown second from the right (detail), Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645-52 (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome)
When we walk toward the chapel, we see what look like theater boxes on the walls on either side. In these boxes, seated figures appear to be talking and gesturing to each other. Perhaps they are kneeling in prayer as they watch and discuss the scene of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa displayed before them.
Who are these figures in the theater boxes? One is Federico Cornaro, Cardinal of Venice and the patron who paid for the Cornaro Chapel. The others are posthumous portraits of members of the Cornaro family (many of them were also Cardinals). Behind them Bernini created a fabulous illusion of architecture—a coffered barrel vault, doorway and columns.
If we follow the metaphor of a theater, it feels as though we've got the best seats in the house!  And importantly, what's happened is that we have immediately become a part of the work of art.  It surrounds us, and we are literally inside of it.  This is, as we have seen, a typical feature of Baroque art—breaking down the barrier between the work and the viewer —to involve us.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional resources:
Loading