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Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
STEVEN ZUCKER: Not all artists who produce religious work are themselves religious. But an exception to that was Bernini. BETH HARRIS: Bernini was deeply religious, but he was also especially interested in the theater. He did set designs, he wrote plays, and he brought together his deep religious faith and his interest in theater here in this great masterpiece, "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." STEVEN ZUCKER: Within the Cornaro Chapel. Within the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria It's important to think about this sculpture with the architecture, because Bernini was both a sculptor and an architect. BETH HARRIS: And you could say he brought together not only sculpture and architecture here but also painting, because he's using colored marble. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's also fresco up on the ceiling and the stained glass, and you've got gilding. And so it really is an entire installation piece. BETH HARRIS: He used whatever means he could to do what all Baroque art tried to do, and that is to involve the viewer to inspire faith. STEVEN ZUCKER: And to inspire faith again in the miraculous. And that's precisely what this is about. The subject matter is the ecstasy of Saint Teresa. That is a woman who had recently been canonized, been made a Saint, who is here having one of her not so uncommon visions of an angel. BETH HARRIS: That's right. She was canonized in 1622, and she wrote accounts of the visions that she had of angels. I can read the one that Bernini used for "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." STEVEN ZUCKER: Please do. BETH HARRIS: "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 ranks of angels, who seemed 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 to 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 me 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." STEVEN ZUCKER: That last line is especially important. Both the text that you just read and Bernini's approach used the physical body and a kind of sexual symbolism to get at the spiritual experience. BETH HARRIS: That's right. To represent it for us we need to understand Saint Teresa's spiritual visions by means of a metaphor. And that's all we have. We don't have visions, you and I. Most people don't. But Saint Teresa was blessed. The only way that Bernini and Saint Teresa herself could explain that to us was by a metaphor involving the body. This made her moan. This was a physical experience. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so Bernini has translated that relationship between the physical and the spiritual into stone. And if we look, for instance, at the two figures we see this gorgeous angel who's plunging that arrow that she spoke of with its iron tip, pointing it right at her. And you can see her body writhing under the heavy cloth. BETH HARRIS: He has this very sweet, angelic smile on his face. His body is very graceful. There's such a difference in that gauze fabric he wears. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, look at the way the wind seems to whip it around his body, creating this fabulous torsion in such contrast to the heavy quality of the cloth that she wears. She is of the Earth. He is of the heavens. BETH HARRIS: And that also in contrast to the feathers that we can almost feel in his wings. Bernini is using marble, the same substance for all of these, but making them seem such different textures. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, it's almost impossible to remember this is marble, in fact. BETH HARRIS: Especially because the whole thing seems to float in midair. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, he's done that by supporting it from quite a deep recess so that everything underneath is in shadow, and the miraculous is expressed. You know, this is the Counter Reformation. This is a moment when Protestants in the north are revolting against the Catholics, and are saying that the pomp and the ceremony of the Catholic tradition is not necessary. It gets in the way. BETH HARRIS: The Protestants said that we should have a personal relationship with God, that we didn't need all that ceremony of the church. STEVEN ZUCKER: And what Bernini is doing here very cleverly is in fact using all that pomp and ceremony, all the fabulous gold, all of the marble here to express a direct relationship between an individual and the spiritual realm. BETH HARRIS: Giving us a kind of dramatic access to that. And the main thing that Baroque art always does is it involves the viewer, and here Bernini does that in a number of ways. He's not just thinking about the sculpture of Saint Teresa and the angel, but about the whole space of the chapel, because on either side we see relief sculptures of figures that look like they're in theater boxes, as though we were part of an audience. So we become immediately part of the work of art. STEVEN ZUCKER: Look at the way that the broken pediment, this sort of proscenium, this stage-like space literally seems to open up as if the marble is moving to reveal this very intimate image, and to give us a sense of the specialness of our vantage point. But the figures on the upper left and the upper right are very curious. They are like us in that they are seeing this sacred event. But they're not like us because they are the patron and the family of the patrons. This is the Cornaro Chapel. And Frederico Cornaro was a cardinal in Venice, but had important ties to Rome. BETH HARRIS: So we have Teresa and the angel on a cloud appearing to float in the air with rays of gold that seem to be mysteriously illuminated from above. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, we're in the church looking at the chapel in the late afternoon in the summer, and the light does seem to be miraculously pouring down on these figures from above. And if we look way up we can see that this fresco on the ceiling of the chapel that shows the Holy Spirit, a white dove, and light is emanating from that. And it almost seems as if the light that's pouring down on these two figures is coming from the Holy Spirit. But Bernini, remember, is a dramatist, and remember, is a stage craftsman. And he's using all of his tricks to make this happen. BETH HARRIS: And so the trick in this case is that there's a window hidden behind that broken pediment that shines light through and then down onto the sculpture. So Bernini's doing everything he can to make us walk up to this chapel and go [GASP] and feel this moment, this spiritual vision, in our bodies. You often think about how Baroque art appeals to our senses in a way that's so different from the high Renaissance and its appeal to the rational mind. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is not at all about the rational. This is about change. It's about metamorphosis. It's about spiritual awakening. And it is incredibly powerful emotionally. BETH HARRIS: It's about that union of our world with the spiritual.