Ecstasy Of St Teresa Analysis Essay

For the Czech band, see The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (band).

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (alternatively Saint Teresa in Ecstasy or Transverberation of Saint Teresa; in Italian: L'Estasi di Santa Teresa or Santa Teresa in estasi) is the central sculptural group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of his day, who also designed the setting of the Chapel in marble, stucco and paint. It is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It pictures Teresa of Ávila.


The entire ensemble was overseen and completed by a mature Bernini during the Pamphili papacy of Innocent X. When Innocent acceded to the papal throne, he shunned Bernini’s artistic services; the sculptor had been the favourite artist of the previous and profligate Barberini pope. Without papal patronage, the services of Bernini's studio were therefore available to a patron such as the Venetian herto unremarkable church of the Discalced Carmelites for his burial chapel.[1] The selected site for the chapel was the left transept that had previously held an image of ‘St. Paul in Ecstasy’, which was replaced by Bernini’s dramatization of a religious experience undergone and related by the first Discalced Carmelite saint, who had been canonised not long before, in 1622.[2] It was completed in 1652 for the then princely sum of 12,000 scudi.[3]

Sculptural group and its setting[edit]

The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by Teresa of Avila, a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun, in her autobiography, ‘The Life of Teresa of Jesus’ (1515–1582). Her experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel is described as follows:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.[4]

The group is illuminated by natural light which filters through a hidden window in the dome of the surrounding aedicule, and underscored by gilded stucco rays. Teresa is shown lying on a cloud indicating that this is intended to be a divine apparition we are witnessing. Other witnesses appear on the side walls; life-size high-reliefdonor portraits of male members of the Cornaro family, e.g. Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, are present and shown discussing the event in boxes as if at the theatre. Although the figures are executed in white marble, the aedicule, wall panels and theatre boxes are made from coloured marbles. Above, the vault of the Chapel is frescoed with an illusionistic cherub-filled sky with the descending light of the Holy Ghost allegorized as a dove.

The art historian Rudolf Wittkower has written:

In spite of the pictorial character of the design as a whole, Bernini differentiated between various degrees of reality, the members of the Cornaro Chapel seem to be alive like ourselves. They belong to our space and our world. The supernatural event of Teresa’s vision is raised to a sphere of its own, removed from that of the beholder mainly by virtue of the isolating canopy and the heavenly light.[5]


The effects are theatrical,[6] the Cornaro family seeming to observe the scene from their boxes,[7] and the chapel illustrates a moment where divinity intrudes on an earthly body. Caroline Babcock speaks of Bernini's melding of sensual and spiritual pleasure in the "orgiastic" grouping as both intentional and influential on artists and writers of the day.[8] Irving Lavin said "the transverberation becomes a point of contact between earth and heaven, between matter and spirit".[9] As Bernini biographer Franco Mormando points out, although Bernini's point of departure for his depiction of Teresa's mystical experience was her own description, there were many details about the experience that she never specifies (e.g., the position of her body) and that Bernini simply supplied from his own artistic imagination, all with an aim of increasing the nearly transgressively sensual charge of the episode: "Certainly no other artist, in rendering the scene before of after Bernini dared as much in transforming the saint's appearance."[10]

Similar works by Bernini[edit]

Influencing or influenced works[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^He had reason to avoid burial in Venice, since his appointment as a cardinal by Urban VIII while his father Giovanni was Doge had created a furor in his home-city, which banned families from holding such powerful positions simultaneously.
  2. ^See Boucher B. p135
  3. ^Corresponding to c. $120,000 Italian Baroque Sculpture : Books : Thames & HudsonArchived 2005-12-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^Chapter XXIX; Part 17, Teresa's Autobiography
  5. ^Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600–1750, Pelican History of Art, 1980, p. 160
  6. ^Thomas H. Greer, Gavin Lewis. A Brief History of the Western World. Thompson 2005 p 392
  7. ^"Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa". Khan Academy. 
  8. ^caroline babcock. "Caroline Babcock". 
  9. ^Boucher, B. p138.
  10. ^Franco Mormando, 'Bernini: His Life and His Rome' (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 164.
  11. ^"Web Gallery of Art, image collection, virtual museum, searchable database of European fine arts (1000-1900)". 
  12. ^Official Site Borghese Gallery Bernini – Truth Unveiled by TimeArchived 2005-10-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2011-10-20. 
  14. ^"A Field Guide to Occurrences of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest - Infinite Detox". Infinite Detox. 
  15. ^"Banksy". 

External links[edit]

Media related to Ecstasy of Saint Theresa at Wikimedia Commons

Wider view, including the Cornaro portraits, but omitting the lower parts of the chapel
  • The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini

  • The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini

  • The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa is considered by many as the apogee of Bernini's oeuvre and is notable for the following qualities;

Bernini's St. Theresa is often described as a gesamtkunstwerk (a German word meaning "total work of art") for the artist's incorporation of a variety of elements: sculpture, painting, and lighting effects all presented in a theatrical setting.

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa is not just a sculpture, but a total environment: Bernini designed the entire chapel, creating a veritable stage set complete with sculpted audience members.

Although some art historians insist that Bernini could not possibly have intended to imbue this subject with an erotic energy, as that would have been inconceivably heretical for that time, in reality the concupiscent implications of this work are unmistakable: the beautiful, bare-chested young angle gently opens Theresa's dress, preparing to penetrate her with his arrow, while the saint throws back her head with an expression of ecstasy.

The sensuality of the piece is directly inspired by St. Theresa's own writings, in which she describes her mystical experiences in overtly erotic terms;

"... Beside me, on the left hand, 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 ... 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 then 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 ..."

Baroque grandeur:
Even more so than in his previous works, in The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa Bernini takes the principles of the Baroque (drama, emotion, theatricality) to unknown heights. Note the emphasis on the dramatic qualities of light, as well as the virtuoso and utterly fantastic mass of fluttering draperies.


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