EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52)
One of the greatest sculptures from the era of Baroque art, the marble ensemble known as The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (L'Estasi di Santa Teresa), located in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, was carved by Bernini (1598-1680), one of the leading Baroque sculptors of the Roman school. A deliberately intense work of Christian art, it is regarded as one of the most important examples of the Counter-Reformation style of Baroque sculpture, designed to convey spiritual aspects of the Catholic faith. The work depicts an episode of "religious ecstasy" in the life of the cloistered Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun - Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) - as described in her autobiography "The Life of Teresa of Jesus". Despite its status as a key work of religious art, critics of the work are divided as to whether Teresa is experiencing an intense state of divine joy, or a physical orgasm. Indeed some devout contemporary observers expressed outrage that Bernini would debase such a holy experience by depicting it in a sexual way. However, Professor Robert Harbison, in his book Reflections on Baroque (2000, University of Chicago Press), has poured doubt on the notion that Bernini, a follower of St. Ignatius of Loyola, intended any such thing. Instead, he believes that Bernini used the erotic character of the experience as a springboard to a new and higher type of spiritual awakening. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is a key work in establishing Bernini as one of the greatest sculptors in the history of art.
Bernini - then the leading sculptor in Rome - worked on the sculpture from 1647 to 1652, during the reign of the Pamphili Pope, Innocent X (1644-55), from whom he received no patronage, owing to his lengthy close relationship with Innocent's predecessor, the extravagant Urban VIII (1623-44). At any rate, Bernini received the commission from the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro (15791673), who had selected the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria of the discalced (or "barefoot") Carmelites as the site for his burial chapel. The chapel's interior, a stunning combination of architecture as well as, sculpture and painting, was also designed by Bernini, with his sculpture of St. Theresa as its centrepiece. Bernini's fee was 12,000 scudi, an enormous sum at the time.
Essentially, Bernini designed the chapel as a theatre for his sculpture. The latter is set in a niche above and behind the altar, flanked by pairs of marble columns. It is theatrically illuminated by beams of natural light from a hidden window overhead. This natural light mingles with and reflects off a sheaf of vertical gilt bronze shafts behind the sculpture, sculpted to resemble the rays of the sun. High above, the ceiling of the Chapel is frescoed with trompe l'oeil images of a sky filled with cherubs.
The sculpture of Saint Teresa actually consists of two figures, sculpted in white marble: Teresa herself, shown lying on a cloud, and an angel standing above her, holding a golden spear pointed at Teresa's heart.
This sculptural group portrays Teresa's experience of religious ecstasy, as described in her autobiography, when an angel appeared before her with a golden spear: "He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, 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." [Note that Teresa expresses her intense desire for God in the language of erotic passion, an approach which is part of the long tradition of what is called "bridal mysticism".]
To represent the true intensity of Teresa's experience, Bernini shows her swooning in near-erotic rapture, with eyes closed and mouth open, and both her visible limbs hanging limp. The ruffled, heavy drapery of her clothing adds to the movement and drama of the scene, and the texture of the fabric contrasts with the purity of her face. The childlike angel looks lovingly at Teresa as he prepares to pierce her heart with his spear of divine love, completing her mystical union with God.
To formalize and "authenticate" the scene as a genuine spiritual experience approved by the Catholic Church, Bernini added two groups of "witnesses" carved in life-size relief sculpture to either side of Tereasa. The first group, composed of four male members of the Cornaro family, is located to the left of the altar as if in a box at the theatre. A second group, consisting of male representatives of church and state are located to the right.
The traditional interpretation of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is relatively straightforward. The sculpture portrays the Saint's overpowering sense of spiritual pleasure in serving Christ. Bernini employs imagery which suggests sensual pleasure, but only in order to convey the tangible nature of Teresa's experience - a manifestation of her love of God and her yearning for spiritual union with him. The work is consistent with the aims of the Catholic Counter-Reformation art campaign, which sought to convey the mysteries of Catholicism as cogently as possible.
To begin with, the Cornaro Chapel is beautifully designed as a showcase for Saint Teresa. Its spatial construction, use of light, trompe l'oeil mural painting, along with the marble, gilded wood and gilt bronze materials used, is a perfect vehicle for such an expression of piety. The marble sculpture itself - its whiteness contrasting with the polychrome marble surround - precisely poised above the altar as if it were a divine occurrence in mid-air, is a perfect combination of movement and stillness. Yet the drapery also conveys the "agitation" of the swooning nun. And Bernini's incredible attention to detail is clearly visible in the meticulous carving of the little finger of the Angel's left hand, and the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Following the death of Innocent and the accession of Alexander VII (1655-67) to the papacy, Bernini was restored to prominence. It enabled him to focus on Baroque architecture - notably on his famous project to rebuild the square in front of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, where pilgrims gathered to receive the Pope's blessing - and on the construction of his two finest churches - S. Andrea al Quirinale, and S. Maria dell'Assunzione, Ariccia, in Rome. All of which greatly enhanced his reputation as one of the top Baroque architects in the city.
Here are a few of Bernini's most famous sculptures.
- St John the Baptist (1615) Sant'Andrea
della Valle, Rome
Francesco Mochi (1580-1654)
Sculptures by Bernini can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.
For more about Baroque sculpture in Rome, see: Homepage.