Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

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

This is Saint Teresa’s description of the event that Bernini depicts:

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.Teresa of Ávila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1562–65)



Additional resources

Read about this work in the Reframing Art History chapter “The sacred baroque in the Catholic world.”

Teresa of Avila, The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, Chapter XXIX: Of Visions—The Graces our Lord bestowed on the Saint—The Answers our Lord gave her for those who tried her.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Santa Maria della Vittoria,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] Not all artists that produce religious work are themselves religious, but an exception to that was Bernini.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] 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 religious faith and his interest in theater in “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] Within the Cornaro Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. It’s important to think about the sculpture with the architecture, because Bernini was both a sculptor and an architect.

Dr. Harris: [0:37] And he brought together not only sculpture and architecture but also painting.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] There’s fresco up on the ceiling and there’s stained glass and gilding. It really is an entire installation piece.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] He used whatever means he could to involve the viewer.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] And to inspire faith in the miraculous, and that’s precisely what this is about. The subject matter is “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” a woman who had recently been made a saint, who is here having one of her not-so-uncommon visions of an angel.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] She was canonized in 1622. 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”: “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 seem to be all on fire.

“[1:31] 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.

“[1:51] 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.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:07] That last line is especially important. Both the text that you just read and Bernini’s approach use the physical body and sexual symbolism to get at the spiritual experience.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] We don’t have visions. You, I, most people don’t, but St. Teresa was blessed. We need to understand Saint Teresa’s spiritual visions by means of a metaphor involving the body. This made her moan. This was a physical experience.

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] Bernini has translated that relationship between the physical and the spiritual into stone. We see this gorgeous angel, who’s plunging that arrow that she spoke of with its iron tip, pointing it right at her. You can see her body writhing under the heavy cloth.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] He has this sweet, angelic smile on his face. His body is graceful. There’s such a difference in that gauze fabric that he wears.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] 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.

Dr. Harris: [3:11] 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 such different textures.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] It’s almost impossible to remember this is marble.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] The whole thing seems to float in midair.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] He’s done that by supporting it from quite a deep recess, so that everything underneath is in shadow and the miraculous is expressed. This is the Counter-Reformation. This is a moment when Protestants in the north are revolting against the Catholics.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] The Protestants said that we should have a personal relationship with God, that we didn’t need all that ceremony of the church.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] What Bernini’s doing here, cleverly, is using all of that pomp and ceremony, all the fabulous gold, all of the marble, to express a direct relationship between an individual and the spiritual realm.

Dr. Harris: [3:57] The main thing that Baroque art does is it involves the viewer. Here, Bernini does that in a number of ways.

[4:02] 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 part of the work of art.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] Look at the way that the broken pediment, this stage-like space, seems to open up, as if the marble is moving to reveal this intimate image and to give us a sense of the specialness of our vantage point.

[4:29] The figures on the upper left and the upper right are curious. They are, like us, 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. Federico Cornaro was a cardinal in Venice but had important ties to Rome.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] If we look way up, we can see that there’s [a] fresco on the ceiling of the chapel that shows the Holy Spirit, a white dove, and light is emanating from that. And it seems as if the light that’s pouring down on these two figures is coming from the Holy Spirit.

[5:09] Bernini is a dramatist and is a stage craftsman. He’s using all of his tricks to make this happen.

Dr. Harris: [5:15] 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. Bernini’s doing everything he can to make us feel this moment, this spiritual vision in our bodies. We often think about how Baroque art appeals to our senses.

Dr. Zucker: [5:34] This is about change. It’s about metamorphosis. It’s about spiritual awakening. And it is incredibly powerful, emotionally.

Dr. Harris: [5:40] It’s about that union of our world with the spiritual.

[5:45] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa," in Smarthistory, July 19, 2015, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bernini-ecstasy-of-st-teresa/.