The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (7 December 1598 – 28 November 1680)

Location: Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy

Dimensions: Life-size, Approximately 150cms.

Period: Baroque

Medium: White marble

Created: 1647–1652

In the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, The sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa can be seen which was designed and sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is considered as one of the greatest work of art from the Baroque Period.

The Baroque is a period of artistic style that started around 1600 in Rome, Italy, and spread throughout the majority of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The style used contrast, movement, emotional detail, deep colour, opulence and elements of astonishment to achieve a sense of awe. The Baroque style is characterized by embroidered motion and clear detail to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music.

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The piece depicts and is inspired from an episode of “religious ecstasy” in the life of the cloistered Spanish mystic and a Carmelite nun – Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), as described in her autobiography “The Life of Teresa of Jesus”. In which she describes her spiritual encounters with the angels and her love for God. St. Teresa writes,

“… 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 ranks 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 …”

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.

Bernini’s sculptural group shows a cupid-like angel holding an arrow. His delicate touch and supple figure give him an air of elegance. With her head thrown back and eyes closed, Teresa herself is in the way of collapsing, overcome with the feeling of God’s love. Her physical body seems to have lost its corporeal form underneath her robe. The combined effect is one of intense drama, and the visuals of the piece are stunning and ethereal. The sculpture although is made out of a medium as heavy as white marble, it seems to float and appear almost weightless.

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The sculpture is not an independent piece but is the fundamental centre of a much more complex composition that brings together the chapel’s other paintings, sculptures and architecture which was all designed and created by Bernini. It is almost like a theatrical setting, and to get a complete understanding of the aesthetic and spiritual significance of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa can only be achieved in the context of the larger area of the chapel.

Words: Rhiti Chatterjee Bose
Images: Click the images to visit the source websites.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information used here has been researched from the internet and the writer is aware that there is more information which has been left out due to the restrictions regarding the length of the article.

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