“The pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but at the same time I felt such an infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever. It was not physical but psychic pain, although it affected the body as well to some degree. It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God.”

This is how Saint Teresa describes her heart being pierced by an angel with a golden arrow. How is it possible for an artist to turn this powerful text into an image? Such a complex set of emotions is hard enough to be described in text, how can it be demonstrated in a piece of marble? Between the years 1645 and 1652 Gianlorenzo Bernini managed to do this with a great skill, and created one of the most dramatic sculptures in history. The point in which we see the two figures, the angel and the saint, is not only the climax of the story but also the very middle of the action. It is the very instance in which the feeling described above is felt. The facial expressions are so detailed that they portray the exact emotions experienced by the figures. The whole scene is so dramatic that it might have been a part of a Shakespearean play. Adding to the overall dramatic feel of this sculpture is the great craftsmanship demonstrated on it; the cloth, hair, wings and skin look exactly like in real life.

    Her original name was Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, and her chosen name as a nun was Theresa of Jesus. She came of a well-to-do noble family. She entered the Carmelite order (possibly in 1536). Much later she underwent (c.1555) a “second conversion,” after which she experienced mystic visions. She had entertained a desire to found a house of reformed Carmelites (the Discalced, or Barefoot, Carmelites, living in strict observance of the rule) long before she had the opportunity in 1562 to found the Convent of St. Joseph in Ávila. Other foundations were made, and in the busy years that followed she traveled much to the various houses. She also founded convents of friars, having as her collaborator another great mystic, St. John of the Cross...

    The writings of St. Theresa have gained a steadily widening audience from the 16th cent. to the present; in 1970 Pope Paul VI named St. Theresa a Doctor of the Church, the first woman so honored. The Castilian in which St. Theresa wrote stems from common speech, and the imagery is rich but simple. Candor and overflowing spiritual strength lend a greater beauty to the sometimes terse, sometimes discursive expressions. Her works were dominated by love of God and characterized by humor, intelligence, and common sense.
    Theresa, Saint (Theresa of Ávila, Life and Literary Work

The age of Baroque art has been identified as the Catholic reaction to the advance of Protestantism. Baroque doubtless had papal Rome as its birthplace. Between the pontificates of Paul III from 1534 to 1549 and of Sixtus V in the 1580’s, the popes led a successful military, diplomatic, and theological campaign against Protestantism. The Decrees of the Council of Trent planted the seeds of the Baroque in its dictates to artist. Efforts were made to draw Protestants back to the Catholic Church and they desired art to depict a clear meaning. Baroque styles were quite different from those of the Renaissance. Baroque possessed the same poses and gestures of Mannerism and sometimes combined with colored marbles and trompe l'oeil imitations. It is dynamic while Renaissance styles are relatively static. While naturalism thrived, Classicism was revised and further developed, and the two styles divided the tastes of the age with a third; the dynamic colorful, sensuous style characteristic of Reuben and Bernini.

Much of Giovanni Bernini’s inexhaustible career was devoted to the adornment of St Peter’s where his works unite sculpture with architecture and this exemplified the Councils orders. His artistic training was completed in Rome, where he worked all his life as official artist of the Popes and for the most significant noble families in Rome. The blueprint of St Peter’s, which had been evolving since the days of Bramante and Michelangelo, had engaged all the leading architects of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, was completed for the most part by Bernini. Although he was a great and influential architect his fame lies primarily on his sculpture, which, like his architecture, expresses the Baroque spirit to perfection. It’s expansive and dramatic and the component of time plays an important role in it.

One of the objectives of Baroque art was to stimulate an emotional response in the viewer. The Jesuits had a strong influence on art and architecture through the teachings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola advocating that the spiritual experience of the mysteries of the Catholic faith be deeply imagined, so much so as to be perceptible to the eye. Perhaps this is the reason why the themes of repentance, conversion and ecstasy were well liked in the religious art in both Catholic and Protestant countries. The unrestrained quality of baroque art and its refusal to limit itself to firmly defined spatial settings are met in The Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. In this chapel, Bernini draws on the full possessions of architecture, sculpture and painting to indict the entire area with crosscurrents of striking tension.

St Theresa was a nun of the Carmelite Order and one of the great mystical saints of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Her conversion took place after the death of her father, when she fell into a series of trances, saw visions and heard voices:

    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 . . . 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 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 can not 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.
Feeling an unrelenting pain in her side she came to believe that its cause was the fire-tipped dart of Divine love which an angel had thrust into her breast and she expressed as making her swoon in delightful anguish:
    The pain was so great that I screamed aloud but at the same time I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever. It was not physical but psychic pain, although it affected the body as well to some degree. It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God.
This was interpreted at the time and ever since as a spiritual transport sexually expressed. Bernini employs the whole chapel as a theater for the production of this transcendental drama. The niche in which the holy event takes place is a proscenium crowned with a broken Baroque pediment and ornamented with polychrome marble. On either side of the chapel, portraits of the both living and dead members of the Cornaro family in sculptured opera boxes represent an audience as voyeurs watching the denouement of the heavenly moment with intense piety. Spectators are involved in the experience too, in which all the faithful are invited to participate as a member of the audience. Bernini shows the saint in ecstasy unmistakably a mingling of spiritual and physical passion, swooning back on a cloud, with an expression full of light and happiness the angel aims an arrow as his left hand holds the dress fabric with the same delicacy that echoes Michelangelo’s Pieta.

The group is of white marble, and the artist goes to extreme intelligence in his management of textures in an attempt to balance naturalism with allegory: the clouds, rough monk’s cloth, gauzy material, contrast against the smooth flesh of angel and saint and represents their joined and divine purity. The angel’s feathery wings are all carefully differentiated, yet harmonized in visual and imaginative effect.

Light is the disguised element that Bernini uses to heighten this implied drama. From a hidden window the Holy Spirit rains down bronze rays intended to be seen as bursting forth from a painting of Heaven from the vault above. Several tons of marble seems to float in a haze of light, the winds of Heaven buoying draperies as the cloud ascends. It represents a sense of the infinite; space light and time. The remote mysteries of religion, taking a recognizable form, descend to meet the human world halfway, within the conventions of Baroque art and theatre. Bernini had much to do with the institution of the principles of visual illusion that guided both. He was perfectly familiar with the writing of plays, theatrical productions and stagecraft. In addition to the sculpture, and the balconies of family members engaged in meditation or disputes, there is a fresco of the Holy Ghost and angels in the vault. Color and light, spreading through the marble, the decorations, the fresco, along with the sense of theatrical action conveyed through the rays falling on Teresa come from the Holy Ghost, pulls together the whole scheme. The young English traveler, John Evelyn, sojourning to Rome in 1644, wrote:

    Bernini, a Florentine sculpture, architect, painter, and poet, gave a public opera . . . wherein he painted scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy and built the theatre.
The community of Baroque arts is reflected in the universal genius of Bernini and given his virtuosity, versatility, and the vast output, one should not suppose that he carried out his work unaided. He presided over whole companies of assistants who performed the heavy manual labor involved in rough shaping of the stone, transferring the figure from clay model to marble rock, cutting the main forms and outlines, casting the bronze. The critical tasks were always under the supervision of the master, who would direct each stage of production and place the finishing touches himself. Ruff Wittkower observed:
    in a critical study if Bernini’s work, one would have to differentiate between works designed by him and executed by his own hand; those to a greater or lesser extent carried out by him; others where he firmly held the reins but contributed little or nothing to the execution; and finally, those works for which he did no more that a few preliminary sketches.

In the Catholic countries, every device of art is used to stimulate pious emotion sometimes to the pitch of rapture. The papacy of that era was intent on systemizing and ingraining orthodox Catholic doctrine and the Council of Trent firmly resisted Protestant objections to the use of images in religious worship. Mysticism is often associated with a loss of control, an affliction reserved for religious fanatics or the insane. Artists and saints may also be assigned to these categories. Women like Theresa of Avila have been considered by some, to be quite mad, therefore dangerous. But to claim one's spiritual life and then to practice it is a measure of one's faith. To an unbeliever this may seem far-fetched, but to a Protestant then, because the sculpture’s sexual overtones invited a psychological interpretation many considered Bernini’s work distasteful.

Amid this historical relationship between God, this sixteenth century nun, Bernini's interpretation of her trances and the resulting sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; one can easily get caught up in the moment while viewing the relationship between divinity and humanity. Bernini unveils the human spirit within a religious union with St Theresa’s God that celebrates the fervor and pleasure of female holiness. This isn't your garden-variety encounter, but one whose ecstatic charge has the power of the Almighty behind it. It's almost enough to make a girl want to run out and become a Carmelite! The point of Baroque art was part and parcel of furthering the mission and goals of the Catholic Counter-Reformation were to draw Protestants back to the Catholic Church. His work is at its heart a fundamentally Catholic vision and response to the Protestant reformation. If Protestantism called for austerity, in life, emotions, and art, the counter-reformation responded with increased emotionality. When Bernini captured these moments of ecstasy and transformation, they become metaphors of conversion to Catholicism. Never before had a sculpture conveyed the intense spiritual experience in such a provocative and outrageous way.

Bernini accurately foresaw that his standing would decline after his death. For the Neoclassical taste of the eighteenth century his advance in sculpture was and abomination, to John Ruskin in the nineteenth century it seemed 'impossible for false taste and base feeling to sink lower', and to the supporters of the idea of 'truth to materials' in the twentieth century he materialized, in the words of his most well-known apologist, Rudolf Wittkower, as 'Antichrist personified'. In the centuries after his death in 1680, his genius was downplayed and his works derided. The unabashedly physical connections of spirit and nature of the Ecstasy aroused impassioned associations and generated moral reservations from many during the second half of the eighteenth century; however, it was on par with the contemporary artists and is perhaps the single greatest example of Baroque from seventeenth century Italy. Bernini’s summative art was the Catholic rejoinder to the Protestant reformation, using emotions at their most severe to respond to the austerity of Protestantism. It was called the counter-reformation and its heroes and heroines were Catholic saints caught by Bernini in the act of conversion. It is only of late that he has come to benefit from a status, equivalent with his position in his lifetime, as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo and one of the giants of Baroque architecture.


Theresa, Saint (Theresa of Ávila),The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.
Accessed August 12, 2005.

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Cornaro Chapel, Rome:

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

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