Saturday, 30 April 2011

Floating Marble: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini,  Ecstasy of St. Teresa ~ 1647-52
(Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria - Rome)
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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.” ~ Saint Teresa of Avila
(Source of quote:, undated)

These words, taken from the autobiography of the Sixteenth Century Spanish Carmelite saint and charismatic reformer, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), were the inspiration and reference point to one of Gian-Lorenzo Bernini's greatest masterpieces: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52). And what an ecstasy!

In the aptly accurate words of Robert Wallace, author of The World of Bernini: 1598-1680 (1970), Bernini, that quintessential Renaissance man whose genius knew no limits and who created sculptures that appealed “to the senses and emotions of the everyday world even when he portrays the miraculous, created the illusion of reality in The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa - an illusion no less miraculous for his ability to make stone seem to 'levitate' weightlessly. It is a work that could only have been achieved by the masterful hands - and imagination - of a great sculptor and visionary of Bernini's stature. According to another writer of an earlier time, Filippo Baldinucci, a contemporary of Gian-Lorenzo Bernini's, the sculptor liked to boast that “in his hands marble could become as impressionable as wax and as soft as dough. It also seems that, in his hands, stone could be made weightless and set afloat.

And therein lies the supreme genius of Bernini. For to precisely render in marble a specific moment from the recollections of a saint is no easy task; but then again, Bernini never hesitated or shirked away from a challenge such as this: to bring into existence a mystical moment and to express it  in rippling waves of stony folds.
(Quotes & sources: Wallace, R., The World of Bernini:1598-1680, 1970; Schama, S., When stone came to life,, September 16, 2006;, undated)

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As it happened, 1644 turned out to be a pivotal year for Bernini. That year, his greatest patron and staunchest supporter, Pope Urban VIII (pontificate: 1623-1644), died; and Bernini, due to earlier calamitous personal and professional circumstances (“a jealous rage caused him to have the face of his mistress slashed after discovering her romance with his brother. His reputation fell further after his bell towers for the Cathedral of St. Peter's started cracking in 1641”), had fallen into disfavour with the new pope, Clement X (pontificate: 1644-1655).
(Quote: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006)

The new pontiff favoured another architectural genius (and Bernini's arch-rival), Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). During this new pontificate, with his reputation on the wane and his name in disgrace, Bernini was free to undertake other commissions by private, wealthy patrons. It was around this time in his career, when he was no longer in favour and papal patronage ceased, that he accepted one such commission: to work on a private chapel. The patron was a respectable and fabulously wealthy Venetian, Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579-1673). Cardinal Federico and the Cornaro family presented Bernini with the biggest challenge of his career; but also the chance for a spectacular comeback.
(Quote & sources: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008)

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Soon after arriving in Rome in 1644, Cornaro chose Santa Maria della Vittoria, a nondescript church of the Discalced Carmelites, for his burial chapel (the Cornaro family were patrons of this austere order of nuns who were also known as the Barefoot Carmelites). And it was here that Bernini was commissioned, not only to conceive and execute the focal point over the high altar, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, but to redesign and redecorate the entire chapel - a monumental feat that took about five years to accomplish, from 1647-1652, but a challenge that proved to be Bernini's saving grace.
(Sources: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006; Wallace, R., The World of Bernini:1598-1680, 1970)

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Derived from Teresa of Avila's autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Bernini followed Teresa's own account of an event as she described it in a passage in her book: a mystical vision she had of a seraph angel. According to her memoirs, the smiling angel, standing beside her and holding a fiery-tipped golden arrow in his hand, proceeds to repeatedly plunge it into Teresa's heart. She describes this mystical experience as inflaming and consuming her soul with a great love of God. The sensuous figures of the writhing, ecstatic Teresa - her head tilted back, her eyes half-closed, and her mouth parted in an inaudible moan in complete submission and surrender to the Divine Rapture - cushioned on a cloud and the poised angel, ready and about to strike again, are depicted levitating above the altar among the undulating mass of their robes. It is this detached 'floating' effect that gives this carved stone its sense of weightlessness. Upon entering the chapel, a visitor has the feeling of having inadvertently intruded upon the beatific saint in the midst of a privately intimate, mystical moment. (Sources: Wittkower, R., Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, 1997; Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006)

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The construction of this chapel single-handedly resurrected the disgraced reputation of the Cavaliere Bernini in the eyes of the world. In essence, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and its surrounding chapel were Bernini's biggest gamble and his most resounding success; it was, to quote the art historian Simon Schama, “the most daring drama of the body that he or any other sculptor in the history of art had ever conceived, much less executed.” The Cornaro chapel was, in a sense, Bernini's triumphant return, the harbinger of the revival of his ignominious reputation; it reinstated him in the favour of Innocent X and the papacy ever after. From the BBC television series, Simon Schama's Power of Art (2006), it is worth noting Schama's description of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in which he describes it as “a moment of mind-boggling drama; a moment that wavers between mystery and indecency: the body of a saint penetrated. The arrow withdrawn from its passage, poised to strike again - her pain indistinguishable from pleasure. The gasping woman levitating, defying gravity on rippling cushions of stone.” Bernini considered the Cornaro Chapel to be his most beautiful work. (Quotes & source: Simon Schama's Power of Art, BBC, 2006) 

Thereafter, with his reputation reinstated, Bernini continued his indefatigable work and to leave his unmistakable imprint on the Vatican, on Rome, and the age of High Roman Baroque.

Photograph by Photo Tractatus
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Photograph by Ray You ~ January 14, 2007
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The above two videos are courtesy of:  ~

Recommended readings:

The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Avila (1960), by Teresa of Avila, translated and edited by Edgar Allison Peers: Random House of Canada

The World of Bernini: 1598-1680 (1970), by Robert Wallace: Time-Life Books

St. Teresa of Avila:Author of A Heroic Life (1995), by Carole Slade: University of California Press

Bernini: Flights of Love, The Art of Devotion (1995), by Giovanni Careri: University of Chicago Press

Sculpture (1996), by Philippe Bruneau, Xavier Barral Altet, Mario Torelli & Antoinette Le Normand-Romain: Taschen

Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (1997), by Rudolf Wittkower: Phaidon Press

Bernini (1998), by Franco Borsi: Ediciones AKAL

Teresa of Avila And The Politics of Sanctity (1998), by Gillian T. W. Ahlgren: Cornell University Press

Bernini and the Excesses of Art (2002), by Robert Torsten Petersson: Fordham University Press

Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life (2004), by Shirley Du Boulay: Darton Longman & Todd

Bernini: Genius of the Baroque (2006), by Charles Avery: Thames & Hudson

The Genius In The Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome (2006), by Jake Morrissey: Harper Collins Publishers

The Way of Perfection (2007), by St. Teresa of Avila: Cosimo Classics

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