Friday, February 23, 2007

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa of Ávila

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa of Ávila
Marble, height 350 cm
Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Loggia of the Founders
Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Unfortunately the best selling book "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown has tended to devalue in the public mind the sculpture as well as the vision behind the Sculpture. The altar, you will recall, is supposed to be one of the altars of the so-called Illuminati: part of "the Path of Illumination," a trail to the meeting place of the Illuminati in Rome. Further he repeats the 18th century canard that the sculpture is "sexually explicit": the Saint is supposed to be in some kind of sexual ecstasy.

The sculpture can only be judged in the setting for which it was made. It is an unum quid with the chapel for which it was made. It was made in the Counter-Reformation. The influence of Spain and its spirituality was immense in the Rome of the time.

Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small basilica and titular church, was begun in 1605 as a chapel dedicated to Saint Paul for the Discalced Carmelites.

After the Catholic victory at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the church was re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Turkish standards captured at the 1683 Siege of Vienna hang in the church, as part of the theme of victory.

The work, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa of Ávila, is not a solitary piece of sculpture. It is the central marble group of a sculpture complex designed and competed by Bernini for the Cornaro Chapel within the Church.

The Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579-1673), had chosen the church of the Discalced Carmelites for his funerary chapel. The chapel chosen had previously depicted St. Paul in ecstasy. The Cardinal replaced it with the ecstatic event undergone by the first Carmelite saint, St Teresa (1515-82) , recently canonised in 1622.

Full biographies and images of the Cardinal can be found at

The Cornaro Chapel, located in the Northern transept of the Church is composed in a theatrical way. The group of Saint Theresa and the angel is situated in a framed niche lighted beautifully from an unidentifiable source. There is a hidden window which lets in natural light.

Bernini placed the bust-length figures of the living and dead members of the Cornaro family in oratories.

The setting of Bernini's group consists of a carefully articulated variety of stones retrieved from ancient ruins in Rome (some twenty different kinds, including jasper, breccia, alabaster, lapis lazuli, red marble from France and black from Flanders).

The central sculpture is based on an incident (the "transverberation of the heart" ) described in Chapter 29 of St Theresa`s Autobiography. The incident of the piercing of the Saint`s heart took place probably in 1559. The Carmelites kept the feast of this piercing of the Saint's heart on the 27th of August.

It is worthwhile quoting more than just the relevant short passage at § 16 and following.

The Chapter is headed "Of Visions. The Graces Our Lord Bestowed on the Saint. The Answers Our Lord Gave Her for Those Who Tried Her.":

"11. It is not possible for any one to understand these impetuosities if he has not experienced them himself. They are not an upheaving of the breast, nor those devotional sensations, not uncommon, which seem on the point of causing suffocation, and are beyond control. That prayer is of a much lower order; and those agitations should be avoided by gently endeavouring to be recollected; and the soul should be kept in quiet. This prayer is like the sobbing of little children, who seem on the point of choking, and whose disordered senses are soothed by giving them to drink. So here reason should draw in the reins, because nature itself may be contributing to it and we should consider with fear that all this may not be perfect, and that much sensuality may be involved in it. The infant soul should be soothed by the caresses of love, which shall draw forth its love in a gentle way, and not, as they say, by force of blows. This love should be inwardly under control, and not as a cauldron, fiercely boiling because too much fuel has been applied to it, and out of which everything is lost. The source of the fire must be kept under control, and the flame must be quenched in sweet tears, and not with those painful tears which come out of these emotions, and which do so much harm.

12. In the beginning, I had tears of this kind. They left me with a disordered head and a wearied spirit, and for a day or two afterwards unable to resume my prayer. Great discretion, therefore, is necessary at first, in order that everything may proceed gently, and that the operations of the spirit may be within; all outward manifestations should be carefully avoided.

13. These other impetuosities are very different. It is not we who apply the fuel; the fire is already kindled, and we are thrown into it in a moment to be consumed. It is by no efforts of the soul that it sorrows over the wound which the absence of our Lord has inflicted on it; it is far otherwise; for an arrow is driven into the entrails to the very quick, and into the heart at times, so that the soul knows not what is the matter with it, nor what it wishes for. It understands clearly enough that it wishes for God, and that the arrow seems tempered with some herb which makes the soul hate itself for the love of our Lord, and willingly lose its life for Him. It is impossible to describe or explain the way in which God wounds the soul, nor the very grievous pain inflicted, which deprives it of all self-consciousness; yet this pain is so sweet, that there is no joy in the world which gives greater delight. As I have just said, the soul would wish to be always dying of this wound.

14. This pain and bliss together carried me out of myself, and I never could understand how it was. Oh, what a sight a wounded soul is!--a soul, I mean, so conscious of it, as to be able to say of itself that it is wounded for so good a cause; and seeing distinctly that it never did anything whereby this love should come to it, and that it does come from that exceeding love which our Lord bears it. A spark seems to have fallen suddenly upon it, that has set it all on fire. Oh, how often do I remember, when in this state, those words of David: "Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum"! [See Note 1] They seem to me to be literally true of myself.

15. When these impetuosities are not very violent they seem to admit of a little mitigation--at least, the soul seeks some relief, because it knows not what to do--through certain penances; the painfulness of which, and even the shedding of its blood, are no more felt than if the body were dead. The soul seeks for ways and means to do something that may be felt, for the love of God; but the first pain is so great, that no bodily torture I know of can take it away. As relief is not to be had here, these medicines are too mean for so high a disease. Some slight mitigation may be had, and the pain may pass away a little, by praying God to relieve its sufferings: but the soul sees no relief except in death, by which it thinks to attain completely to the fruition of its good. At other times, these impetuosities are so violent, that the soul can do neither this nor anything else; the whole body is contracted, and neither hand nor foot can be moved: if the body be upright at the time, it falls down, as a thing that has no control over itself. It cannot even breathe; all it does is to moan--not loudly, because it cannot: its moaning, however, comes from a keen sense of pain.

16. Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of this kind: I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. [See Note 2] It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.

17. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, 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. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

18. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.

19. I was in this state from time to time, whenever it was our Lord's pleasure to throw me into those deep trances, which I could not prevent even when I was in the company of others, and which, to my deep vexation, came to be publicly known. Since then, I do not feel that pain so much, but only that which I spoke of before,--I do not remember the chapter, [18]--which is in many ways very different from it, and of greater worth. On the other hand, when this pain, of which I am now speaking, begins, our Lord seems to lay hold of the soul, and to throw it into a trance, so that there is no time for me to have any sense of pain or suffering, because fruition ensues at once. May He be blessed for ever, who hath bestowed such great graces on one who has responded so ill to blessings so great!"

(1) Psalm xli. 2: "As the longing of the heart for the fountains of waters, so is the longing of my soul for Thee, O my God."

(2) In Chapter 27,. § 3. of the Autobiography, St Teresa wrote:

"3. At the end of two years spent in prayer by myself and others for this end, namely, that our Lord would either lead me by another way, or show the truth of this,--for now the locutions of our Lord were extremely frequent,--this happened to me. I was in prayer one day,--it was the feast of the glorious St. Peter,--when I saw Christ close by me, or, to speak more correctly, felt Him; for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body, nothing with the eyes of the soul. He seemed to me to be close beside me; and I saw, too, as I believe, that it was He who was speaking to me. As I was utterly ignorant that such a vision was possible, I was extremely afraid at first, and did nothing but weep; however, when He spoke to me but one word to reassure me, I recovered myself, and was, as usual, calm and comforted, without any fear whatever. Jesus Christ seemed to be by my side continually, and, as the vision was not imaginary, I saw no form; but I had a most distinct feeling that He was always on my right hand, a witness of all I did; and never at any time, if I was but slightly recollected, or not too much distracted, could I be ignorant of His near presence."

Bernini has cast aside all reserve and restraint. The scene depicted shows emotion at a high pitch. It is within the tradition of the spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs. The saint is shown in the throes of the final "spiritual marriage". The face of the saint shows the intense emotion being experienced.

The group is so placed that the saint is seen to hover without support in the frame of the praescenium.The handling of the draperies is significant. They do not fall in dignified folds. They writhe and whirl as if she is being tossed and twirled like a lifeless rag doll.

The scene is not a sexual one or an obscene one. It depicts the moment in time that the Creator turns his whole attention to an individual soul and the effect of the Divine regard on that soul.

As a matter of taste, the Northern viewer may find the effect of the piece too theatrical and too emotional. But the intent was to inspire in the viewer feelings of fervid exultation and mystic transport.

Bernini is faithful to the vision as described by St Teresa. What St Teresa was at pains to emphasise was the vision was not physical but intellectual. Bernini was masterful in his achievement of the depiction of the vision in so far as it is possible to depict the same in a material form.


Three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Ecstasy of St Theresa
Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Convent of St. Teresa, Ávila

The Works of St Teresa

Short Biography of St Teresa Avila

The Teresian Carmel: St. Teresa of Avila

The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus by Herself (Project Gutenberg)