Closely associated with the sculptor’s virtuosity, and an emblem of the Baroque, is the inscrutable masterpiece Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, completed in 1652 for Rome’s Cornaro Chapel. Speculatively, the choice of mystical subject matter for the chapel is the influence of a book by the Spanish priest and theologian Igantius Loyola. In Spiritual Exercises, Loyola recommended an ecclesiastical tactic for encouraging faith among the laity: the depiction of “spiritual experiences,” the theologian argued, would enlarge struggling dedication and awe. Bernini’s Ecstasy stages the religious vision of the future Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, which resulted in her conversion. According to her own account, the young woman was visited by a not very tall but “very beautiful angel” whose “face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels” “In his hands,” Teresa recounted,
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…This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share.
Perhaps this is a miraculous revelation; perhaps it is a sign one has been single too long. In any case, the story could not have been better suited to the sculptor or his patrons, Cardinal Federico Cornaro and his family. Inside a vaulted recess of the chapel, Bernini mounted a characteristically ornate marble proscenium which showcased the two figures; an event watched, or more correctly disregarded, by the Cornaro family assembled at balcony-like prayer altars at either side of the stage — and celebrated, from the chapel’s ceiling, by a ribbon of angelic beings. A painted trompe l’oeil ceiling enlarges the heavenly vision. Ecstasy is the sculptor’s mature art, a literal retelling, perhaps parody, of Bernini’s dramatic influences.
At the center of the false proscenium, the saint, attended by the angel and fanned by carved beams of falling light, lounges on a cloud which appears to float above the paneled shallow stage. The petite angel has recently alit with an arrow, and Teresa’s form drops in ecstasy, a melting accentuated by the layered eddies of a nun’s rough habit: lips parted, her head rolls backward without support, arms and legs falling forlornly in the crags of the mass supporting her. The angel, who is decoratively wrapped in a gauzy material, smiles professionally as he readies the arrow for another attack.
Bernini’s scene is clearly tinged with a certain Freudian awkwardness. But it is unfortunate that this quality, instead of attributed to our natural quickness toward innuendo, has become for some commentators a real property of the work. Assessing Bernini’s depiction against the historical facts (as reported by St. Teresa), it is obvious instead that the Ecstasy is a faithful transcript of its purported events. As a work of art, it is also the most efficient and direct expression of Teresa’s bizarre account, elucidating the saint’s experience with unusual clarity.
Formally, the Ecstasy is a masterpiece. More than ever, Bernini has succeeded in creating a real event; the sculpture is suffused with all the intimacy, accident, and power of a genuine unfolding. The proscenium tightly frames the figures of Teresa and the angel, and our access to the scene comes as a glimpse — as if into a small room, or an open door — of the figures illuminated by a secret window. Bernini’s use of the walls and ceiling lends the larger configuration definite shape: further, the high reliefs create a circular flow drawing the eye inexorably back to the pivotal scene. It is clear that the artistic subjects and purposes of the Baroque church at times displayed an ecclesiastical self-obsession, and a minimum of importance or essentiality. Bernini’s scene is strange, and patently minor. His tremendous execution, meanwhile, confers on his subject emotional power and an awesome significance, a seductive enlargement of a contemporary fable. The performance achieves the proselytic motive of its era, the sculpture still pulling a cult following centuries later.