Feeling in “Ecstasy” through Bernini’s marble

One of the most controversial marbles of Bernini: the “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

bernini saint teresa
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Bernini, 1646, Carrara marble

Defined by many to be resembling an erotic ecstasy and to be an inappropriate expression for a saint, Bernini defended himself by saying he had simply transformed Saint Teresa words into an image, nothing more..
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is a Spanish saint, and one of the founders of the order of the Discalced Carmelites. She also wrote an autobiography, in which she described the episode of the ecstasy. This is what Bernini has captured in his marble:

What St Teresa wrote about the ecstacy:

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. 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.

Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus. Chapter XXIX; Part 17.

bernini saint teresa
This is the moment the angel is pulling out the spear; we can tell this by the relaxed muscles of his arm.

The restorer point of view

Bernini carved this theatrical scene out of a single piece of Carrara marble! The folds are so deep that during one of the last restoration works, the restorers found tiny fragments of marble from Bernini’s carving! The fantastic Father Angelo, responsible of this church, told us this. Father Angelo is a Bernini’s scholar and art restorer, which worked also on the restoration of Raphael tomb in the Pantheon!

He was so kind and passionate about this piece and art in general that he spent some time with us sharing the techniques and the story of this marble and the Saint.

He explained the scene: Teresa has just had the holy communion and she felt in ecstasy. Her eyes are rolling, and she is having a direct connection with God. The angel has just pierced her and he is extracting the arrow. We know he is depicted in the moment of extracting it because his biceps is relaxed. By his facial expression we can tell he is satisfied, because he has just provoked the ecstasy in Saint Teresa, both mentally that physically.
To give the shine to the folds of Saint Teresa dress, Bernini did not use the wax (as other artists do, like Canova), but he has obtained this effect using pumice stone. This is the only piece that Bernini carved out of a single block of marble. I find this incredible and in front of this piece you can only agree with those who say “Bernini makes marble talk”!

bernini saint teresa

You can visit this marvel at the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, on the Quirinal hill in Rome. As you enter this church, this baroque intensity overwhelms you so much that for a few moments you won’t know where to stop your eyes! You will find this sculpture at the last chapel (Cornaro chapel) on the left hand-side, just before the altar.

What do you think of this sculpture? Do you agree with those who said it is inappropriate? Or does it interpretate well the words of the Saint?
Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.

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