Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
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ArtistGian Lorenzo Bernini
Year1647–1652 (1647–1652)
LocationSanta Maria della Vittoria, Rome
Coordinates41°54′17″N 12°29′39″E / 41.90472°N 12.49417°E / 41.90472; 12.49417
Preceded byRaimondi Chapel
Followed byTruth Unveiled by Time (Bernini)

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (also known as Saint Teresa in Ecstasy; Italian: L'Estasi di Santa Teresa or Santa Teresa in estasi) is a sculptural altarpiece group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.[1] It was designed and carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of his day, who also designed the setting of the chapel in marble, stucco and paint. The commission was completed in 1652.

The ensemble includes at the sides two sets of donor portraits of members of the Cornaro family, who watch the main central group as though in boxes in a theatre. The group is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. The sculpture over the altar shows Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Spanish Carmelite nun (1515–1582), swooning in a state of religious ecstasy, while an angel holding a spear stands over her, following her own account of a vision she had.


The entire ensemble was overseen and completed by a mature Bernini during the Pamphili papacy of Innocent X. When Innocent acceded to the papal throne, he shunned Bernini's artistic services; the sculptor had been the favourite artist of the previous and profligate Barberini pope, Urban VIII. Without papal patronage, the services of Bernini's studio were therefore available to a patron such as the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579–1653).

Cornaro had chosen the hitherto unremarkable church of the Discalced Carmelites for his burial chapel.[a] The selected site for the chapel was the left transept that had previously held an image of 'St. Paul in Ecstasy', which was replaced by Bernini's dramatization of a religious experience undergone and related by the first Discalced Carmelite saint, who had been canonised not long before, in 1622.[2] It was completed in 1652 for the then princely sum of 12,000 scudi.[b]

A small format terracotta model of about 47 cm (19 in) was created between 1644 and 1647. The sculpture represents the first embodiment of the project, with traces of Bernini's fingerprints still visible. The model belongs to the Hermitage Museum's collection.[4]

Sculptural group and its setting

Wider view, including the Cornaro portraits, but omitting the lower parts of the chapel

The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by Teresa of Avila, a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun, in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus. Her experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel is described as follows:

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.[5]

The group is illuminated by natural light which filters through a hidden window in the dome of the surrounding aedicule, and underscored by gilded stucco rays. Teresa is shown lying on a cloud indicating that this is intended to be a divine apparition we are witnessing. Other witnesses appear on the side walls; life-size high-relief donor portraits of male members of the Cornaro family, e.g. Cardinal Federico Cornaro and Doge Giovanni I Cornaro, are present and shown discussing the event in boxes as if at the theatre. Although the figures are executed in white marble, the aedicule, wall panels and theatre boxes are made from coloured marbles. Above, the vault of the Chapel is frescoed with an illusionistic cherub-filled sky with the descending light of the Holy Ghost allegorized as a dove.

The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:

In spite of the pictorial character of the design as a whole, Bernini differentiated between various degrees of reality, the members of the Cornaro Chapel seem to be alive like ourselves. They belong to our space and our world. The supernatural event of Teresa's vision is raised to a sphere of its own, removed from that of the beholder mainly by virtue of the isolating canopy and the heavenly light.[6]


The effects are theatrical,[7] the Cornaro family seeming to observe the scene from their boxes,[8] and the chapel illustrates a moment where divinity intrudes on an earthly body. Caroline Babcock speaks of Bernini's melding of sensual and spiritual pleasure as both intentional and influential on artists and writers of the day.[9] Irving Lavin said "the transverberation becomes a point of contact between earth and heaven, between matter and spirit".[10] As Bernini biographer Franco Mormando points out, although Bernini's point of departure for his depiction of Teresa's mystical experience was her own description, there were many details about the experience that she never specifies (e.g., the position of her body) and that Bernini simply supplied from his own artistic imagination, all with an aim of increasing the nearly transgressively sensual charge of the episode: "Certainly no other artist, in rendering the scene, before or after Bernini, dared as much in transforming the saint's appearance."[11]


The sexual implications of the work have not gone unnoticed. It is considered "decidely risqué";[12] "the most astounding peep show in art";[13] and "the grossest and most offensive example of Baroque art."[14] The reason for its popularity "has a lot to do with sex."[15][16] And by placing the sculpture in a theatrical setting, Bernini is accused of turning "a private moment into a very public spectacle."[13] Victorian art critic Anna Jameson wanted it destroyed: "even those least prudish in matters of art, would here willingly throw the first stone."[17][18]

Scholars who defend it against such criticism take one of three approaches, saying:

  1. Bernini faithfully followed Teresa’s description of the experience.
  2. The Church accepted that mystical union often involved erotic elements.
  3. There is no nudity in the statue.[19]

But Franco Mormando says "none of these defenses are completely accurate".[11] Simon Schama agrees: "Critics and scholars tie themselves in knots, trying to avoid stating the obvious."[20]

Similar works by Bernini

Influencing or influenced works

See also


  1. ^ Cornaro had reason to avoid burial in Venice, since his appointment as a cardinal by Urban VIII while his father Giovanni was Doge had created a furor in his home-city, which banned families from holding such powerful positions simultaneously.
  2. ^ Corresponding to c. $120,000[3]
  1. ^ An alternative title as the Transverberation of Saint Teresa is sometimes seen on religious sites on the internet. The OED describes "transverberation" as obselete in English, with only one usage, in the 1880s. It means piercing through the breast, as Teresa describes in her vision.
  2. ^ Boucher 1998, p. 135
  3. ^ "Italian Baroque Sculpture : Books : Thames & Hudson". Archived from the original on 28 December 2005. Retrieved 23 October 2005.
  4. ^ Hermitage Museum, The State. "The Ecstasy of St Teresa". Hermitage Museum. Archived from the original on 20 May 2021. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
  5. ^ Teresa of Avila (1515–1582). The Life of Teresa of Jesus. Chapter XXIX; Part 17.
  6. ^ Wittkower, Rudolf (1980). Art and Architecture in Italy 1600–1750, Pelican History of Art. p. 160.
  7. ^ Greer, Thomas H.; Lewis, Gavin (2005). A Brief History of the Western World: To 1715. Wadsworth Thomson. p. 392. ISBN 978-0-534-64237-2.
  8. ^ "Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa". Khan Academy. Archived from the original on 15 June 2010. Retrieved 12 February 2010.
  9. ^ "Caroline Babcock".[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Boucher 1998, p. 138
  11. ^ a b Mormando, Franco (2 October 2023). "Did Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa cross a seventeenth-century line of decorum?". Word & Image. 39 (4): 351–383. doi:10.1080/02666286.2023.2180931. S2CID 265241431.
  12. ^; Santa Maria della Vittoria Lee Marshall, DESTINATION EXPERT; 5 February 2016
  13. ^ a b Bowden, Alana Louise (2001). "The Saint Behind the Sculpture: (Re)Interpreting Saint Teresa's Ecstasy through a Feminist Analysis of Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa". Literature & Aesthetics. 31 (1): 132–147. Retrieved 22 January 2024.
  14. ^ A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac. University of Arizona Press. 20 September 2010. ISBN 978-0-8165-2840-0.; A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac (Southwest Center Series) by Bernard L. Fontana and Edward McCain | 20 Sept 2010, page 236
  15. ^ Weretka, John (2018). "The Ecstasy (?) Of Saint Teresa". In Beaven, Lisa; Ndalianis, Angela (eds.). Emotion and the Seduction of the Senses, Baroque to Neo-Baroque. Medieval Institute Publications. pp. 217–234. ISBN 978-1-58044-272-5.
  16. ^ Church, Chloe (2020). Annunciating the Word in Image: Visual Exegesis of the Annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:26-38) in Counter-Reformation Italian Altarpieces (Thesis). p. 314. ProQuest 2827703947.
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^; Did Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa cross a seventeenth-century line of decorum? by Franco Mormando
  20. ^ Schama, Simon (2006). Simon Schama's Power of Art. London: BBC Books. p. 125. ISBN 9780563487104.
  21. ^ "Web Gallery of Art, image collection, virtual museum, searchable database of European fine arts (1000–1900)".
  22. ^ "Truth Unveiled by Time". Official Site Borghese Gallery Bernini. Archived from the original on 25 October 2005.
  23. ^ Olson, Carl (4 January 2009). "Dan Brown Rushes In Where Angels (and Demons) Fear to Tread". Catholic Answers. Retrieved 13 January 2024.
  24. ^ "The Lie (Bernini's Saint Theresa) de Peter Hammill". Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
  25. ^ "A Field Guide to Occurrences of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest – Infinite Detox". Infinite Detox. 20 August 2009.
  26. ^ "Banksy". Archived from the original on 21 October 2007.
External videos
video icon Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Preceded by
Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus
Landmarks of Rome
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Succeeded by
Raphael Rooms