Art, Art History and Design, School of


Date of this Version

Winter 2015


OPEN ARTS JOURNAL, ISSUE 4, WINTER 2014 –15, pp 133-157


Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa for the Cornaro Chapel (1647–52) is perhaps the artist’s most sensually charged creation, and the apparently physical nature of Teresa’s ecstasy is today even acknowledged in survey textbooks. Teresa herself opened the door to this reading when, in describing her spiritual ecstasy, she admitted that ‘the body doesn’t fail to share in some of it, and even a great deal’. Yet the balance between sense and spirit in the sculpture emerges somewhat differently if it is viewed (literally and figuratively) in context: as an altarpiece in a chapel where its presentation is structured as a ‘performance’, complete with spectators or witnesses, and as the central image of the left transept of Santa Maria della Vittoria – a church whose dedication derives from the power of the image (the Madonna della vittoria) displayed above the main altar. If the statue group is read as a divine ecstasy witnessed, rather than a mystic encounter experienced, it engages another discourse, with its own metaphors and meanings. The saint’s swoon has less to do with the erotic capacity of the senses than with their absence, presenting a rather different challenge to an artist celebrated for his ability to transform insensate stone into vulnerable flesh.