St Memorial of St Therese of Avila

October 15th 2014

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples 1598 – Rome 1680), The Ecstasy of Saint Therese, 1647-52,
marble, h cm 350, Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria Church, Rome


“One day an extremely beautiful angel appeared to me. 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” (St Therese of Avila Autobiography XXIX,13) 

It is the story of one of the mystical experiences of the great Carmelite saint, as she described it in her autobiography.

Let’s read the text looking at Bernini's marble. We realize that the great sculptor has portrayed the experience of the saint almost to the letter, in his marble composition. The abandoned body, her sweet face, her eyes narrowed at the sky, her lips that open to a moan, while the angel, holding an arrow, pulls back the robes to pierce her heart.

The marble - heavy material itself - appears as light, in the folds of the robe of the saint, in the movement of the robe of the angel, in the left foot and hand of the saint that fall back. And so Bernini achieves one of the summits of which we call "baroque" in which the representation of the feeling and the theatricality of gestures play a primary role.

In the Cornaro Chapel - the design of which Cardinal Federico in 1647 entrusted to the great architect and sculptor - the marble group, which receives light from a window with yellow glasses gives the scene an air of mystery, increasing in the observer the feeling of also being a witness to the vision of the great Spanish saint.