Cornaro chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

   The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, belongs to the Discalced Carmelites, the order established by St. Theresa of Avila. When Cardinal Federigo Cornaro, Patriarch of Venice, established his funerary chapel in this church after moving to Rome in 1644, naturally he picked a major event in St. Theresa's life to adorn it. He gave the commission to the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, therefore granting him the opportunity to render one of the great monuments of the Baroque era. Above the altar of the chapel is St. Theresa floating among the clouds in the midst of a mystical experience she recounted in her writings. A sublime angel appeared to her and pierced her heart with an arrow, which, as she described, left her all afire and felt like the caress of God on her soul. Fittingly, Bernini's angel is draped in flamelike folds, tilts his head, and tenderly smiles at the saint. Saint Theresa's description of the event is quite sexual, with phrases one would expect in a narrative of a woman's intimate encounter with a lover. For that reason, Bernini depicted her in an orgasmic state. The colored marbles with varying veins, the metal rods descending on the saint from a hidden window to suggest spiritual light, and the heavenly glory painted on the ceiling add to the mystical sense of the event depicted. On the side walls of the chapel, members of the Cornaro family witness and discuss St. Theresa's experience. Bernini was a staunch Catholic, had close relations with the Jesuits, and practiced St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, which urged the faithful to picture each religious event in its setting and to meditate until able to feel the emotions of the characters in the story. Bernini applied these concepts to the Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel. His work heightens the senses and brings the religious narrative to life.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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