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The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila



The emergence of Baroque art in the 17th c (1600 – 1700) was driven in part by the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation movement by propagating Baroque art with its flamboyance and theatricality, in order to engage the faithful through religious art and architecture and bring back erring believers to the Church.


The Cornaro Chapel is inside the Church of Santa Maria della Vittora in Rome. Here is Baroque art at its finest. St. Teresa of Ávila, a nun from the 16th century, is seen with an angel who has pierced her heart. Rays of light emanate from the heavens to illuminate the scene. On the side walls of the altar are theatre boxes where spectators (modeled by the Cornaro family) are watching the scene unfolding in front of them. St. Teresa is experiencing an intense spiritual vision that leaves her “utterly consumed by the great love of God”. Here is St. Teresa’s account of her vision:

It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise.  He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.

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, even a large one.  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.

During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.”
Excerpt from Project Gutenberg's “The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus", by Teresa of Avila, Chapter 29 - Of Visions. The Graces Our Lord Bestowed on the Saint. The Answers Our Lord Gave Her for Those Who Tried Her



There are several highlights in the chapel that's worth a second look. The first of these is the architectural frame of the altar. Corinthian columns stand on both sides of the white marble statues of St. Teresa and the angel. These columns of breccia stone set the stage so to speak but more importantly, it says a lot about its builder, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the engineer of the colonnades of the Vatican. Secondly, natural light emanates from a window hidden high above the chapel and which creates "divine light". Thirdly, the balconies are positioned on the side walls as they normally are in a theatre. The viewer, standing or kneeling in front of the altar would still have the best view in the house. This harks back to the essence of Baroque art: to engage the worshipper and make him/her part of the "play". Members of the Cornaro are carved in low relief inside the boxes. They are even identifiable. One of them is Federico Cornaro, Cardinal of Venice, who is seen second from right in animated conversation with other family members. There are also architectural details in the boxes such as the vaulted ceiling and the columns behind the figures. Bernini leaves no stone unturned.
The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria has many other artistic attractions, not the least of which is its beautiful ceiling with a fine fresco by Giovanni Domenico Cerini. More on this in an upcoming article.

Cornaro Chapel
Santa Maria della Vittoria
Via XX Settembre 17, Rome
free entry

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Images by Charie

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