Bernini's mixed media installation of St. Theresa in Ecstasy in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome is one of Bernini's most significant contributions to the history of art. Bernini considered it to be the most beautiful thing he ever made. Commissioned by a Venetian Cardinal, Federigo Cornaro, the chapel was intended as his funerary chapel. In reality, it forms the left transept of the church. Bernini had only a shallow space to work with here, but in the end, manages to create a work that incorporates vast amounts of real space.
The Coronaro chapel clearly presents the notion of meraviglia (a Baroque theatrical construction of the marvelous, intended to cause wonder, or amazement, in the viewer). Bernini was well trained in theatrical spectacle (he wrote plays and created stage designs that were famous thoughout Italy in the seventeenth century). He used his theatrical background in this monument to situate his viewers in a moment of religious ecstasy. The Ecstasy of St. Theresa is here presented as the ultimate religious experience. Theresa of Avila was a Spanish reformer. Like St. Ignatius of Loyola, she had a mystical experience in which her heart was pierced with Divine Love. She described her Ecstasy as:
"Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them...But it was our Lord's will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire...in his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between god and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it."
We know that Bernini was a devout Catholic. He went to church every day and took Communion twice a week! He wanted to present Theresa's experience to everyman, yet he also wanted to convey the divine nature of it at the same time.
In the center of the architectural and sculptural group, St. Theresa and the angel hover weightlessly over the altar as a sculptural altarpiece. Made of marble, their forms have been deeply cut so as to amplify the chiaroscuro effect of Teresa's billowing drapery. Her body seems almost to disappear under the drapery as she melts into her ecstatic moment. The angel smiles down upon her as he holds out his golden arrow. Teresa's face conveys that she is in the moment of her ecstasy: her lips are open in the moan that she described above. The Teresa/angel sculptural group is actually tucked within a niche that is again framed. There is a hidden light source above that uses the natural light from a window to illuminate the sculptures; the effect is that the group is divinely lit. This effect is amplified by the use of gilt wood rays placed behind Teresa and the angel. In thinking about the central part of the installation, it may be considered more like a pictorial scene framed by architecture rather than simple sculpture. The scene is not presented to the viewer, but rather revealed to the viewer.
On the left and right, Bernini has incorporated what appear to be opera boxes populated by members of the Cornaro family, including the donor Cardinal Federigo, his father, Doge Giovanni Cornaro, and six Cornaro Cardinals of the preceding century. The whole installation can be read like a stage set. The opera-box portrait groups are considered to be the first sculptural group portraits of the Baroque. Each person is shown in dramatic fashion; they activate the sculpture bust into a group discourse. But they are also focused on the Ecstasy that takes place before them, just like the viewer in the nave of the church. By directing the Cornaro portrait busts toward the Theresa, Bernini also positions the viewer.
The architectural framework of the whole chapel plays an active part in the viewer's experience. The alls are covered in polychrome marble (yellow, grey and green). Notice how the effects get intensified near the Theresa sculpture in the center. Then the walls open up to reveal the spectacle of the Theresa drama in gleaming white. The Cornaro Chapel is considered to be the crowning achievement of Bernini's sculptural career. After this, his interests will lie more and more with architecture; building and city planning take up most of his energy after 1650. We can think of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa as the finale begun by the Borghese sculptures.