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Controversy and Canon in the Cornaro Chapel

Considering Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s representation of a controversial saint.

Controversy and Canon in the Cornaro Chapel
Cara Ianuale

Cara Ianuale

March 3, 2024
6 Minutes

In a small transept in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome rests a marble sculpture of a reclining woman in a state of euphoric bliss. She remarkably appears to be having an orgasm. Upon viewing the sculpture, viewers often express confusion, displeasure, or shock. Despite its seeming impiety, however, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa fits neatly into the Baroque architectural canon of richness and sensuality.

The Baroque era began at the turn of the 17th century in response to the Protestant Reformation, a religious reform movement sparked in 1517 when monk and teacher Martin Luther nailed 95 theses condemning Catholicism to the door of the Castle Church in Germany. In particular, he lambasted Catholic artistic traditions as idolatrous and materialistic. Following the resulting rebellions, in 1545, the Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a set of reforms including stringent standards for visual art and architecture that reaffirmed religious art as a pathway to God. As a result, the Baroque architectural era became closely associated with Counter-Reformation architectural standards.

Baroque Catholic churches are characterized by dynamism, intricacy, and opulence. Undulating walls, large domes, and swirling relief carvings energize the sacred space. Skylights punctuate dizzyingly high ceilings, allowing heavenly light to cascade onto the bowed heads of the pious. Saturated biblical scenes burst from trompe l’oeil and quadrature paintings. Rather than violate the sacred space, as Protestants criticized, this elaborate splendor visualizes the exaltation of passion and sensuality characteristic to the contemporary Catholic worship experience (whether this decor was true or effective is beyond the scope of this article).

Cornaro Chapel, Altar
Cornaro Chapel, Vault

Dedicated to St. Teresa of Ávila, the Cornaro Chapel is a paradigm of Baroque sensuality. Cardinal Federico Cornaro acquired rights to the chapel in 1647 and commissioned prominent architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design a work dedicated to the newly-canonized saint. With essentially no financial constraints (the Cornaro family being one of the richest of their time), Bernini was allowed to construct his most elaborate visions. Rising from dark marble columns, a convex, broken triangular pediment swells forward in an invocation of the Holy Trinity. A gold crucifix affirms God’s presence at its apex. Above the pediment, a gilded entablature supports a domed ceiling covered in frescoes and trompe l’oeil paintings of the heavens. The viewer’s gaze soars upwards in subservience to God, yet comes down to rest on the focal point, framed by gilded rays extending from the interior of the apse niche: the sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The sculptural group captures Teresa’s famed moment of “transverberation,” quoted in the 1622 Bull of Canonization, where her heart is pierced by an angel’s “dart of love.” Bernini’s selection of this quoted moment was far from arbitrary; rather, this canonical quotation lent crucial legitimacy to the depiction of Teresa of Ávila, an extremely controversial figure.

Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Teresa and angel

As Michael J. Call notes, Teresa was three arguably unsaintly things: a woman, a conversa (“convert” of Jewish descent), and a mystic. Her extensive mystical writings promoted the idea of an individual union with the divine as opposed to salvation through the church. She also founded the Discalced Carmelites, an order that advocated asceticism and greater autonomy for the convent. Yet her story countered the ideological campaigns of Protestant reformists and thus, following a particularly lengthy inquest, the Catholic Church officially canonized her. St. Teresa only had one likeness—a resolute, austere portrait by Fray Juan de la Miseria—created of her during her lifetime; this meant that Bernini had freedom to “energize” and interpret her likeness however he saw fit.

Cornaro Chapel; detail of right with Members of the Cornaro Family on Balcony

Not only did Bernini choose an appropriate canonical scene, he also emphasized his subject’s passivity and the presence of male authority. Teresa leans back, mouth open, eyes closed and limbs hanging, acquiescing to the smiling angel poised above her ready to pierce her heart with the “dart of love.” She is not an agent, but a recipient. This moment is one of transformation and pleasure—like an orgasm—yet Bernini mediates this eroticism with the obscuration of her body, which disappears under heavy folds of a long garment. The relief carvings of two groups of spectating church officials (including Cornaro himself) are positioned above Teresa to either side of the niche, the meaning of which is debated. Some scholars believe the carvings to be an affirmation of the men’s piety, bearing witness to this canonical event; Anthony Blunt makes an argument that they augment Teresa’s passivity, presiding over and judging her. Regardless, the configuration of these elements is such that the complete scene is difficult to be viewed unless viewers stand precisely in front of the chapel. According to Call, in the correct spot, “the viewer is met by one set of eyes, fixed and unrelenting: those of Federico Cornaro himself. Thus, in experiencing Teresa, the viewer is expected to submit to the control and authority of the artist, and, by analogy, to the authority of the Church.” In other words, Bernini highlights male authority to reduce Teresa’s controversiality.

The chapel’s dedication to St. Teresa presented a difficult challenge that Bernini ultimately succeeded in, creating a sacred space that both approached the boundaries of social acceptance and emulated standard Baroque values. His careful navigation of his subject’s sensual mysticism continues to draw criticism and debate today. Is Bernini’s depiction of sensuality transgressive or reductive? Is it a reinforcement or challenge of religious patriarchy? Do critiques of eroticism unwittingly impose a modern framework of sexuality upon a story of piety and humility? What are viewers to make of Bernini turning this private moment into a public spectacle? And, more generally, how should artists approach the representation and (re)interpretation of religious stories and experiences?

(Cover Image: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa)

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