Some might consider it a shame that one of Earth’s greatest chunks of marble sits in relative obscurity in Rome. Not me! I consider it an opportunity. Other than the occasional “Dan Brown” bus tour, few tourists visit Rome’s Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Here, in a quiet, locals-mostly church far from the selfie sticks, you’ll find Bernini’s stunning sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
Brief History of Bernini’s Brilliant Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
After losing favor with Pope Innocent X, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) struggled to find a patron for his artistic genius. But then a cardinal named Federico Cornaro came calling. He commissioned a work for his family’s chapel in Rome’s Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Cornaro asked Bernini to depict the spiritual visions of Spanish mystic Saint Teresa, who had recently been canonized in 1622. In her autobiographical works, St. Teresa often wrote about visions of celestial beings, some of which literally penetrated her heart with fiery arrows. Bernini chose to depict one of these episodes in his great marble statue Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, completed in 1652.
Sexy or Sublime? Controversy Brews
Many people who see Ecstasy of Saint Teresa for the first time are shocked at just how erotically charged the work is. St. Teresa appears to be moaning in mid-orgasm as a cherub gets ready to plunge his arrow into her heart. This explicit eroticism led one visiting Frenchman to famously quip, “Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”
It’s more likely, however, that Bernini was using sexual imagery as a motif to express spiritual ecstasy. The fresco above the central statue shows a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the natural light Bernini employed suggests divine communion between St. Teresa and God. Honestly, the only way to decide what Bernini was up to in this sculpture is to see it for yourself in-person.
Of Course, Dan Brown Wrote About It
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa gained media attention thanks to Dan Brown’s bestseller “Angels & Demons.” However, despite the popularity of “Angels & Demons“, few tourists know where to catch a glimpse of this masterful marble sculpture. But those intrepid travelers who make the journey receive an almost-private viewing of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as a reward.
To avoid those aforementioned Dan Brown tours, visit the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the early morning or late afternoon. The church opens for visitation on weekdays from 8:30AM-12PM and 3:30-6PM and between Mass services on Sundays.
How to Get to Santa Maria della Vittoria
The Santa Maria della Vittoria Church is located on Via Venti Settembre, which is a short walk from Termini, Rome’s main train station, or the Piazza della Repubblica subway stop. By foot, the church sits about 30 minutes from none other than the Colosseum.
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