Bernini and the Cornaro chapel

We now cross the intersection and see the Santa Maria della Vittoria to the right. This baroque church from 1605 was built by Maderno. The church is particularly renowned because of the chapel of the wealthy Cornaro family.

The Santa Maria della Vittoria     Piazza di San Bernardo

Santa Maria della Vittoria  facade
photos: Wikipedia

Exterior light shaft

The Venetian cardinal Federico Cornaro commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to design a chapel. Before we enter the church itself, we first walk onwards to look at a rather special window on the side of the church. Gian Lorenzo designed this window to allow for sufficient light to enter the Cornaro chapel. We turn around and enter the church. On our left hand side we see the famous chapel. The map of the Cornaro chapel 1647-1650, Santa Maria della Vittoria and an engraving of the chapel.

The latest restoration uncovered a lens. This lens ensured that on October 15, the feast of St. Teresa,  the light was able to spread optimally across the statues. This is Bernini working as a playwright (read more about the lens, click here for Franco Mormando).

The Santa Maria della Vittoria  and the other side

Santa Maria della Vittoria nave
Wikipedia and the other side: jean louis mazieres
Guido Ubaldo Abbatini 'Cornaro chapel'  1652

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini Cornaro chapel 1652       Nowadays

The Cornaro family had multiple cardinals. In Venice, Frederico was already in contact with the Teresian Order. The monastery next to the Santa Maria della Vittoria belonged to the Discalced Carmelites (Teresa). It therefore made sense to base the burial chapel around the theme: Saint Teresia of Avilia, who was canonised in 1622. The first thing you will see is Frederico looking your way as if inviting you to partake in the scene.

The Cornaro chapel in situ

Cornaro chapel Bernini
photos: Wikipedia and in situ Steven Zucker

Angel and Teresa of Avilia

Cornaro chapel: Angel and Teresa of Avilia

“I saw an angel very near me, towards my left side”

Bernini Cornaro chapel: Angel and Teresa of Avilia

A deeply religious man, Bernini was inspired by the ground-breaking work of Ignatius de Loyola, ‘Spiritual Exercises‘ (Wikipedia),  but also especially by the autobiography 
(chapter XXIX at footnote 231) of the holy Teresa of Avila. In it, Teresa describes one of her visions as follows:

“It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form — a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely. Though I often see representations of angels, my visions of them are of the type which I first mentioned. It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. They must be those who are called cherubim: they do not tell me their names but I am well aware that there is a great difference between certain angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it — indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience.”  St. Teresa of Avila ‘Autobiography’  (Chapter XXIX footnote 231).

Model as Study Bernini Hermitage
photo: Enric Martinez i Vallmitjana

The angel    St. Teresa

Upon a closer look you can see that Bernini did a fine job reading the texts of St. Teresa. Pay special attention to the angel’s cloak, which is strongly reminiscent of real flames. The inner, whirling stream of emotions that Teresia is experiencing, like the angel impaling her several times with his lance, is clearly displayed by Bernini on the drapes. The gown covering Teresa looks similar to fire tongues or a waterfall. It has nothing to do with how folds normally occur. Instead, Bernini carved deep, irregular folds.

Model as study
Bernini  Study c. 1650 Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome

Apart from literature, Gian Lorenzo likely also used a painting by Giovanni Lanfranco, whose painted ecstacy of Marghereta of Cortona from 1622 shows a lot of similarities with the marble Teresa. Bernini also made a model as a preliminary study, which can now be seen in the Hermitage.

The manner in which Bernini sculpted the mystical experience of this saint was shocking to some visitors and contemporaries.

“A contemporary of Bernini, for instance, complained about Teresa’s posture: ‘The most pure of Virgins is not only dragged into the third heaven (earthly pleasure), but also through mud, this not only casts a Venus to earth, but also into prostitution.” Cited from: Charles Scribner III, ‘Bernini’, Harry N. Abrams, INC., Publishers, New York 1991 p. 92 and footnote 47

P. P. Rubens ‘Teresa and the Holy Spirit’ 80 x 54 cm c. 1614
P.P. Rubens ‘Appearance of the Holy Spirit Teresa’ 1612 -1614
Bernini face of Teresa

This contemporary of Bernini will also have noticed the remarkable facial expression. The Teresa of Bernini is a beautiful young woman. Very different from Rubens who portrayed Teresa.

The Frenchman, De Brosses, commented in the 18th century: ‘if that is divine love (the ecstasy of Teresa), then I know just what it is.’ Whatever it may be, three years after her passing in 1585, Teresa’s coffin was opened and bystanders commented how her body was still fully intact and even her breasts appeared full of life. Bernini had very different thoughts about divine love. He was a deeply religious man and considered this chapel his greatest contribution.

In earlier times, we would have been best off visiting this chapel in the late afternoon. The light then descends through the window along the gold rays onto the white marble. For some years now, the electrical lighting now ensures that visitors have a good view at any time of the day.

Workshop of Bernini ‘Portrait of Bernini’ terracotta, height 46 cm, 1680s

Corona chapel Bernini
Hermitage museum
photo recess: Benjamín Núñez González

Cordonato chapel

Characteristic to Bernini, as we will see more often this day, is that he sees architecture, painting and sculpting as one conjoined art form. He aligns it all. The central event – the transverberatio of Theresa (piercing the heart) – is placed inside a deep three-dimensional recess. Far above her, Gian Lorenzo lined the vault with plaster and painted it over. The sky breaks open, as it were, and a divine light radiates downwards.

The sky breaks open      Stained glass window

Corona chapel Sky brakes open
photos: aurelio candido and window Steven Zucker

Recess members of the Cornaro family
The Cornaro family

On the sides (right side) of the chapel, eight members of the Cornaro family are sculpted into the walls. They sit behind a church bench: some of them conversing, some of them reading, but do they see what takes place in front of them? The Cornaro family members are not from the same era as when this chapel was built. Federico Cornaro, who commissioned this chapel, was the only one left alive. He is the one depicted with pupils in his eyes (second figure to the right in the image).

Recess members Cornaro family Bernini left
photo: Mattes

Cornaro family left recess        Zoom in        In situ

Recess members Cornaro family Bernini
photos: Steven Zucker and zoom in: aurelio candido

Cornaro family clay model Bernini, 1647 – 1649

Cornaro family clay model Bernini
Fogg Museum of Art
Corona chapel floor tondo resurrection
photo: Jose Geerdink


If we gaze over the low balustrade to the floor, separating visitors from this chapel, we see the dead resurrected from their graves and peering upwards. They are a reminder that we face the grave of the Cornaro family.

Cornaro chapel altar and last supper

Cornaro chapel altar/ last supper
photo: Sailko

Of course there is also a last supper displayed. By the sacrifice of Jesus, man was no longer damned forever. Thus, the dead could hope for eternal life in the afterlife.

Cornaro chapel: Last supper
photo: Sailko

If we have a close look at the entire chapel, it’s not surprising that Bernini made decors for theatre plays. In the chapel of Paulina (Vatican), Gian Lorenzo hid hundreds of lamps behind self-crafted clouds to create an illusion of heaven. In addition, Bernini even made lightning, thunder and a flood appear on stage. It is striking that Gian Lorenzo designed this chapel as if it were a painting. The whole chapel is meant to be looked at from one single point, as with a central perspective. Later this day, we will see that he worked from one perspective for his three-dimensional statues in the Villa Borghese as well.

Money was never an issue in constructing this rather small chapel. The marble types alone are a treat for anyone who knows about these: For instance, there’s breccia africanoplates of verde anticogiallo anticopanels of alabaster and frames of breccia semesanto. Unsurprisingly, people at times referred to this as a boudoir or in Molkenboer’s words: ‘a shimmering jubilation of marble and colour.’

The chapel cost 12.000 scudi in total. This exceeds the costs of the famous church, the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini, which we will visit this morning.

Read more about the Cornaro chapel? Samantha Landre The Bel Composto in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel (pdf)

Continuation Rome day 4: Bernini’s  Sant’Andrea al Quirinale