Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" is a crucial monument in Counter Reformation art, a bold celebration of the legitimacy of religious imagery. Everything about this work from its subject matter to the theatricality of its presentation reflects the Counter Reformation's drive to populate churches with imagery that would inspire the faithful. Much of seventeenth-century religious art was made in the shadow of the debate over images and both the patron of this work, Cardinal Federico Cornaro, and the artist who made it, Gianlorenzo Bernini, were firmly committed to defending them.

At the heart of Martin Luther's drive to reform the Church was a shift from the primacy of the image to that of the written word. Accompanying this ideological shift was the more practical concern about idolatry, which took the form of passionate sermons against religious imagery and, eventually, widespread acts of iconoclasm. In the face of these calls for reform, Pope Paul III ordered a comprehensive review of Roman Catholic doctrines and liturgical practices. This eighteen-year effort, known as the Council of Trent (1545-63), included a re-evaluation of the Church's policy on art and the sources, inspiration and objectives of its patronage. The ornate church interior was singled out by reformers as evidence of the Catholic Church's worldliness, corruption and widespread encouragement of idolatry among its adherents. In December 1563 the Council published guidelines on art, asserting the value of sacred images and the importance of their role in instructing the faithful.

However, the fervor of Counter Reformation image production does not fully account for the "Ecstasy of St. Theresa." Bernini's unprecedented facility with marble and penchant for sensual drama determined much about the monument's appearance as did Cornaro's unusual choice of subject matter. Mysticism such as that practiced by Theresa was considered dangerous by some in the Catholic Church due to its stress on the individual's direct experience of God without the aid or intervention of the clergy. As did the Protestant reforms, mysticism inherently challenged both the institutional path to salvation and the church hierarchy by teaching the possibility and desirability of an individual union with God. Theresa of Avila, who died in her native Spain in 1582, was already a divisive figure within her lifetime. Her emotive writings were controversial and she was summoned by the inquisitors in 1576 and interrogated for heresy. Experiences such as hers were often considered to be evidence of heresy, to which both women and those of Jewish blood were thought to be particularly prone --Theresa was both.

Given the Church's deep-seated suspicion of mysticism, Cornaro's choice of a female mystic saint in the throes of a very personal union with God seems unusual. Yet she appears reclining on a cloud, her head thrown back in a sigh and her chest offered for another thrust of the arrow, all with Cornaro and members of his distinguished family (which included six cardinals and one Venetian doge -- his father) looking on. In January 1647 Cornaro acquired the rights to the chapel in the as yet undecorated left transept arm of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria intending it for his own burial and to commemorate his family. Adjoining the church was the convent of the Discalced, or Barefoot Carmelites, the order founded by Theresa that was committed to poverty (hence the lack of shoes). She was one of the church's newest saints, having been canonized in 1622, and was for Counter Reformation officers such as Cornaro the most recent evidence that God still resided in the Catholic rather than the Protestant church.

Indeed, Cornaro was heavily involved in the Church's efforts to recover ground lost to the reformist movement. He was a member of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, whose main function was to supervise the missionary seminaries sponsored by the various religious orders, but whose larger brief was to advance the Catholic faith. For Cornaro, God's continuing acceptance of the Roman church lay in the ongoing line of saints whose lives were denoted by miraculous occurrences. They were signs of God's election not only of that individual but also of the particular brand of Christianity he or she espoused. The fundamental difference between Theresa's personal experience of God and that called for by the Protestants is that hers was entirely felt. Her bouts of ecstasy, which included intense spiritual and physical sensations including levitation, were not in any way related to the more cerebral study of the written word.

Theresa and the seraph (God's stand in) are suspended fifteen feet off the floor in a recessed rectangular opening flanked by polychrome marble columns on the chapel's central wall. Gilded wooden rays lead the eye upward towards a golden crucifix at the center of the pediment, suggesting the presence of God and recalling the Trinity. The Cornaro family is represented by eight marble busts clustered in two groups of four and placed in recessed niches on opposing sides of the chapel. Church interiors depicted in dramatic perspective open out behind them as they watch the drama of Theresa's ecstasy unfold and take part in what appear to be passionate discussions. Unlike Bernini's sculptures in the round that encourage viewing from every possible angle, with the "Ecstasy of St. Theresa," he assigns the viewer a specific spot from which to take in the spectacle. At the exact center of the crossing under the main dome of the church (approximately 25 feet away from Theresa and the seraph) the visitor's eye is met by that of Cardinal Federico Cornaro himself. It is from this viewing point that the Cornaro busts and the church interiors behind them fall into place. If these church fathers are impotent in the face of Theresa's radical mysticism, they are clearly in control of the surrounding space and the viewer's experience of it.