The design of the Cappella Cornaro, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is one of the greatest achievements of that heavyweight of the Baroque, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
In 1647 Federico Cornaro, a wealthy Venetian cardinal and the Patriarch of Venice, acquired the patronage of the left transept of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which belonged to Order of the Discalced Carmelites. The cardinal commissioned Bernini to decorate the space, paying him the colossal sum of 12,000 scudi.
Bernini transformed the transept into an intimate little theatre, the private preserve of the Cornaro family, who look on from either side. The patron, Cardinal Federico Cornaro, occupies the right box, the second figure from the right.
In the centre of the chapel is the celebrated sculpture of TheEcstasy of St Teresa (1647-52), which Bernini self-deprecatingly described as 'least bad thing I have done'. St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) was a prominent Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic, who was canonised by Pope Gregory XV (r. 1621-23) in 1622.
Bernini's sculpture illustrates St Teresa's vision of religious ecstasy in an encounter with an angel, which she recounts in her autobiography: 'I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...'
On seeing the work, the French writer Charles de Brosses (1709-77) quipped, 'Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it'.