BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo
(b. 1598, Napoli, d. 1680, Roma)

View of the Cornaro Chapel

Marble, stucco, gilt bronze
Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

In 1647 Bernini began the project that stands as perhaps his greatest achievement and the paradigmatic example of 17th-century art, the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Indeed, of all his works it was the one that Bernini, always self-critical, considered "the least bad". He was commissioned by the Venetian Cardinal Federigo Cornaro (1579–1653) to decorate a small chapel forming the left transept of the early 17th-century church. The patron wanted to construct a mortuary chapel for himself, commemorate seven other distinguished members of his family and, especially, honour St Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and Carmelite reformer canonized in 1622.

Bernini retained the existing order of colossal pilasters and continuous entablature that defines the entire interior fabric of the church, weaving into it a similar order of pilasters and entablature to define the back and side walls of the chapel. Into this matrix he set the pedimented altar tabernacle, framed by double columns, with the marble group of the Ecstasy of St Teresa, which shows the saint recumbent on a cloud and an angel piercing her heart; the sculpture is illuminated by a hidden window. Below, the front of the altar is decorated with a gilded bronze relief of the Last Supper. In choir-boxes on each side wall four portraits of male members of the Cornaro family, seen against an architectural backdrop, read or are engaged in discussion.

The unity of sculpture, painting and architecture makes the chapel one of Bernini's greatest achievements. This programmatic and aesthetic unity represents the culmination of Bernini's career; a perfect union of form and content.