The Influence of Michelangelo on Bernini: the Pieta vs the Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Rachel Crist

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Fig. 7 Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Pieta”, c. 1499, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (source —


The Pieta was commission from Michelangelo for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres. It is currently housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome. The statue was completed and installed in 1499, but not without multiple problems, however. First, the artist had a hard time finding blocks of marble that would fit the scale required for a two-figured group in Rome. Next, when Michelangelo finally found the right marble for the statue, he had trouble shipping it because of a recurring problem of exportation, which had been going on in abundance in the marble trade around the area. Finally, the patron, Cardinal Jean de Bilheres, died before he even was able to see the work.[1] These problems did make it difficult for Michelangelo to finish the work, but with everlasting fortitude he finished it and made a masterpiece. The figure of the Pieta displays the body of Christ laid on the lap of his mother Mary, just after the crucifixion. In this image, symbolism is a strong theme. Mary is depicted as young, which would not be the case since she is 33 years older than Christ at his death, and the physical embodiment of incorruptible purity. Mary is said to have kept her youthful appearance because she remained chaste throughout her life.[2] Christ symbolizes the humble, selfless leader who gave his life in order to save ours. His body is unmarked of the torture he had to endure. “The outstretched hands of Mary act as a sign of display rather than grief, inviting contemplation of the redemptive meaning of Christ’s sacrifice”.[3]

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Fig. 8, Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa, ” c. 1652, Sant Maria della Vittora, Rome, (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa was completed between 1647 and 1652. It was commissioned by Cardinal Frederico Cornaro and the use was originally to be for his burial chamber. It is currently displayed in the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Marie della Vittora in Rome. This is also a religious subject, but can be interpreted in different ways. The subject is the experience of St. Teresa as she is being pierced by an arrow of an angel resulting in the highest and most intense form of spiritual and physical pleasure. This work received much criticism because of the sensual insinuation that can be interpreted by looking at it. However, Bernini often said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever done. [4] He created a visual that enables the viewer to observe the subject on more than one level. “The viewer sees the Ecstasy- removed, white, mysteriously illuminated, but also very solid and realistic- and ultimately participates in a religious experience of their own, aided by the mystic concretion hovering before their eyes”.[5]

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Fig. 9, Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Pieta”, c. 1499, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Also, the architecture surrounding the marble figure emulates the emotion of the act that is being portrayed. On the side walls of the sculpture are the members of the Cornaro family, who seem to be spectating on the vision that they cannot actually see, since it more spiritual than physical. However, Bernini portrays them as a sort of audience one would see in a theater, watching an opera, rather than a saint in the midst of an intense spiritual vision. Another important factor about the architecture for this piece is that Bernini goes to great lengths in creating light for the gold rays shining down onto St. Teresa, with the angel. He implemented a special window in the back of the Church, unseen to the public from the interior of the chapel, to make the action of the angel coming down from heaven as impressive and transcendent as possible. The last factor about the architecture for this piece that is relevant is the arches and broken pediment above the figure of Teresa. The broken pieces of architecture suggest that the angel came down from heaven with such a force it bent the marble so much that it eventually stretched outward toward the viewer.

These two works can be compared in terms of symbolism and technique. The religious theme of the works is apparent, but the symbol of God how he make both women spiritually whole can be seen through the challenges they are both being depicted as enduring. Also, the physiognomy of the faces is relevant because they symbolize the emotion of the overall work. In this case, Mary’s face symbolizes her sorrow over the death of her son and Teresa’s face symbolizes the overwhelming intensity of spiritual awareness. The similarities of technique are similar in the sense that they both use complex drapery. The drapery in both works distorts the true form of the body underneath. The influence that Bernini took from this work would be the technique of heavy drapery to distort the image of the body and the pure symbolism that can be seen through the emotion surrounding the work. “Bernini used painting, sculpture, architecture, and added the natural resource of light to create a hallucinatory revelation.”[6]

[1] Michael Hirst, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame. (London: Yale University Press, 2011), 37

[2] Anthony Hughes. Michelangelo. (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997),. 19

[3] Hughes, Michelangelo 20

[4] Howard Hibbard. Bernini. (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 128

[5] Hibbard, Bernini, 138

[6] Hibbard, 134