Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Feasts and Remembrances in the Octave of Christmas

Follower of Simon Bening, The Angels Announce
the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds
From a Book of Hours
Flemish,  c. 1500-1525
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 E 3, fol. 85v

Some of the major Church feasts bring with them a week of other celebrations.  This is known as an octave, from the Latin word for the number eight.  In times past many more feasts had octaves attached to them.  Most no longer do, while for most that remain the days of the octave are simply labeled "x day in the Octave of y" (for example, third day in the Octave of Easter).  

Christmas is, however, different.  It retains a daily differentiation for its octave, with each day of the octave having its own, very distinctive character.  Thus, we see:

December 26 - Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.

December 27 - Feast of Saint John the Evangelist:

      - When Knowledge of Iconography Is Lost (click here)
      - Images of John as Evangelist (click here)
      - The Figure With The Chalice (click here)
      - Martyrdom, Miracles and Death of John the Evangelist (click here)
      - Witnesses to the Crucifixion (click here)
      - The Last Supper (click here)

December 28 - Feast of the Holy Innocents (click here)

December 29 - Feast of Saint Thomas Becket (Currently an optional memorial) (click here)

December 30 - Feast of the Holy Family (In years where there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1 (i.e., because both the feast days fall on Sundays) the feast is celebrated on December 30.  If there is a Sunday between those dates, the feast is celebrated on the Sunday instead) (click here)

December 31 - Feast of Saint Sylvester, Pope (Currently an optional memorial)

January 1 -- Feast of Mary, Mother of God (click here)

While I have not yet produced an essay on the iconography of Saints Stephen or Sylvester, I have produced essays on the other days.  You can access these essays by clicking the links above as indicated.

Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas Octave!

© M. Duffy, 2023

Friday, December 22, 2023

On the Iconography of Christmas


Luisa Roldan (called La Roldana), Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Spanish, c. 1690
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Advent/Christmas Season has figured heavily in the history of Western Christian art from the early fourth century onward.  There is a tremendous amount of material available and over the years of this blog I have written a great deal about the iconography attached to the various days and weeks.  To make the material more accessible to readers I have gathered below most of these essays into a series of useful links for connecting to what I have already written on the various subjects (much as I have done for Holy Week and the Easter season).  

Although the specific readings these images reflect do not form part of the liturgy in every year, each year does touch on most of them.  

Please note that occasionally one or more of the essays mentioned may be unavailable at times.  This is because I am attempting to keep the essays updated with new images or images that have become available in more detailed versions, thanks to improving technology and expanded access to images.

So, here goes...

Last Week of Advent/Preparation for Christmas

The O Antiphons.  These are a series of antiphons (short verses that precede and follow the prayer of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Vespers) during the last week of Advent.  They offer meditations on the significance of the Child born on Christmas Day.

The O Antiphons (introduction)  click here

  • O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God!  click here
  • O Flower of Jesse's Stem!  click here 
  • O Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!  click here   
  • O Radiant Dawn! O Sun of Justice!  click here  
  • O King of All the Nations!  click here  
  • O Emmanuel! Savior of all people, come and set us free! click here

Nativity (central group of figures) from the Metropolitan Museum Christmas Tree
Italian (Naples), Late 18th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Annunciation

The apparition of the Archangel Gabriel to the young woman of Nazareth named Mary is the event that begins the events of the life of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, the Gospel readings for Mass on the last Sunday and last week of Advent, focus on it.  It has also been a principal topic for artists for many centuries, and is quite frequent on Christmas cards as well.  I have written extensively on the iconography of the Annunciation and my work can easily be accessed through the guide that I put together last year.

  • Links to the Iconography of the Annunciation  click here

The Consolation of Saint Joseph 

An angel reveals to Joseph that Mary's pregnancy comes from God, not from a man.  Joseph acts on his dream and marries Mary, becoming the guardian of the Son of God.

Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier, Nativity
French, c. 1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Birth of Jesus

The Nativity

Mary and Joseph are unable to find lodging in a crowded Bethlehem and find shelter in a stable (or cave) where Mary gives birth and places her child in the manger where the animals usually feed.  Angels announce the good news of his birth to the shepherds in the fields, who come and adore him. 

The Holy Family

Images of the three members of the Holy Family. 

  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph! – The Holy Family  click here  

Altarpiece with Scenes of the Infancy of Christ
Northern French, Late 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Aftermath

The Visit of the Wise Men

Wise men, led by a star, come from the East to visit the newborn child and offer him rich gifts.

  • How the Image of the Wise Men Was Formed  click here

The Holy Innocents

King Herod the Great knows about the prophecy of a new king in Israel.  After hearing the story of the wise men he decides to ensure his throne by eliminating this new born king.  So, he orders the massacre of all infant boys under 2 years old.  

  • The Holy Innocents – Nearly Forgotten Baby Martyrs  click here

The Flight into Egypt  

An angel warns Joseph about Herod's plans and orders him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to wait for Herod's death.  The Holy Family flees.

  • The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees, The "Simple" Images (Part I of a Series)  click here
  • The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations (Part 2 of a Series)  click here
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part II of 3  click here  
  • The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part III of 3  click here

Related Feasts  

The beginning of the new year brings with it two feasts that are reflections on the Christmas story rather than narrative depictions of the Gospels.  These are the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1 and the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3.

I wish you all a Blessed Christmas and a Healthy New Year!

Christmas Tree with 18th Century Presepio
Italian, 18th Century (tree modern)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those of you who live in the New York area or who may be visiting, the glorious Christmas Tree with its 18th Century Italian Presepio figures (sometimes known as the Angel Tree) is again on view.  This year it can be visited until January 7, 2024.  As always, it is well worth the visit.  

© M. Duffy, 2021, 2022 2023.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Iconography of the Annunciation


Attributed to the Egerton Master, Hours of Rene of Anjou
French (Paris), 1410
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1070, fol.15v 

""    "Be pleased, almighty God,
 to accept your Church’s offering,
 so that she, who is aware that her beginnings
 lie in the Incarnation of your Only Begotten Son,
 may rejoice to celebrate his  mysteries on this
 Who lives and reigns for ever and  ever."

     This is the Offertory Prayer of the Mass for the Feast of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25.

        Please note in 2024 this feast has been moved to April 8th.  The customary date on Monday of Holy Week, which took precedence.


     At its very beginning Christianity makes an astounding claim.  This is that one of God's greatest messengers, the Archangel Gabriel, visited a teenage Jewish girl in the Galilean town of Nazareth and announced to her that she had "found favor with God" to become the mother of a special child.  He told her that her child would be a son and would be named Jesus and that "He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  Her quite reasonable answer was that she didn't see how this could be as she was a virgin, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”  (Luke 1:26-35)

      The angel responded with the mysterious words: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."  And at these words the girl, whose name was Mary, gave her consent.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  And, nine months later, a baby boy was born in a stable in the Judean town of Bethlehem. (Luke 1:35-38)


     This is the Annunciation.  It is a feast day of the church that is celebrated on March 25th each year.  The date of the event that it commemorates is unknown of course.  But there was a belief in the early Church that March 25th was the day on which Jesus was both conceived and crucified.  It is difficult to say whether this thinking influenced the date chosen for the celebration of Christmas, the feast of the birth of Christ, as nine months from March 25 is December 25.  Or it may have been the other way round, with the date chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ dictating the date on which the Church celebrates his conception.

     The Annunciation is a major event in the New Testament, and therefore has a long and complex visual history.  Artists have tried to convey some of the mystery surrounding the event and to convey the ways in which thinking about this event developed over time.  A list of the many ways in which this iconography has been developed through the centuries is listed below.   Please feel free to explore.

© M. Duffy, 2022

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
The English translation of the Order of Mass, Antiphons, Collects, Prayers over the Offerings, Prayers after Communion, and Prefaces from The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.

O Key of David! Come, Break Down the Walls of Death!


Pseudo-Jacquemart, The Harrowing of Hell
From the Petites Heures of Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 166r

The antiphon for December 20 reads:  "O Key of David, opening the gates of God's eternal Kingdom:  come and free the prisoners of darkness!"

This plea echoes the words found in the Apostles Creed regarding what is known as the Harrowing of Hell.

The Apostles Creed, prayed by virtually every Christian denomination that uses a creed, says of Jesus the "He descended into hell" following His death and before the Resurrection. 

The fact that this subject is found in the Apostles Creed testifies to its early appearance in Christian belief, as does the Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday, which is a reading from the Divine Office for Holy Saturday.  

This beautiful reading, part of the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Saturday states:
"Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell.

The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them
worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity."

This belief is that during the time between His death on the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus descended to limbo to free the souls of the previously deceased just who were confined in waiting there.  Limbo is a place of darkness and peace, but not of the Presence of God, which had been lost through Original Sin.   Their souls were confined to limbo because had been barred from entering heaven by Adam's sin, but they were set free by Christ's saving death.  For them He truly became the Key of David, breaking down the walls of death and leading the captives to freedom and joy.  

There is a long tradition of images in art illustrating this subject. 

In the East the tradition culminates in the dramatic and dynamic Anastasis of the church of Saint Saviour in Chora in Istanbul, in which Christ seems to drag Adam and Eve from their graves.  

Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)
Byzantine, 1316-1321
Istanbul, Church of Saint Saviour in Chora

In the West the image appears in the Klosterneuberg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun, as well as in many paintings.

Nicholas of Verdun, Harrowing of Hell
Mosan (Meuse region), 1181
Klosterneuberg Austria, Klosterneuberg Priory

There are two distinct types of iconography that apply to most of these images. In one, Christ breaks down actual gates, which are often shown thrown to the ground or hanging off their hinges.  

Harrowing of Hell
From the Psalter of Christina of Markyate_
English (St. Alban's), 1124-1145
Hildesheim, Dombibliothek
Page 49

Workshop of Duccio, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Giotto Workshop, The Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1320-1325
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Fra Angelico, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1437-1445
Florence, Museo di San Marco

Master of the Osservanza, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1445
Cambridge (MA), Fogg Museum

In the other Christ leads or sometimes drags the souls of the dead from the 'mouth of hell', shown as the jaws of a whale-like monster or from a cave that resembles an open mouth.

Harrowing of Hell
From Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Northern), 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 11v

Andrea da Firenze, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Capella Spagnuolo

Alabaster Relief, Harrowing of Hell
English, c. 1440-1470
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Luca Penni, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1547-1548
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In both types He carries the staff, topped with a cross or with a pennant bearing a cross, that is His banner of victory over death.

Later images show Christ dragging the souls of the just from a more generalized image of a limbo jammed with just souls in waiting.  In these images the iconography of the gates or the mouth of hell is not as emphasized as in the earlier images.

The Harrowing of Hell
From a Book of Homilies
German (Lower Rhine), c. 1320-1350
Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum
MS W. 148, fol. 21r

Friedrich Pacher, The Harrowing of Hell
German, c. 1460s
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Andrea Mantegna, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1468
Private Collection 

Agnolo Bronzino, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1552
Florence, Church of Santa Croce

Tintoretto, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1568
Venice, Church of San Cassiano

© M. Duffy, 2023

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The O Antiphons

Follower of the Coetivy Master, Initial O
From a Book of Hours
French (Loire Region), c. 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G1.II, fol. 232v

For the convenience of readers I am reposting this listing of the O Antiphons. 

In the week before Christmas, the Liturgy of the Hours (the official daily prayer of the Church) includes a series of special antiphons preceding the recitation of the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) during Evening Prayer that are collectively called the O Antiphons.  In the English-speaking world most Christians are familiar with them as they are paraphrased in the complete verses of the well-known Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", which is a free translation of the medieval Latin text.

The O Antiphons refer to Christ under eight different titles.  These titles connect the events of the Old Testament that forecast different aspects of Jesus and the salvation He came to give.

To see the images these titles reflect, click on the title of the antiphon below:

December 19 -- O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

In recent years a revival of lay interest in the Liturgy of the Hours has brought more awareness of these special texts.

Here is a video of Ely Cathedral Women's Choir singing the traditional English version of "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel".

© M. Duffy, 2017

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Teresa of Avila – Mystic, Practical Woman, Doctor of the Church

Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, St. Teresa of Avila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
Flemish, 1630-1633
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nada te turbe. 
Nada te espante. 
Dios no se muda. 
Todo se pasa. 
La paciencia todo lo alcanza. 
Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta. 
Sólo Dios basta.

"Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee:
All things pass;
God never changes.

Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing:
God alone suffices."

Saint Teresa of Avila, "Poem IX".1 

October 15 is the feastday of Saint Teresa de Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila.

Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Alhumada was born in the Spanish town of Avila in 1515. In 1582 she died in one of the convents she had founded. Between these two dates she lived a life of intense prayer, intense work, frequent illness and some controversy.

She was canonized within a short period of her death (in 1622) and, in 1970, she was named a Doctor of the Church (one of four women Doctors of the 33 saints that have been honored with this title since 1298, when it was first used). A Doctor of the Church is a saint whose personal holiness and writings have contributed greatly to Catholic theological understanding.

Anonymous Nineteenth Century Copy of the Only Known Portrait of St. Teresa Done from Life by the Carmelite friar Juan de la Miseria
Spanish, 1877
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Like her three female colleagues among the Doctors, Teresa’s contribution is mainly to the understanding of prayer and of the mystical life.2  She is one of the classic guides and sources for those seeking a deeper personal union with Christ. Her description of the stages through which the soul passes as it moves to greater and greater union with God is based on her own deep personal experiences, which began when she was still quite a young woman.

Iconography of Saint Teresa of Avila

Much of her iconography focuses on her visionary relationship to Jesus Christ and his redemptive suffering.  It also includes references to her reforming zeal, to her human life story and to her other visionary experiences.  Finally, it includes specific images of her most famous visionary experience, what is known as the transverberation, and of her reception in heaven.  One of the most well-known images of this major saint is located in the chapel in her honor in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome and is one of the great masterpieces of the master of the Baroque, Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Adoring Christ

She is frequently shown in adoration of either the crucified or the risen Christ.  

Attributed to Gerard van Honthorst, Christ Crowning St. Theresa
Dutch, c.1614-1616
Genoa, Church of Saint Anne

Alonso Cano, The Apparition of Christ Crucified to Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, 1629
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Alonso Cano, The Apparition of Christ Crucified to Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, 1629
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Guercino, The Apparition of Christ to Saint Teresa
Italian, c.1630-40
Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet

Daniel Seghers, Garland with Jesus Appearing to Saint Teresa
Flemish, c. 1630
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Antonio Guerra the Elder, Saint Teresa of Avila Offering Her Heart
Spanish, 1667
Perpignan, Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud

Bartolome Perez, Garland of Flowers with Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, ca. 1676
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francois Pascal Simon Gerard, Saint Teresa
French, 1827
Paris, Maison Marie-Therese

Charles Henri Michel, Vision of Saint Teresa of Avila
French, Second half of 19th Century
Peronne, Musée Alfred Danicourt

Charles-Henri Michel, Vision of Saint Teresa of Avila
French, First Half of 20th Century
Charenton-le-Pont, Parish Church

Luis Berdejo Elipe, Saint Teresa Crowned by an Angel
Spanish, Mid-20th Century
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

The Inspired Reformer

Teresa was not just a contemplative visionary, she was also a woman of action. Based on the insights she had gained from her prayer and mystical experiences, she undertook a reform of the Carmelite order, eventually establishing the branch order of the Discalced (Unshod) Carmelites.  Consequently, she is often shown at her desk, working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Teresa's Vision of the Dove
Flemish, c. 1614
Cambridge (UK), Fitzwilliam Museum

Workshop of Jose de Ribera, Saint Teresa of Avila
Spanish, 1644
Private Collection

Anonymous, Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, c. 1650-1700
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Anonymous Copy of Jose de Ribera, Santa Teresa de Jesús
Spanish, 17th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Anonymous, Saint Teresa
Spanish, Second Half of 17th Century
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Francisco de Herrera el Mozo, Santa Teresa de Jesús
Spanish, c. 1667-1670
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Miguel Jadraque y Sanchez Ocanya, Saint Teresa de Jesus
Spanish, 1882
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Her reform affected not only the women’s branch of the Carmelites, but, with the help of the Carmelite monk, her friend, fellow mystic and fellow doctor of the church, St. John of the Cross, and others, it extended to the men’s branch as well. The goal of the reform was to return to a more primitive, even stern, interpretation of the Carmelite monastic rule.

The work of reform and the consequent work of establishing daughter houses for her nuns involved Teresa in much travel and practical work, not easy for a woman who was often in poor health and who would have preferred to spend most of her time in prayer.

Devotion to Saint Joseph

Among the works of art inspired by Saint Teresa are a group that illustrate the idea that the Virgin Mary entrusted Saint Teresa to the care and protection of Saint Joseph, Mary's husband.  Saint Teresa was very devoted to Saint Joseph and attributed her cure from a serious illness to his intercession.  She encouraged her spiritual sons and daughters to honor him and seek his intercession as well.

Andrea Vaccaro, Saint Teresa with the Virgin and Saint Joseph
Italian, 1642
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Vincenzo Fato, Saint Joseph and the Christ Child Appearing to Saint Teresa
Italian, c. 1751-1800
Nardo, Church of Santa Teresa

Giuseppe Bottani, Mary and Joseph Appearing to Saint Teresa
Italian, 1780
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Francois Guillaume Menageot, The Virgin Placing Saint Teresa of Avila Under the Protection of Saint Joseph
French, c. 1787
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Biographical Paintings From the Life of Saint Teresa

In addition to the many works of art that highlight her sanctity and the visionary experiences that helped shape her life, some works focus on her active life, as founder and defender of the reform, or as a humble daughter of the Church or as a miraculous healer. 

Anonymous, Communion of Saint Teresa
Spanish, 17th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Jose Garcia Hidalgo, Saint Peter of Alcantara Hearing the Confession of Saint Teresa
Spanish, c. 1650-1700
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Juan Garcia de Miranda, Saint Teresa and Her Brother, Rodrigo, Building a Hermitage
Spanish, 1735
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Juan Garcia de Miranda, The Education of St. Teresa
Spanish, 1735
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz, The First Miracle of Saint Teresa de Avila, The Resurrection of Her Nephew, Don Gonzalo Ovalle, Son of her Sister Dona Juana de Ahumada
Spanish, 1855
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Benito Mercade y Fabregas, Saint Teresa Defending Her Reform Before Gratian
Spanish, 1868
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Pablo Pardo Gonzalez, The Viaticum of Saint Teresa
Spanish, 1870
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Jose Alcazar Tejedor, Santa Teresa
Spanish, 1884
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila

Saint Teresa is a highly respected saint, owing to her writings, her holy and hard-working life, her many convent foundations, the inspiration she has been to the daughters and sons (nuns, brothers and priests) who continue to follow in her footsteps and her own visionary experiences.  One of her mystical experiences has, above all others, been attractive to artists.  This is the so-called Transverberation.  

This experience was described by Saint Teresa herself in her autobiography Libro de mi vida, thus:
Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of this kind: I saw an angel close to me, on my left side, in bodily form…. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful–-his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire….I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s 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. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying."   3

A number of artists attempted to capture this scene in their imaginations and translate it to canvas and paint. 

Jacopo Palma the Younger, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila
Italian, 1615
Rome, Church of San Pancrazio

Attributed to Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Saint Teresa in Ecxtasy
Flemish, c. 1650
Tourcoing, MUba Eugene Leroy

Circle of Pietro da Cortona, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa
Italian, c. 1650-1700
Cortona, Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca

Jacob Van Oost the Elder, The Transverberation of St. Theresa
Flemish, c.1650
Lille, Church of Saint Maurice

Giovanni Segala, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa
Italian, c. 1675-1725
Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse

Jean-Baptiste Santerre, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila
French, 1710
Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Chapel

However, none of these pictures hold anything like the imaginative power brought to the subject by one of the greatest artists of his own or any other age, the great Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Bernini, Saint Teresa and the Cornaro Chapel

Gianlorenzo Bernini was the pre-eminent artist of the Italian Baroque. Indeed, he has often been credited with the creation of the Baroque style. Born in 1598, the son of the successful late-sixteenth-century sculptor, Pietro Bernini, he exhibited an unusually precocious talent in that difficult field (marble sculpture), while still a young boy. Very few people have ever handled marble with greater sensitivity or virtuosity.

But Gianlorenzo’s talent was not limited to marble alone, or even to sculpture alone. He was also a superlative architect, painter and creator of stunningly memorable, highly intellectual, decorative schemes. While the structure of St. Peter’s Basilica is largely the product of the great Michelangelo Buonnaroti, the interior is primarily the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. As Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) is reputed to have told Bernini shortly after his election as Pope “It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini Pope; but We are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of Our Pontificate”. 4  Urban’s statement would be echoed by several of his successors as Pope.

One of Bernini’s greatest works, recognized as such in his own lifetime, was inspired by the experience of her transverberation described by Saint Teresa.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Cornaro Chapel
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

Bernini’s interpretation of the scene reveals him at the height of his creative powers; using architecture, painting, stucco work, marble, stained glass and bronze to create a great illusion that, like all the best Baroque work, draws the spectator into the “reality” of the scene before him or her. This work is the famous Cornaro Chapel, in the Roman church of Santa Marie della Vittoria (named in honor of Our Lady of Victory, a relatively new title for the Blessed Virgin in Bernini’s time). The chapel was executed between 1647 and 1652 at the behest of the Cornaro family (whose burial vault lies beneath the floor).

The chapel is relatively shallow and is situated to the right of the main altar of the church, which stands on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Rather than describing it myself I’m going to quote the elegant description penned by Rudolf Wittkower, the classic art historian of the Roman Baroque, in his book Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque.

The Cappella Cornaro, which cannot be photographed in its entirety, is an indivisible unit from floor to ceiling. On its vaulting the painted sky opens, angels have peeled aside the clouds, so that the heavenly light falling from the Holy Dove can reach the zone in which the mortals live. 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Cornaro Chapel Ceiling
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

Rays of this heavenly light fall on to the group of Saint Teresa, and with the light has descended the seraph whose companions appear in the clouds. In the sculptured group Bernini represented the most important–the canonical–vision of the Carmelite Saint corresponding exactly with her own account of it. She described how the angel pierced her heart repeatedly with a floating golden arrow, whereupon, she continued, ‘the pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but simultaneously I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last eternally. It was not bodily, but physical pain, although it affected to a certain extent also the body. It was sweetest caressing of the soul by God.’ With consummate skill Bernini made this scene real and visionary at the same time. The seraph, a figure of heavenly beauty, is about to pierce the heart of the Saint with the fiery arrow of love and thus effect her mystical union with Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Cornaro Chapel, The Arrow of Divine Love
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

The Saint is swooning in an ecstatic trance, her limbs hang inert and numb, her head has sunk back, her eyes are half closed and the mouth opens in an almost audible moan. The vision takes place in an imaginary realm on a large cloud magically suspended in mid-air.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel, Central Group

Sheltered by the large canopy of greenish, grey-blue and reddish marble and placed against an iridescent alabaster background, the group is bathed in a warm and mysterious light, falling from above through a window of yellow glass hidden behind the pediment and playing on the highly polished marble surface of the two figures. 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Along the side walls of the chapel, above the doors, eight members of the Cornaro family appear behind prie-deus which have been compared with theatre boxes. The portraits stand out almost three-dimensionally before a colored and gilded stucco perspective in flat relief representing the interior of a church. Since the two sides are made to look like parts of the same interior, the fictitious architecture and the architecture of the real chapel seem to interpenetrate. This creates the illusion that the Cornaro family is sitting in an extension of the space in which we move.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Combined view of the central group of Saint Teresa and the Angel with the members of the Cornaro family.  This view cannot be seen in real life because the Cornaro family members are depicted on the side walls of the chapel and so perpendicular to the central group.  

When standing on the central axis opposite the group of Saint Teresa, it becomes apparent that the chapel is too shallow for the members of the Cornaro family to see the miracle on the altar. For that reason Bernini has shown them arguing, reading and pondering, certainly about what they know is happening on the altar, but which is hidden from their eyes.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Members of the Cornaro Family
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Under the pavement of the chapel is the family tomb chamber, and on the cover of the vault two inlaid skeletons seem to express their surprise at the miracle with lively gesticulation. Thus not only the ceiling and the walls but even the pavement forms part of the grand dynamic unit.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Praying Skeleton
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Astonished Skeleton
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Cornaro Chapel

It is the suggestive characterization, within one integrated whole, of the different realms of Man, Saint and Godhead that substantiates the belief in the existence of this mystic hierarchy of things. Like the Cornaro family, the worshipper participates in the supra-human mystery shown on the altar, and if he yields entirely to the ingenious and elaborate directives given by the artist, he will step beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world. “5

Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Cornaro Chapel
Italian, c. 1647-1652
Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria

Saint Teresa Entering Heaven

A number of artists produced their imagined depictions of the entry of Saint Teresa into heaven, welcomed by the hosts of heaven and the Person to whom she had devoted her life.

Pietro Novelli, Saint Teresa in Glory
Italian, c. 1635-1637
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Anonymous, Saint Teresa in Glory
Austrian, 1748
Vienna, Saint Elizabeth Hospital

Francisco Bayeu y Subias, Saint Teresa in Glory
Spanish, c. 1760-1770
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

If she had done no other work in her life than through her mystical prayers and visions she would have been justly famous.  That she accomplished so much in the practical level makes her life not only edifying, but downright amazing. 

Saint Teresa of Jesus, pray for us!

© M. Duffy, 2011.  Revised, with additional text and pictures, 2023.

1. From  Complete Works St. Teresa of  Avila (1963) edited by E. Allison Peers, Vol. 3, p. 288.

2.  The other three female doctors of the church are:  Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

3. Teresa of Avila. The Life of St. Teresa de Jesus, Teddington, Middelsex, The Echo Library, 2006, Chapter XXIX, Section 16-17, p. 197. Accessible at

4.   Wittkower, Rudolf. Gianlorenzo Bernini, The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London, The Phaidon Press, Second edition, 1966, p.7. 

5. Wittkower, Rudolf. op cit., pp. 25-26.