The Santa Maria della Vittoria is just a small church, but it is also one of the most lavishly decorated Baroque churches in all of Rome. It is best known for a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) called the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. The church and statue play an important role in Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons.
The ‘Vittoria’ part of the church’s name refers to the Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620. In this battle, forces of the Holy Roman Empire decisively defeated the Protestant Bohemians. The King of Bohemia, Frederick V of the Palatinate, was forced to flee to his second cousins in the Netherlands. Because of his short reign, he became known to posterity as ‘The Winter King’. During the battle, an imperial chaplain had worn an icon of the Nativity around his neck. It featured an image of Our Lady, who was thought to have aided in the victory. The icon was first taken to Prague and later to Rome. Since the chaplain was a member of the Order of the Discalced (i.e. shoeless) Carmelites, it was subsequently carried in solemn procession to the site where this Order was building a church. The church was originally dedicated to Saint Paul, but it was later decided to the Virgin Mary instead, in gratitude for her help during the Battle of White Mountain.
There had been a chapel of Saint Paul at this site for centuries, which was later replaced by a larger church. It was only in 1607 that the Discalced Carmelites bought this church and the surrounding land and began building a new church and convent for themselves. Work on the church was later continued by cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), whose name features prominently on the church facade, just like at the San Crisogono in Trastevere. The friars had dug up a statue known as the Sleeping Hermaphroditus, which had been claimed by Borghese. In return for the statue, he had offered to finance the church. Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) was the chief architect involved, but the facade was designed by Giovanni Battista Soria (1581-1651). The church was completed in 1626. It was formally dedicated to Our Lady of Victory during the pontificate of Pope Innocentius X (1644-1655).
The lavish Baroque decorations were added in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately the church suffered serious damage from a fire in the sanctuary that erupted on 29 June 1833. The original icon was destroyed and so were the apse frescoes by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini (1609-1681). The icon was replaced with another icon, and the apse frescoes with a nineteenth century painting showing the entrance into Prague of the image of Our Lady. This painting is actually pretty good.
Exploring the Santa Maria della Vittoria
The church is a small Baroque jewel box and even people who dislike Baroque churches will find it impressive. Although Cerrini’s apse frescoes were destroyed in the fire, his ceiling fresco is fortunately still there. It is basically an allegory of the Battle of White Mountain, with Our Lady and her angels (i.e. the Catholics) high up in Heaven and the forces of darkness, led by Lucifer (i.e. the Protestants), being thrown out. The fresco itself is surrounded by stucco angels and putti, which were added in the eighteenth century.
The best part of the Santa Maria della Vittoria is obviously the last chapel on the left, the Cappella Cornaro. Here you will usually find hordes of tourists admiring Bernini’s statue of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. The chapel was named after its patrons, the Cornaro family from Venice. Known as the Corner in the Venetian dialect, the Cornaro were a huge family that provided the Most Serene Republic with four Doges, many cardinals and dozens of other officials. The last Lusignan Queen of Cyprus, Catherine Cornaro, was also a member of the family (see Cyprus: Paphos and the history of Cyprus). The first patron of the Cornaro chapel was cardinal Federico Cornaro (1579-1653), who had been Patriarch of Venice since 1631. Federico paid Bernini a handsome sum to decorate the chapel. The artist executed some of his best work here between 1647 and 1652.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is a controversial sculpture, and that is putting it mildly. Cut from a single block of marble, it shows the saint – Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) – experiencing her ecstasy with an angel standing over her, ready to pierce her heart with his spear for a second time. The statue has been called pornographic, and one can understand why. Theresa looks like she is having an orgasm, and the angel’s strange smile says more than a thousand words. The French writer Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) is said to have remarked “If this is divine love, then I am quite familiar with it”. Yet in spite of its controversial nature, the sculpture was never removed and no one can doubt that it was brilliantly executed by Bernini. To the right of it, one can see cardinal Cornaro himself and other members of his family, seated in an opera box: Bernini created the chapel in the shape of a little theatre. Only the cardinal seems to be watching the saint in her ecstasy; the other three are not interested (there is a second opera box on the other side of the chapel).
The Santa Maria della Vittoria and Bernini’s sculpture feature prominently in Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons (2000), and in the movie of the same name (2009). In a rather grisly scene, an abducted cardinal is roasted alive in the church and protagonist Robert Langdon barely escapes with his life while the commander of the Swiss Guard is killed and Langdon’s female companion kidnapped. It was obviously impossible to film this scene in the actual church, so the makers had to resort to CGI. If you watch the movie scene closely, you will notice they made a mistake: after killing many people, the Assassin seems to walk from the nave into an aisle. There are no aisles in the Santa Maria della Vittoria. The church has a single nave only.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 255;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 73-74;
- Santa Maria della Vittoria on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 His mother was Louise Juliana of Nassau, daughter of William the Silent. His second cousins were the stadholders and half-brothers Maurice and Frederick Henry, sons of the same William the Silent.