Ludovica Albertoni, a Roman noblewoman, lived in Trastevere. She had an unhappy marriage and after the death of her husband, his brother attempted to steal away the family fortune. Ludovica fought him in court and won the right to her three daughters’ inheritance. After ensuring the financial stronghold, she dedicated her life to the Franciscans and spent her share of the money on supporting the poor of the Trastevere neighbourhood, under the guidance of the Francisca friars of San Francesco Church, where she was buried in 1533. Her devoted efforts to look after the health of the downtrodden, especially during the sack of Rome in 1527, earned her the nickname ‘mother of the poor.’
She had entered the Third Order of St. Francis and on her death in 1533 at the age of 60 she was immediately venerated as a saint. When, Ludovica was officially beatified with the title of ‘Blessed’ in 1671, Angelo Altieri Albertoni, nephew of Pope Clement X, commissioned Giacomo Mola and Gian Lorenzo Bernini to refurbish and embellish the chapel. Bernini started the project in 1671 and his creation, ‘Beata Ludovica in Ecstasy’, depicting Ludovica’s death, sculpted in Carrara marble, was installed by 31 August 1674. The controversial sculpture raised some eyebrows when it was unveiled.
Beata Ludovica in Ecstasy, the last full life figure of Ludovica, created by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is set above the altar of the Altieri Chapel on the left side of the church of San Francesco a Ripa.
The sculpture depicts the figure of Ludovica Albertoni on a mattress at the moment of mystical communion with God. The folds of her habit, her loose garment, clearly reflect her state of turmoil, and her head is weirdly thrown back onto an embroidered pillow supported by a headrest. While her face reflects some degree of happiness, her neck is unnaturally arched backwards at an angle that frankly looks painful and is probably causing her a significant amount of discomfort.
It seems, as if, her head and neck were experiencing some other physical or perhaps emotional feelings that surpassed any external hurt the body may have been feeling. It seems, as if she wriggles in pain with her head thrown back, neck outstretched, eyes closed, hand clutched to her breast and knee pushing half up against her bed.
With her mouth half open, she breathes probably her last breath, while the cherubs watch over her, waiting for the moment when they will take flight together. Even the cloth covering her body is wrinkled, showing her physical struggling movement, possibly trying hard to escape the body that is restricting her to the earth she has obviously psychologically surpassed.
The magnificent sculpture created by the master artist, perfectly depicts the journey of a woman in her mystic agony, in the anguish of her soul, at the climactic moment of her death. However, the portrayal was considered scandalous, as the genuine ecstasy that the figure in the sculpture is obviously experiencing and her pose is so blatantly sexual that the church surely has a problem with it. It is her intimate personal feeling, which is obviously selfish, while the Catholic Church values selflessness as a virtue of a good Christian. Probably the only reason for which the sculpture is allowed in the church is that it is supposed to signify the relationship between this woman and God.