Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Setting the Stage
The Protestant Reformation was a movement in the 16th century to reform the Catholic Church. Eventually, the reformers abandoned Roman Christianity altogether. The reason for this was that many Christians were troubled by what they saw as “false doctrines” and malpractices within the church. Some of these included: the sale of indulgences (purchasing forgiveness of sins), corruption within the Church’s hierarchy, purgatory, devotion to Mary, and intercession of the saints. The Council of Trent called for a reformation of some of the things that the Protestants had targeted in their protest against the Church, which included an austere reformation in the way art was depicted.
Beginning of the Jesuits
We have one man to thank for the creation of the Society of Jesus and their role in saving the Roman Church – St. Ignatius of Loyola. To know him is to know the beginnings of one of the most important orders established in Rome during the Counter Reformation. In 1491, St. Ignatius was born Inigo Lopez de Loyola to a very respectable and modest land-owning family in the Basque region of Spain. He was the youngest in a family of thirteen. Scholars don’t know much about his adolescence for sure, but it doesn’t appear that he was very religious or not religious at all. It is known that in 1517 Ignatius went into the army. He became one of the defenders when the French attacked the fortress of Pamplona in order to take control of the Basque kingdom of Navarre. While rallying the defenders to fight against the invasion instead of surrendering, Ignatius was struck in the leg by a cannon-ball. He was sent home and had to figure out some way to pass the time during his long and painful recovery.
While he recovered, Ignatius read a number of religious texts on the life of Jesus and the saints, namely Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ and to the Flowers of the Saints (Hollis 8). These books encouraged him to change his ways and live a more Christian life. He changed his name from Inigo to a more formal, Ignacio (which translates into Ignatius) and he set off for Catalonia, to the famous monastery of Monserrat. There he gave a beggar his uniform before an image of the Virgin Mary and dedicated his life to her (Hollis 9). From there he went to Manresa, where he stayed in a cave for some time and composed his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius constantly revised this document throughout his life; the final version was published in 1541.
After Manresa, he went to Palestine with the hope and intention of spending his life there, upholding the Christian cause against Islam and converting people to Catholicism. This trend of abroad missionary work would become very important for the Jesuits as time went on. However, the Franciscan authorities were fearful of the Turks and that Ignatius’ methods of proselytism would endanger the Christians rather than convert Muslims, so he returned to Europe.
Ignatius now recognized the fact that if Catholics wanted to better resist the attacks on the faith, then better education was needed. It is very important to note that better education was a very important reformation that Jesuits promoted during the time of the Counter Reformation. Ignatius’ first step was to become better educated himself. He returned to school in Spain, but was forced to leave because of the Inquisition. He was actually arrested twice after being accused of teaching the ways of God without the proper education; both of which took place during the Spanish Inquisition. He went to Paris and there he collected his first band of followers. It was still Ignatius’ hope that he and his new Company could work with the Muslims in the Holy Land (Hollis 15).
After finishing their studies in Paris, in 1536 they agreed to disperse, but make their ways separately to Venice. There they were to reunite and sail east. Upon arriving in Venice, they were told they needed to first go to Rome and get the Pope’s permission for their endeavors. The Pope did bless their enterprise and all those who had not yet become priests, were ordained. Next, they returned to Venice to wait for their time to leave for Palestine. In 1539, it became apparent to the group of men that the conditions (including the Turks presence) made it impossible for them to go serve in the Holy Land. They returned to Rome and put themselves entirely at the service of the Pope. Pope Paul III (Farnese) approved their status as the Company of Jesus on September 27, 1540.
The Company of Jesus can also be referred to as the Society of Jesus and followers are called Jesuits. It has been said that Ignatius chose the word “Company,” a military term, because they were to be the “special soldiers of the Pope” (Hollis 16). All the members of the Company of Jesus then took a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. On April 5, 1541, the Company or Society held its first election for a Superior General. The Superior General is elected for life and resides in Rome, so that he can be in constant contact with the Pope, and he is supported by a body of Assistants appointed as representatives from each group of provinces. Everybody expected the election would go to Ignatius and he did receive every vote, except, his own (being the humble man that he was).
Ignatius was already 50 years old before he took up this main task of his life – an age at which, in those days, it was usually considered that a man’s “active” life was finished (Hollis 18). By this time Ignatius had already been organizing the Society’s growing activities throughout the world. From Italy they had already reached Portugal, Spain, France, and Germany. When it was decided that there was to be a General Council at Trent, Ignatius was invited by the Pope to be present, but he wanted to remain in Rome. Instead, two of Ignatius’ men went there as the Pope’s special theologians. They were present at all the long, drawn-out sessions of the Council. It is believed by Hollis that these two Jesuits were more powerful in shaping the decrees of the Council than any of the other people present (20).
Ignatius continually worked until his death in 1556 and was an absolutely inspiring founder for the Company of Jesus and a much needed leader for the Church during the Counter Reformation. In 1609 he was beatified by Pope Paul V and then canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Without St. Ignatius we wouldn’t have the Jesuits, their fabulous churches, and possibly the same Catholic Church that we have today.
The Triumphant of the Church – Il Gesu and the church of St. Ignatius
Manfred Barthel states, “During no other time in its history has the Catholic Church built so many magnificent churches as during the Counter-Reformation…One of the first buildings to adopt the new style that departed so abruptly from the ideals of the Renaissance and that we call baroque was the Jesuit church of Il Gesu in Rome.” In this period, when so much that had been colorful in Roman customs turned gray (due to the Council of Trent regulations) and the whole tenor of life took on an unaccustomed severity, the city blossomed forth with a new series of High Baroque ceiling decorations, almost monumental in scale, almost all reflecting, in one sense of another, the concept of the Church Triumphant (Engass 62).
The letters IHS on the front of Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, are an abbreviation of the Greek form of the name of Jesus. This is a statement that the church is completely dedicated to Christ, just like the Jesuits were completely dedicated to Christ; the Jesuits were unique in this way because they were the first order to ever be dedicated solely to Jesus. Il Gesu was first conceived in 1551 by Saint Ignatius and the site of the soon-to-be church was also chosen by Ignatius for its central location.
The building was to be paid for by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, nephew of Pope Paul III. Originally, Michelangelo had offered to design the church “for the love of God” (for free), but he died before the project got to the planning stage (Barthel 134). Though the Jesuits favored architect Giovanni Tristono, the Cardinal chose the designs of Jacopo Vignola. Construction on the church began in 1568 using Vignola’s design. Vignola’s projected façade for Il Gesu ingeniously enriched the austere and simple scheme by making the façade break forward in two stages. However, Vignola’s design was not carried out and the existing façade was erected after his death by Giacomo della Porta. Della Porta followed Vignola’s idea of breaking up and enriching the surface of the façade, but he did so in a different way. In Vignola’s scheme the façade breaks forward twice. Della Porta’s breaks forward, backward, and then forward again, thus creating a motion that is very characteristic to Baroque architecture.
It was decided at the first General Congregation in 1558 (Council of Trent) that all building, including churches, constructed by the Order should be free from extravagance or pomposity or excessive ornamentation, and all future construction would be reviewed by the office of the Superior General. “Since Il Gesu was the mother church of the Jesuits, its design must have been closely supervised so as to conform to the aims of the militant new order, founded in 1534. We may thus view it as the architectural embodiment of the spirit of the Counter Reformation” (Janson 524).
A strange dichotomy seems to exist considering the decorations of churches back then were to be decent and simple. Il Gesu was initially supposed to only be in stucco and stone only, without marbling, gilding, or even frescoes (Blunt 8). These were lavishly added in the seventeenth century when policy relaxed and taste had changed.
However, the fact that the Jesuits acknowledged the persuasive value of religious images from the outset helped to steer Counter-Reformation art away from austerity and towards more emotional and elaborate modes of expression. Alessandro Farnese intended the decoration of Il Gesu to be as important and exemplary as the architecture. Patrons’ wishes tended to dictate the design and decorations of the church. The early Jesuits were dependent on wealthy donors for the financing of their building projects. For example, the Jesuits would have preferred a flat wooden ceiling, but the Cardinal wanted a vault because he thought it would have a better acoustic for preaching.
In the wide vault, in the nave of the church, is the fresco “Triumph of the Name of Jesus” by Gian Battista Gaulli, also known as Baccicia His work is amazing with its leaping figure, great luminosity, and refined colors. The fresco, which was finish in December of 1679 is considered to be one of Baciccia’s greatest works, as well as one of the greatest masterpieces of Roman painting in the late 17th century. Baciccia’s work elaborates the triumph of the church for Il Gesu is in the way that it allows the viewer to interact with the space. It looks as though the characters are surrounding the viewer, popping out to be in his or her presence, as though heaven has come down to our realm in this place of worship. What this tells the viewer is that Il Gesu and the Catholic Church are facilitating this mystical experience and only here can you truly have divine contact.
The Jesuits also have another special church in the heart of Rome, this one specifically dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius. The church of St. Ignatius was built as church of the Roman College (initiated by St. Ignatius). It was founded in 1551 as a school of grammar, humanities, and Christian doctrine free of charge. The Jesuits made a significant contribution to the spread of science and literature; in addition, they gave the young the Christian education, and provided philosophical and theological training to the Catholic clergy all over the world.
The space eventually became insufficient for the more than two thousand students who were attending the College. Pope Gregory XV was an old pupil of the school and was strongly attached to both the college and its founder, having also canonized St. Ignatius in 1622. He suggested to his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, that a temple should be erected to the founder of the Company of Jesus, at the College itself. The building plans were commissioned from Domenico Zampieri, but the final plan was designed by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit mathematician and architect.
Most of the churches and colleges erected by Jesuit missionaries were designed and built by their own architects, while their own carpenters did the wood-carving of church furniture. The reason these types of talented men of various trades were even available within the Jesuit community is because of Ignatius’ emphasis on the important of education. Thus, the foundation of the church was laid on August 2, 1626. When Cardinal Ludovisi died in 1632 the construction was continued, thanks to the 200,000 scudi he had left in his will.
The church was built on the spot where the Temple of Isis stood in Imperial Rome. The present façade stands where the Acqua Vergine once flowed down in a cascade; it actually still runs beneath the ground. The church’s entrance faces the Piazza Sant’Ignazio.
In the church of St. Ignatius there is the huge vault fresco with the triumph of St. Ignatius’ life’s work by Andrea Pozzo. Christ and God the Father are in the sky at the corner of the composition and the light of divine inspiration infuses St. Ignatius, who is seated on a cloud bank slightly below. Then, below Ignatius and to the right is St. Francis Xavier, Apostles to the Indies. Elsewhere in the upper section angels draw upward into heaven men from all races and all manner of lands who have been purified by the light of divine inspiration.
The guide book, Church - St. Ignatius of Loyola – Rome, states, “We have no desire to give a forced and tendentious interpretation of the real and positive value of the figure of Andrea Pozzo, by attributing to him ideas and theories which he perhaps ignored, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the ‘infinite’ in the vault was meant to convey not only his love for theatrical effect but also expresses his concrete and visible belief in the universal truth of the Jesuit Rule, here depicted by means of an ‘endless’ perspective, as it were” (26).
Jesuits today form the largest religious order of priest in the Catholic Church, with over 20,000 members serving in 112 nations on six continents. They are still a forerunner in providing exceptional and extensive education and their schools continue to educate millions of people. Two Jesuit universities we would be well familiar with include Boston College and Seattle University. The Jesuits missionary work still lives on and they continue to be important spiritual leaders among the world. St. Ignatius gave the Jesuits the foundation they needed to become exceptional. From there they managed to play a huge role in salvaging the Catholic Church during their reformation crisis, as well as reach a vast majority of the globe with their message, thus obtaining triumph for the church.
The thing that surprised me most in my research is how much I came to respect and admire St. Ignatius. I’m not into Catholicism at all, but I came to feel like he was truly an inspiring leader. I really admired the fact that he was so good at taking initiative, for example, going back to school and becoming educated due to the important and need for the clergy to be well educated. Also, I really didn’t think I was going to like the two Baroque churches that I presented on. They initially seemed so gaudy to me, but as I visited them repeatedly and learned more about the significance behind the decorations and architecture, the more I appreciated how much work and money has gone into furthering the Church’s worthy purpose.
Barthel, Manfred. The Jesuits: History & Legend of the Society of Jesus. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.
Blunt, Anthony. Roman Baroque. England: Pallas Athene Arts, 1978.
“Church – St. Ignatius of Loyola – Rome.” Rome: Ristampa, 2002.
Donovan, Margaret. A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Second edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986.
Engass, Robert. The Painting of Baciccio (1964), chapter 3, selections on “The Church Triumphant.
Gardner, Louise. Art: Through the Ages. Sixth Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975.
Hollis, Christopher. The Jesuits: A History. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.
Janson, H. W.. History of Art. Fifth edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
“Jesuit Order”; “Il Gesu”; both from Grove Dictionary of Art.