Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
The Society of Jesus, composed of over 18,000 members, makes up the Catholic Church’s largest male religious order. Its members, commonly called Jesuits, are often referred to as the foot soldiers of the pope for their devotion to the defense and furthering of the Catholic Church. Today, the Jesuits are remembered particularly for their influential role in higher education and their worldwide missionary work. However their historical, cultural, and religious significance extends far beyond this scope. The Jesuit history is inextricably tied to the institutions, the cultures, and the times in which the order evolved. These connections are exemplified in many ways by the ironic Jesuit influence over the Catholic Church whose traditions it sought to defend during its early formation. Both molded by and helping to mold the Church, Rome, and the art and architecture of both, the Society of Jesus is integral to our understanding of European Art History.
In order to fully understand the Jesuits and their influence on Roman art and architecture, it is important to understand that the order was essentially formed as a reaction to a tsunami of change hitting Europe in the 16th century. The early 16th century was a time of great instability for the Catholic Church. They were suffering major losses to the Protestant movement. Nearly all of northwestern Europe had broken away from the Catholic Church and was moving toward Protestantism as their primary Christian sect.
The church responded in what is now called the period of Counter-reformation. It reacted directly with the Council of Trent, which met 25 times between 1545 and 1563 to address their problems. This council answered Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church with some internal reforms, such as the outlawing of simony (buying and selling of church offices) and pluralism (holding many offices at one time). In addition to bureaucratic reform, the church distinguished itself by further specifying and tightening doctrine about Biblical canon, sacraments, and salvation.
Perhaps even more important to the Counter-Reformation than the church’s direct response was the indirect reaction by groups like the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Society of Jesus was founded in the early 16th century by Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier, and six followers, all laymen. The society was recognized by Pope Paul III as an official religious order on September 27, 1540, which allowed Jesuits to become priests. In a move which gained favor with the church and which became a defining characteristic of the Jesuits, the order strongly stressed loyalty to Catholic doctrine and to the papacy. In addition to the three basic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to G-d which all Catholic priests must take, Jesuits take a fourth; loyalty to the Pope. In a telling example of this obedience, Ignatius Loyola is said to have written: “I will believe that the white I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”
In relation to their characteristic loyalty to the Catholic Church, the early Jesuits were famous for three main goals and activities; stopping the spread of Protestantism, founding colleges, and sending missionaries all over the world to gain converts and spread Catholicism. In order to fulfill their first goal, the Jesuits took every possible step they could to stop Protestantism from spreading. They were moderately successful in this goal, especially in Poland, Lithuania, and southern Germany, but did little to change the tide in the rest of Northwestern Europe. They attempted to do this by both glorifying the Catholic doctrine downplayed by Protestantism such as taking of the Eucharist, sainthood, and angels, as well as by taking an aggressive stance against heresy. While specifically seeking to differentiate themselves from Protestantism by these means, the church also answered Protestant criticisms indirectly with their next famous activity.
The Jesuit order was responsible for founding colleges throughout Europe (and later the Americas), which trained students in classical studies, sciences, and theology. These colleges set the precedent to the well-rounded, four-year liberal arts education stressed in colleges to this day. Schools were important to the early Society of Jesus for a few reasons. They were most importantly a way of countering the Protestant criticism of incompetence and corruption in church leaders by training more effective and honest priests. In addition, they served to keep the Society of Jesus alive through both the immediate revenue generated through tuition fees and the ability to attract donors wealthy enough to enroll their children in Jesuit schools.
Finally, in an attempt to make up for the church’s seemingly unstoppable losses to Protestantism in Europe, the Jesuits began an aggressive campaign to convert non-Christians around the world to Catholicism through missionary work. They traveled the globe, converting people in nearly every part of the world, a point of pride that ultimately helped create a surprising level of zeal and excitement among Catholics following the Counter-reformation; a zeal which would later be called the “Church Triumphant.”
We see all three of these goals incorporated into Jesuit art and architecture through a number of mechanisms. To attract Christians away from Protestantism, Jesuit art tended to glorify those Catholic beliefs rejected or downplayed by Protestants such as sainthood, angels, and transubstantiation of the Euchrist. These images tended to oppose the simplicity of Protestant art through the use of Baroque techniques such as movement, bright colors, emotion, and perspective. However, it is important to note that there were a number of other forces at work as well. To the Jesuit order, art’s primary goal was to further the Catholic faith. They saw art as useful as an aid to prayer as well as an agent of propaganda. Because art and architecture were tools of propaganda, the Jesuits sought to adapt them (acceptably, according to doctrine) to the communities in which they lived, so to better appeal to new populations. The Jesuits avoided any central church design as an inspiration for new churches. This meant there would be no official way to impose uniformity in their art or architecture. However, as the first major Jesuit church, Il Gesu still managed to set de facto trends for future Jesuit architecture.
Il Gesu was the first major Jesuit church, and in many ways, the most important one. The first church ever to be named after Jesus, Il Gesu’s first foundation stone was laid in 1550, just 10 years after the foundation of the Jesuit order. There were a number of complications following the initial church plans, and even when Michelangelo offered to design a plan for free out of devotion to the church, the construction was halted for a number of years. After securing a promise from Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (Grandson of Pope Paul III, who approved the foundation of the Society of Jesus) to pay for the building, construction began in 1568, 12 years after Ignatius’ death.
While not immediately apparent, Il Gesu’s façade was particularly innovative for it’s time. It is often described as the first truly Baroque façade. Many characteristics such as its mix of horizontal and vertical lines and the scrolls flanking its upper order became standard in the newly emerging Baroque era. Above the door, we see a shield with IHS (The name of Jesus abbreviated in Greek) monogrammed upon it. While IHS appears in other Catholic art, its use is especially pronounced in Jesuit churches, where the letters appear in an almost fanatical fashion, telling of the order’s particular veneration for the name of Jesus (for which the term Jesuit was first used). In addition, between the two orders, we see scrolled a dedication to Cardinal Farnese, the building’s financier, as well as the Farnese family crest near the top point of the façade.
The internal layout of Il Gesu is essentially made up of a single nave with no aisles, and flanked by interconnected chapels on either side. The church plan emphasizes open space and forces the focus onto the high alter from every space in the building. This layout is perfectly suited for preaching to large crowds and the celebration of mass, both of which are particularly important to the Jesuit order. While Il Gesu’s façade remains mostly true to its original form, the art within its walls is very different today than when it was originally decorated. As the first major Jesuit church, Il Gesu served as a desirable hub for emerging artists to leave their mark. Thus its artwork has evolved continually up to today.
As one enters the church, they are immediately met by the stunning ceiling fresco Triumph of the Name of Jesus, painted by Baciccio between 1676 and 1679 (about a century after the church was built). Baciccio, a relatively new artist at the time, was recommended by Bernini to paint Il Gesu. In addition to the ceiling fresco, Baciccio was also responsible for painting the church’s dome and apse. In Triumph of the Name of Jesus, we see Jesus represented as the monogram IHS, from which comes a blinding light. The light seems to break a hole through the ceiling, toward Paradise. It floats heavenward, surrounded by angels and saints, in contrast to heretics and sinners, who are being hurled back toward earth, away from the holy name of Jesus. Many heretics are made of three-dimensional stucco (added later by Ercole Raggi & Leonardo Reti), which project out of the painting, thus amplifying this illusion. This particular fresco and the stucco figures that accompany it serve a threefold purpose in the furthering of the Jesuit agenda. First of all, the use of Baroque techniques like movement, bright colors, emotion, and the contrasting of light and dark all add to the awesomeness and extravagance of the church, serving as a propaganda tool and helping to differentiate Catholic art from the much more plain art preferred by Protestants. In addition, it attempts to use art to incorporate drama, magnificence, and spirituality into daily prayer. Finally, and probably most importantly to the Society of Jesus, the fresco serves as a teaching tool in its focus on the contrast between sin and heresy in opposition to the veneration of the name of Jesus and the Catholic faith.
At the very front of the church, behind the high altar, we see the painting Circumcision of Jesus, commissioned by Cardinal Farnese in 1587 and painted by Girolamo Muziano. To Jesuits, the circumcision of Jesus is particularly important for two reasons. First, it was theoretically the first time Jesus shed blood on earth, thus foreshadowing his ultimate martyrdom. In addition, it was the moment in which he was given the name of Jesus, which once again, is held in particular veneration by the Society of Jesus. The prominent placement of this painting is a particularly good example of the Jesuits using art to glorify specifically Catholic themes as a method of differentiating themselves from Protestants.
At either side of Il Gesu’s transept lie two large and particularly important side chapels. To the left, we see the Chapel of St. Ignatius, originally built as a chapel dedicated to the crucifixion of Christ. Within this chapel lie the actual cremated remains of St. Ignatius. Behind a newly added painting of St. Ignatius lies a colossal silver statue of Ignatius Loyola, surrounded by angels. The statue standing now is actually a silver plated plaster replica, made after the original (by Pierre II Le Gross) was melted down to pay for war reparations during the French occupation of 1798. On either side of the altarpiece are panels representing different scenes from the life of St. Ignatius. Further to the side of each of these panels lie particularly interesting sculptures. The left sculpture, entitled Triumph of Faith Over Idolatry depicts a faith figure with a barbarian king, whom idolatry cannot seem to keep in check, prostrate at her feet. The right sculpture, entitled Religion Defeating Heresy depicts two somewhat ghastly figures representing heresy falling at the feet of a figure holding a cross, representing religion. In addition, to the right side of Religion, we see a cherub feverishly ripping pages out of a book that is apparently heretical. These two sculptures serve as teaching tools that remind the viewer of the triumph and supremacy of Catholicism over Idolatry and Heresy, or Paganism and Protestantism respectively.
To the right side of the transept lies the Chapel of St. Xavier, originally a chapel dedicated to Christ’s resurrection. Above the altar lies a painting depicting and glorifying the death and martyrdom of Francis Xavier surrounded by (very inaccurate) depictions of Chinese natives while on a mission near China. Above the painting, we see a relief of St. Xavier being carried into heaven by angels. In addition, the silver reliquary at the bottom of the altar contains part of the skeletal arm of St. Francis Xavier, an important symbol of the Jesuit missions.
About a century after the foundation of Il Gesu and just four years after the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola, construction began on the Church of St. Ignatius. This took 26 years. It was originally designed by the Jesuit Mathematician Father Orazio Gracci and built as the church of the Collegio Romano, which has since moved. The church was financed mainly by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovici, the nephew of pope Gregory XV, his family name and crest both appearing prominently upon the church façade, which otherwise is very similar to the façade of Il Gesu. In addition to being an act of propaganda for the cardinal, the construction of the Church of St. Ignatius served to glorify the Jesuit order now that they had their own saint to honor.
Modeled after Il Gesu, The Church of St. Ignatius has an extremely similar floor plan to its predecessor. Like Il Gesu, it consists of a long single nave with interconnected side chapels. As a result, it emphasizes open space and is perfect for preaching sermons to large crowds. The interior is almost entirely baroque in its decoration. When we enter the church of St. Ignazio, we are greeted by a decadent, colorful, and emotive ceiling fresco. This fresco, entitled Triumph of St. Ignazio was painted by Andrea Pozzo after he won a competition for the commission. The work was so magnificent that Pozzo was later commissioned to paint the church’s false dome, its transept chapel, and its apse. The significance of this painting is particularly easy for art historians to analyze, because Pozzo tells us exactly what it means. He explains: “Jesus illuminates the heart of St. Ignatius with a ray of light, which is then transmitted by the Saint to the furthermost corners of the four quarters of the earth, which I have represented with their symbols in the four sections of the vault.” As Pozzo has explained to us, we see Jesus holding onto a cross in the middle and illuminating light, which flows into St. Ignatius. The light reflects off of St. Ignatius’ chest like a mirror to each of the four known continents. Europe is represented by a woman on a horse, riding upon a mass of heretics. America is represented by a women riding a jaguar and slaying a giant (personifying idolatry) with a lance. Africa is represented by a black woman (who is supposed to recall the queens of Ethiopia) riding a crocodile with an elephant tusk in her hand, and with an angel by her side defeating a giant with an upturned torch. Asia is represented by a woman on a camel, pushing two giants downward (who represent idolatry and heresy). Once again, Pozzo explains that the symbolic characters “are in the act of casting out the deformed monsters of idolatry or heresy or other vices.” Ultimately, the Church of St. Ignatius, and especially the ceiling fresco by Pozzo, serve not only to glorify Catholicism and the name of Jesusas Il Gesu does, but also to celebrate the Jesuit missionary work and the induction of Loyola Ignatius as the first Jesuit saint.
While the artwork within both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius helps us learn about the Jesuit’s influence on religion, culture, and history as well as the baroque art emerging during the Counter-Reformation, much of it also serves as an example of the “Church Triumphant.” This term refers to the new period of hope and assurance in the 2nd half of the 17th century following the pessimism of the church following the Protestant Reformation. While much of this zeal was caused by successes during the Holy Crusades against the Muslim Turks, a huge component of this surprising optimism was also instigated by the successes of Jesuit missionary work around the world. As Catholicism spread to nearly every part of the world, its new recruitment efforts gave Catholics a sense of triumph and pride. The ceiling frescos in both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius display this sense of the “Church Triumphant.” Triumph of the Name of Jesus displays the triumph of good over evil, which in many Catholics minds, analogued the triumph of Christians over the Turks. Triumph of St. Ignazio displays the triumph, extent, and grandeur of the Catholic missions, which ultimately represented the triumph of the church. Both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius stand today not only as beautiful Churches in the center of Rome, but as well as reminders and evidence of the history, the conflict, and the times in which they were built.
For me, Christian art has always been more of an interesting window into the past than something I can marvel at. I have tended to view the ostentatious displays of art promoted by the Catholic Church to be in many ways a slap in the face to G-d’s third commandment. However, the first time I casually walked into Il Gesu to research for my paper, I was astounded in many ways, not necessarily by the religiosity of the art, but by the sheer artistic and illusionistic brilliance. I was able to see into the socio-political and human side of Christian art in a way I never had before. The intense illusionism of Baccicio’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus as the ceiling seems to literally open to the heaven as heathens fall out of the painting toward the floor amazed me. Later, when I visited the Church of St. Ignatius, I was in for an even bigger surprise as I gazed up at the surprisingly realistic false dome painted by Andrea Pozzo and harkened back to my memories of M.C. Escher illusions. The foresight it would take to create such a grand illusion in only a few years mesmerized me. Later, as I further research the actual history of the Jesuit order and these early churches, I was able not only to take interest in the historical evidence the art gives us, but in the human energy, capital, and faith that went into every piece as well. It was somewhat humbling to walk into the first and most important Jesuit church and surround myself with centuries of art and architecture all created by famous and aspiring artists looking to make their mark in a church with so much spiritual and artistic significance. Overall, this project helped me gain an appreciation for the history and diversity of the Christian faith, something I have never before been particularly interested in.
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Church of St. Ignatius Official Website. http://www.chiesasantignazio.org/en/02/
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Engass, Robert. Bernini, Gaulli, and the Frescoes of the Gesù. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1957), pp. 303-305
Engass, Robert. The Painting of Baciccio: The Church Triumphant (1964). Chapter 3. pg 54-67.
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