Monday, September 11, 2006

The Story of the Jesuits

Sam Al-Khoury
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

The early story of the Jesuits is nothing more than the story of the life of Iñigo de Loyola, born in 1491 to a minor noble family in the Basque region of Spain. The man who would go on to found the Society of Jesus spent most of his early life as a bit of a promiscuous ruffian. When not causing a ruckus about town, he was a courtier who often read knightly romances and dreamed of a military career. Eventually, his dream came true, and in 1517 he became the youngest officer in the garrison of the Duke of Najera. In 1521, Iñigo was injured defending Pamplona against the French. A cannonball broke his left leg and shattered his right hip. During his convalescence, the bored and bedridden Iñigo longed for something to do. He would have been more than pleased to read some more of those chivalric romances; unfortunately, the only books lying around were The Life of Christ and The Golden Legend, a novel about the lives of the saints. It is here that he began to evaluate his life thus far and ponder his future. He found that these books gave him comfort and inspiration, while his lifestyle did not. Tentatively, he resolved to change his ways and live a more Christian life. When he was healthy again, he set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to discover more about his newfound faith.

Eventually, Iñigo arrived in Jerusalem. He stayed with the Franciscan monks who looked after holy sites and pilgrims. As he toured various sites sacred to Christianity, Iñigo decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life there and help convert souls to Christianity. Unfortunately, Turks held Jerusalem at the time and would not tolerate any such proselytizing. The Franciscans, wanting to avoid any trouble with their Turkish overlords, tried to explain to Iñigo that his missionary zeal, while admirable, was misplaced and inappropriate. Finally, they had to threaten him with excommunication to get him to leave.

Iñigo still wanted to serve God, and he felt that his next best alternative was to become an ordained priest. Before he did that, however, he decided to get an education. He enrolled in grade school, even though at thirty-two he was twice the age of the other students. His zealous spirit thrived, and his constant scourging, praying, and Confessing eventually attracted the notice of the Inquisition, which declared him a heretic several times. In 1527, Iñigo enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris, using the name Ignatius. While at the Sorbonne, Ignatius began to form a close group of six friends – or recruits – and he trained them in meditation, prayer, and put each through his completed Spiritual Exercises, which he had been developing since he decided to go to Jerusalem. In 1534 the seven men swore an oath to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or failing that, to go to Rome and ask the Pope for a task to serve God and the Roman Catholic Church.

In the following years, they earned their degrees, went to Venice, and ministered to the sick and the poor. They also, finally, became ordained Catholic priests. In 1538, they accepted the fact that they simply would not make it to Jerusalem. The seven original members as well as a few new recruits decided to head for Rome. In La Storta – just outside Rome – Ignatius had a vision. He saw Jesus carrying his cross, and God at his side. Jesus said to him, “I wish you to serve us.” This confirmed for Ignatius and his companions that they were indeed intended to serve Jesus and cemented in their minds that together they were the Company of Jesus.

These Jesuits, as they were already coming to be called, still lacked any official, or at least earthly, recognition. Ignatius drew up the Formulae Instituti, which outlined the structure and goals of the Society of Jesus. Eventually they won an audience with Paul III, the Farnese Pope. He gave his own verbal approval in September of 1539, but it took over a year for the papal bull Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae to officially authorize the creation of the Jesuits.

Ignatius was of course elected by his brothers to be the first head of the new order. During his generalship, he molded the Jesuits into a unique, active, and effective Catholic force. He continued working until the day he died in 1556. The Society of Jesus would continue to grow to touch, educate, and convert in every continent, and they would do this on the foundations that he laid.

The Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus as they were officially called, were solely focused on the glorification of Jesus Christ (their motto was Ad majorem dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God). Unlike other orders of the Catholic Church, they were not to be cloistered in monasteries, engage in communal prayer or penance, or be pastors of parishes. They needed to be strong and able to move around freely, because they were intended to have many purposes. The Catholic Church was in a time of crisis due to the Protestant Reformation and internal corruption; the Pope needed an elite, knowledgeable force at his disposal. The Jesuits were to be that force. In fact, unlike other religious orders, they swear an oath of obedience to the Pope.

The structure of the Jesuits is based on the Constitutions, which incorporated and added to the Formulae Instituti. Like that document, most of the Constitutions were primarily written by Ignatius himself. Structurally, the Jesuits themselves are arranged in terms of inferiors and superiors. Jesuits divide the world into different regions and provinces, each with its own superior. These superiors report to the Superior General in Rome, who reports to the Pope.

Another important Jesuit document is the Spiritual Exercises, again written by Ignatius. While much of it was probably cobbled together from various books and other sources he encountered prior to coming to Rome, some indeed arose from his own experiences in trying to quell his confused soul. The Exercises are essentially a guidebook to helping people know their sinful nature, throw aside their pleasures, and to wholly subject themselves to God’s will and attempt to become more like Christ. Those who were given the Exercises learned to meditate and clear their minds in order to make decisions easier. The Exercises were given to all novitiates of the Society, but anyone could take them.

The Jesuits, as the Pope’s elite religious force, played an important role for the Catholic Church immediately after their formation. After Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent was called to address the differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism and figure out what the Church would do with these various ideologies present. The Jesuit delegation was micromanaged by pages and pages of notes from Ignatius: they were to wear extremely modest clothing and keep small rooms, unlike other delegates. They continued to preach and give catechism and minister to the sick and the poor. They also gave the Exercises to several bishops at the Council. These all helped people to notice how devout and effective the Jesuits were. The delegates were also able to offer some ‘creative’ translations of Protestant texts that always managed to make clear just how heretical they were. Once, a Jesuit orated for three hours and so thoroughly discounted the point of the previous speaker that his remarks were recorded in the final resolution that passed concerning that topic. Because the Council adopted a policy where, when the head of state for a given region chose a religion for all of his subjects, it is easy to see why the Jesuits helped Catholicism be chosen in much of Germany and the surrounding area where Lutheranism was strong.

Other major works of the early Jesuits included the reformation of the sacrament of confession, whereby the confessor became much more of a spiritual advisor than a sentencing judge. This encouraged and popularized confession – a sacrament rejected by Protestants – and was another victory for Catholicism. The Jesuits were also very effective missionaries, due to their education, skills, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for their religion. Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, set off for India immediately after the Society was recognized. They dressed like locals, impressed them their knowledge and education, and found ways to adapt Catholicism in order to make it more accessible to natives, resulting in the conversion of thousands of souls. Furthermore, the Jesuits made a huge contribution (and still do) to education. They founded early colleges in Rome, Paris, and Coimbra, Portugal. They promoted Catholic theology as well as secular subjects. Finally, the Jesuits constructed il Gesù and Chiesa de San Ignazio, two of the dozens of churches founded during the Counter-Reformation.

Il Gesù was a pet project for Ignatius. Like the order he founded, he wanted to dedicate a church to the name of Christ. In 1568 (twelve years after Ignatius’ death), Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, nephew of the Pope, agreed to finance the project and the foundation stone was laid. Vignola was chosen to design the church, though he would leave the project during construction. Giacomo della Porta’s design was chosen for the façade. Later in the 1600s, Baciccia would design and decorate several of il Gesù’s chapels.

Many years later, after Pope Gregory XV canonized both Ignatius and Francis Xavier, he suggested to his nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, that he build a church to honor Ignatius. Ludovico solicited designs and chose Orazio Grassi as the main architect. In 1626, the foundation stone was laid. Work continued even after Ludovisi died because he had specifically left money in his will to complete the construction of the church.

Il Gesù and San Ignazio were both designed and decorated in the Baroque style, which the Jesuits would come to be known for. Though the churches would be decorated over a period of hundreds of years, they would always have the Baroque elements of strong movement, breaking of planes, emotion, and the attempt to arouse feeling in the viewer. This is initially surprising considering who the Jesuits were and their focus on ministry to the poor. However, when one considers that their motto is For the greater glory of God, it becomes apparent that Baroque is exactly what the Jesuits were looking for. This especially rings true when considering that since the Protestants were still using gothic and classical styles, Baroque was a way for Catholic churches to be differentiated.

The façades of both churches break planes several times, first coming out, then moving back in, then out again. This undulation suggests the movement typical of Baroque. Both triangular and curved tympani are present, as well as the monogram of Jesus, which the Jesuits have of course always held on high. The interior of the churches consists of wide barrel-vaulted naves and several interconnecting side chapels generally dedicated to saints (also in contrast to Protestantism, which denies the veneration of saints). The buildings are laid out such that the side chapels are separate enough from the nave to allow devotion and worship, but connect enough to give an impression of movement as light in the spacious nave alternates with dark in the mass of the side chapels. Both are lavishly decorated in high Baroque style, with gilded ceilings, marble statues, granite columns, frescos and paintings.

Most noticeable in both Jesuit churches are the ceiling frescoes in the nave. In il Gesù, Baciccia painted Triumph of the Name of Jesus. The name of Jesus draws those in prayer up to heaven and casts others into hell. What is interesting here is that the plaster for the fresco has actually passed over the bounds of the frame and has been built up to over six inches in some parts to give the illusion that the scenes depicted in the fresco are actually floating above the church. Baciccia has also painted a dark glaze directly on the gilded ceiling to give the illusion of shadows from the floating scene. In San Ignazio, Andrea Pozzo paints the vault fresco showing Ignatius’s heart receiving the divine light of Jesus and then spreading it to the four continents of the earth. The limitless perspective implies that the church indeed has no ceiling and that the viewer is staring straight into heaven. Pozzo also painted San Ignazio’s false dome, another amazing use of perspective.

The function of these churches was primarily to glorify Christ. Il Gesù was the first church named after Jesus himself and His name can be found in any direction one looks in either church. Of course, no one could be unimpressed at the lavish decoration of these High Baroque churches. People walking into the nave of San Ignazio , for example, would casually look up at the vault fresco in San Ignazio and would marvel at how close they were to heaven – they would feel that it was accessible to them, and that if they only reached a little higher they might touch the divine. They would see the false dome and think nothing of it, until they started walking around the church and noticed that the perspective didn’t work from a different angle. Then they would wonder at how such a feat was accomplished. In il Gesù, viewers could look upon the Chapel of St. Ignatius and know that this man was worthy of being placed in heaven. The beautiful statue, the gilded urn containing his relics, the granite railing, and the angels crowding everywhere would declare to everyone that men do deserve to be worshipped.

This is of course, exactly what the Jesuits and the Catholic Church desired. As part of an effective Counter-Reformation, they wanted to make the Catholic experience wholly different – and better – than the Protestant experience. Whatever the Protestants denied about the Church, the Catholics promoted endlessly. This included the veneration of saints, so numerous side chapels were built in both churches for people to pray to saints. An emotional connection with God was something that Protestantism also lacked. As mentioned above, Baroque would be ideal to forge this connection, especially considering that the Protestants were more interested in the idealized, inaccessible forms of classicism. The beautiful forms, illusionistic frescos, and sheer wealth in the Jesuit churches were certainly capable of stirring emotion and ideas in people. Thus, these churches were not only places of worship, but weapons against the Protestant enemy.

Both the Jesuits and their churches continue to be influential today. Millions of people have been educated at Jesuit schools. Missionary work exists in over one hundred countries. The strength of the Roman Catholic Church today owes a great deal to the Jesuits and their efforts. Novalis said of the Jesuits “there has never before in all of history been such a body of men as this, and not even the Senate of old Rome could have laid out its design for world dominion with greater certainty of success” (qtd. in Barthel 77). Their churches still amaze visitors who walk in and expect to see the same religious art that they have seen at other sites. Instead, they are baffled by illusions, and viewers must take it on faith that what they are seeing is what it appears to be. They question themselves, look inward and think deeper. The fact that Jesuits still accomplish this among people means that they have truly fulfilled their purpose.

The most fascinating thing I encountered in the course of this project was all the different art that adorns the various Jesuit churches and facilities. I am a huge fan of M.C. Escher and his illusionistic pieces, so seeing the ceilings and false domes of the Jesuit churches, as well as the hallway of the Rooms of St. Ignatius made me absolutely giddy. It always amazes me how the mind of one person can create a work that fools the mind of another, and both Baciccia and Pozzo did this masterfully. It is a tribute to their work that as I led our Art History class through these churches, there were gasps, open mouths, and stares of wonder – hundreds of years after they were created. That these works have this power over people and their imaginations simply astounds me.


Barthel, Manfred. The Jesuits: History and Legend of the Society of Jesus. William Morrow & Company. 1984: New York.

Blunt, Anthony. Roman Baroque. Pallas Athene Arts. 1978: England.

“Church – St. Ignatius of Loyola – Rome.” Ristampa. 2002: Rome.

Martin, Malachi. The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. Simon and Schuster. 1987: New York.

Mitchell, David. The Jesuits: A History. Franklin Watts. 1981: New York.

O’Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Harvard University Press. 1993: Cambridge.

“Rome: The Gesù.” Supema. 1997: Rome.