Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Il Gesù and the Jesuits: Roman Architectural Legacy

Matt(hew) Richardson
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

St. Ignatius

The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, were and are a Christian religious order whose purpose is the defense and furthering of the Roman Catholic faith. Rising from the humble beginnings of one man, Ignatius Loyola, and his six like-minded laymen in 1584, the Jesuits became famous for their passionate and uncompromising support of the Church during the Protestant Reformation. Later, the Jesuits earned fame as far-flung missionaries, traversing the globe for the pope and Christ. Today, the Jesuits are best known for their many schools and universities, still scattered worldwide, educating thousands each year.

St. Francis Xavier 

From the very beginning what set the Society of Jesus apart from other famous church orders and allowed their great success is its specific values and obligations for members. While all Christian priests are required to take the three basic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God, Jesuits take a forth vow, one which more than anything else insured the protection and endorsement of the Church over the last half-millennium: loyalty to the pope. Founded in a time when papal loyalty was at its weakest, Jesuits swear to solidarity with the Holy See, a fact that generally affects the favor of most popes. Besides this, Jesuits are instructed to integrate themselves into the societies in which they preach and work, including use of the local dress and language so as to better influence, and some might say manipulate, the as yet impious masses. Additionally, education has always been a focus of the Jesuits, initially to train more effective priests, but also as a service to clients wealthy enough to employ Jesuits to instruct their children. This instruction has historically been a major source of Jesuit revenue, as teaching provided both a source of immediate income through the tuition fees, but more importantly by creating benefactors who, when rich and powerful, are tied to the Society of Jesus through their upbringing. These aspects of the Jesuit order, namely their papal loyalty, flexible cultural practices, and educational background, have contributed over the centuries to making the order the enduring and effective organization that it is.

Beyond these values, the Jesuits also benefit from a very streamlined hierarchy and organization within their Society, an advantage not enjoyed by most priestly orders, which generally operate within inward-looking monasteries where prayer and study are the focuses of priests. Jesuits are expected to be active engagers of the community in which they live. Jesuits live in special communal houses called “colleges,” each of which is run by an appointee. That appointee reports to the head of his “province” (local parish or region), who then reports to the “General,” the title of the man elected to lead the organization. This system of clear hierarchy and accountability mean that Jesuits are well distributed and very effective in their regions, as they are observed and placed in order to be so. From its inception the Society grew very quickly because of this organized effort to be effective. By the time of Loyola’s death in 1556, there were almost 1000 Jesuits, this just 22 years after the seven founding men had taken the first oaths. 70 years later there were 15,000.

However, for the purposes of modern travelers to Rome, the Jesuits have had a more specific impact on the city and its history. During the first period of Jesuit development mentioned above, the period of the Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation, the then very young Jesuit order provided a leadership example of decisive action against the Protestant crisis, revitalizing the Catholic Church and halting the flight of ever more believers from the faith. The Jesuits achieved this by repackaging the message of the Church to observers in a more appealing fashion. Some of their most powerful practices were the use of religious art and architecture, both found in the new Jesuit churches, always the central point of local Jesuit activity.

The first, largest, and most archetypal Jesuit church in the world is Il Gesù in Rome. Construction began in 1568, just 12 years after the death of Loyola. The building was far enough along to be consecrated 16 years later in 1584, but the final incarnation of the chapels as well as the decoration of the interior continued until 1683, almost a century later. The philosophy behind the church’s design developed greatly in this time, taking on new focuses, but through that period Il Gesù was an innovative and trendsetting Church, one which still draws attention today.

But before discussing Il Gesù it is important to note that while the Jesuits did have specific characteristics and goals, maybe even taste, in their art and architecture, there were many other forces at work in their building plans. The Jesuit General Congregation issued as official policy in 1558 that there would be no central church design to which congregations could look for inspiration in their own buildings, and this was because local Jesuits were expected to appropriate the local norms so as to better appeal to new populace (though final designs, in keeping with the order’s rigid hierarchy, must be okayed by the General), and so there was no way to impose a uniformity in art or architecture in all place Jesuits operated, nor was this a goal of the order. But besides these unavoidable local influences on Jesuit art, the order was also dependent on rich patrons to finance their activities, and the taste of these wealthy donors was an important determiner of Jesuit art. Even today the Society is run largely with donations, but this was especially pronounced in the Society’s earliest years.

As one approaches Il Gesù, the first portion one sees is its façade. It is, to say the least, an inconspicuous design in comparison to many contemporary churches in Rome. It lacks major ornamentation, being graced with few statues, and has no ostentatious colors or pattern work on display. The observer is faced, basically, with a large white wall. This wall is composed of two orders and toped by a triangular pediment. This façade, though perhaps not immediately striking (at least to the architectural layman) was both new and innovative in its own time, with its characteristics becoming standard for the then just emerging Baroque era. Its obvious mix of vertical and horizontal lines, its two orders and triangular pediment are mainstays of Baroque taste and style. Important to note is also the name scrolled across the façade, a dedication providing the few words adorning the building’s face: the Farnese. In recognition of the papal family that sanctioned their order and financed the building’s construction, this name lacks no prominence on the façade.

As one enters the church and encounters the nave, more burgeoning Baroque appears. The anthrex of the building is short, so one is almost immediately in the nave. This central passage is wide and tall, especially for churches of the time. The nave’s size was achieved by eliminating the usual side aisles of the church, as well as extending the curve of the vault upward into an unusual barrel shape. Additionally, the paired Corinthian columns lining the nave minimize the peripheral space usually occupied by side-aisles. All of these size restrictions play a specific role in the church, as they help focus attention in the building by eliminating distractions and naturally drawing interest of viewers. This subtle manipulation is integral to the goals of the Jesuits, which will be explained later. This room, interestingly, also displays the history of the order and the pressures put upon it when one knows the building’s story. Original Jesuit designs for Il Gesù called for a flat wooden roof, but the Farnese family dismissed this plan during design selection, and as they held the purse strings, no objection could be made. At this point in their history, the Society of Jesus was still quite new and as a result poorly funded, hence the modesty of their designs. It was the rich aristocratic family that provided the means for the Jesuits to operate as effectively and on such a large scale as they did in the church.

At the nave’s end one sees Il Gesù’s commanding apse. This cove is far larger than most church designs of the time, and it was designed so for specific effects. The apse could be very well lit, a difficult task in a time before electrical lighting, and the large space provides a structure which can be manipulate acoustically on a scale suitable for such a large church. One a visual level, the Corinthian pilasters of the apse are arranged such that they seem to step forward and then back to the viewer. This mimics an undulating movement, which not only increases the apparent size of the space but also obscures and distracts one’s vision, allowing a build-up to the apse. The effect of this build-up was increased markedly later in Il Gesù’s life, as the apse was drastically remodeled after its first construction. The art in the apse was originally quite austere, but precious and colorful marbles were added in great quantity in the 19th century.

The last aspect of Il Gesù bearing mention is its chapels, which are a clear departure from preceding Renaissance norms. In addition to the framing side aisles being removed, the church remodeled the basic chapel design. Rather than existing as separate prayer entities, Il Gesù has three interconnected chapels to either side of the nave. These chapels are not recessed as much as would generally be expected in a church of its size, which prevents visitors from becoming sidetracked in their movement up the nave toward the high alter. The chapels are also interconnected, which also facilitates movement forward, as well as provides for movement of priests in the church during ceremonies, without their having to disturb the presumably engaged listeners. These chapels are poorly lit, once again minimizing their distractive powers. The transept of Il Gesù, rather than serving as a large individual area of the church were parishioners might leave the central nave, has arms that are very short (most sources are inclined to use the word “stubby”). Unlike many Renaissance churches where the transept takes on a powerful and encompassing aura, Il Gesù’s transept arms are almost walls of the nave, also poorly lit, but unlike the chapels leading up them, very important to the church, as will be shortly explained. Lastly, two chapels are also built into the sides of the apse, but these are of no particular note, and are somewhat clumsily sequestered in the church’s corners. They were, in fact, not even a part of the building’s initial design, but were actually changes imposed by the Farnese family, trying to increase the area of the church and so also, presumably, its impact and importance.

But besides the architecture of the building itself, perhaps the most defining characteristic of Il Gesù is the art within it, the art framed and emphasized by the structure’s particular design. The sculptures, frescos and paintings in the church are famous not only in their individual value as art, but also as archetypes of the Jesuit order’s global aesthetic presence, as well as a keystone representative of Baroque style.

In keeping with their tendency to organize and coordinate plans and operations, the artwork in Il Gesù as well as other Jesuits churches displays an unusual amount of planning. All of the artwork in the church interrelates and plays off of other pieces with remarkable clarity, functioning as an artistic whole, not only in terms of progression of scenes, but also in terms of morals and lessons. It is appropriate to say that the varied paintings and sculptures in Il Gesù speak to one another with clarity most churches lack. This continuity was a specific aim of the Jesuits, one well maintained, because even when the original images on the vault, apse and chapels were painted over in 1678 and the years immediately following it, care was taken to preserve the thematic continuity of the building’s art. Other non-Jesuit churches had, of course, long before learned to tie moral lessons and figures together in their frescos and paintings, but the high level of premeditation and complete interrelation was new when Il Gesù was constructed and decorated.

Beyond their coordination, the works commissioned for Il Gesù were conspicuously new and innovative in their time, both in their themes and in their technical execution, both of which would come to be called what was the emerging Baroque era. It is important to understand, though, that the new artistic direction illustrated in Il Gesù was not an expression of the order’s taste per se, but rather another example of their molding to the society at hand. Intent on influencing people the best they could, the Jesuits simply employed the best artists to do the best work they were able to. By specifically seeking out the best of the best and encouraging them to experiment, the Jesuits incidentally employed the most innovative artists of the time. Modern literature credits the Jesuits with a great deal of impetus in the development of the Baroque sensibility, but one should understand that this was a cultural development facilitated by the order, not created by them. Their main church became the spearhead of the emerging Baroque standards, but that was simply the means to an end for the Jesuits, their goal of religious influence and persuasion was the end that justified these artistic endeavors.

In terms of theme and technique, the works in Il Gesù display a significant departure from the goals of the Renaissance. Spectacle and mystery were the name of the game, a theatricality that was previously absent in mainstream art gained a clear presence. Whereas previous art might present a still-struck saint in the act of inspiration or death, that same saint would now have outstretched arms and a gaping mouth. A saint nailed to the cross was now the saint being raised to the cross, thus inviting the viewer to complete the story mentally, engage it with one’s own imagination. In terms of technique, there was also a development away from the Renaissance. The bright backgrounds of that era’s paintings were gone; the dark mysterious unknown was painted behind the images on new church walls and vaults. Renaissance Michelangelo’s “David” stood at ease, while the “David” of Baroque Bernini was in mid-motion, throwing the stone to kill Goliath. These differences are technical as well as thematic, as figures in motion replace those at ease.

Despite their flexibility in how art was presented, however, the Jesuits did have specific goals for their art commissions, and the symbols and messages conveyed in their varied artistic approaches are quite standardized. Foremost in these symbols is the name “Jesus.” His name was not nearly as prominently used prior to the focus that the Jesuits applied to it. Il Gesù is, in fact, the first church in Rome to be named for Jesus, and invocation of the name is always prominent in Jesuit art and decoration. Indeed, the letters “IHS” are seen, not exclusively, but certainly very prominently in Jesuit churches. These letters, an abbreviation for the Greek spelling of Jesus, can be seen from any place in Il Gesù. So while the manner in which symbols were presented was not so important to the Jesuits, the fact that they were seen was the primary aim.

The destruction of heresy is also a constant theme running through Jesuit art. As an organization born during the crisis of the Protestant Reformation, the stamping out of heresy is omnipresent in Jesuit art. As the founders of the Jesuit order, Ignatius Loyola appears often in Jesuit art as the defender of the faith against heresy and destroyer of the evil of disbelief. He was made a saint in 1622, but veneration (as well as the art representing and encouraging it) was produced even before papal blessing. Loyola is particularly often and strongly represented, usually bald, bearded and in black robes, a commanding figure in the act of defending Christendom and destroying the threats to the Church.

The glorification of missionary martyrdom is also a powerful theme running through Jesuit art. As an order sent to every corner of the globe to further and defend the Catholic Church, the Jesuits made sure that their sacrifice and hard work was evident, appreciated, and gloried in their churches. Lofty men in exotic locals, generally converting natives, are a mainstay in Jesuit art. The other main founder of the Jesuit order, and second only to Loyola, is Francis Xavier, also sanctified in 1622, and his death on an island off the Chinese coast provided a perfect example of this Jesuit activity. He is usually presented at the moment of death, reclined in some wild and dangerous place, protected and accepted by God for his deeds in a shower of divine light and amidst a crowd of angles.

And lastly, the Jesuit order was particularly inclined to positively display all aspects of the Church opposed by the new Protestant churches in its art. Angles, the saints, images of heaven and hell, the Madonna, the pope, and the act of the Eucharist were all prominently and gloriously presented in Jesuit art, in keeping with their mission of retarding the growth of Protestantism. While all of these figures were used in previous art pieces outside the Jesuit order, they also experience a period of falling out of favor, as Catholic churches experimented with Protestant ideas of rejecting these images in order to keep hold of the faithful. It was the Jesuits who really encouraged their use as tools of inspiring lay believers, and it was largely this effort that maintained these powerfully Catholic concepts through the Protestant crisis.

Initial painting of Il Gesù was the work of the emerging but unestablished artists Giovanni de Vecchi and Gaspare Celio and their crew. While remnants of their work remains, it is the art produced later in the church’s life that really draws attention today, especially the vault that was repainted by Giovanni-Battista Gaulli, who frescoed the Triumph of the Name of Jesus, which one still sees there. This glowing representation of Jesus’ name (IHS) is one of the most powerful symbols in the entire building, covering the long barrel-vault above all the attendees. Gaulli also frescoed Il Gesù’s dome and the semidome above the apse, where the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb commands the attention of those looking toward the alter. Gaulli, a then just beginning artist, was given the rare opportunity of painting such a prominent work through his endorsement by Bernini, again illustrating the Jesuit tendency to employ the new and best artists of the day, but also to obey the recommendations of those already prominent and in power.

The painting directly behind the high alter is the Circumcision of Jesus, an event of particularly great importance for the Jesuits and their veneration of Jesus, as this was the first instance of his spilling blood on earth, hence its prominent placement in Il Gesù. This painting also illustrates again the importance of patronage in the Jesuit commissioning art, because while the Jesuit leadership predetermined the subject of the painting, the painter Girolamo Muziano was given the job because of his long connection with and continued favoritism from the Farnese family. And though his work was well received upon completion, it owes its existence to the influential patronage used to finance Jesuit art.

In Il Gesù’s stubby transept, there is even more stunning art awaiting the viewer. These large coves originally held dedications to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus but were later remodeled to serve as spaces for the veneration of those two most famous Jesuit saints, Loyola and Xavier. Particularly Loyola’s cove impresses the visitor, with its large glinting silver statue of the saint, flanked by smaller figures to either side, one of which is a particularly striking cherub ripping up an apparently heretical text, while the other side displays glorified missionaries, a work with the title: Faith Crushing Idolatry. This place houses the relics of Loyola, including his ashes, and is certainly one of the most impressive parts of the church. The side dedicated to St. Xavier is probably most interesting for holding the skeletal arm of St. Xavier, as well as a painting of the saint surrounded by Chinese natives who are decorated with the wildly inaccurate feathered headdresses, the inspiration for which is still unclear. Interestingly, in another Jesuit church in Rome, S. Andrea al Quirinale, Xavier is painted alone on a simple bed, exemplifying the diversity of Jesuit artistic commissions. Though the theme of the paintings was clearly provided in both cases, the execution was left up to the artist, thus allowing for markedly different works of art.

The interconnected chapels running along the nave are also key in the Jesuit presentation within Il Gesù. They represent the stages of salvation, moving from its inception, then to fulfillment, and culminating in its perpetuation. These chapels, painted in the Mannerist school, are perhaps the least well received and remembered of the church’s art pieces, probably because of their stylistic divergence from the otherwise very Baroque décor dominating the building, as well as the general lack of emphasis placed on chapels in Il Gesù and other Jesuit churches.

Lastly, a visitor to Il Gesù is struck by the impressive stuccos by Antonio Raggi and Leonardo Reti between the cornice and windows. These stuccos are some of the best such work in the Baroque period, and in looking at them one can see the seed of many such repetitions, which spring up throughout the period. Though neither as commanding nor dramatic as the nave’s ceiling or transepts sculptures, these stuccos are also a small but worthwhile piece of Il Gesù’s contribution to the Baroque style.

(The Triumph of the Name of Jesus)

Though the intentions of the Jesuits with all these architectural and artistic innovations has been eluded to and partially explained before now in this paper, it is important to contextualize these projects with their desired function and eventual purpose that the Jesuits saw in them. Loyola wrote in his book Spiritual Exercises, and instructive text used by all Jesuits for their spiritual work and inspiration, that one should imagine holy scenes to stimulate prayer. Loyola had the specific aim of causing others to visualize holy events and dwell on them. He wanted people to tell to themselves the story in their own minds, imagine it in their own way internally so as to better ingrain Christian beliefs and encourage personal faith. The theatricality and engaging nature of Jesuit art is therefore important, because it means that Jesuit art should imply rather than tell an entire story. By leaving people hanging they are encouraged to continue the moralistic story being told to them, and in doing so think about the story.

This goal makes sense not only though the obvious goal of bringing Christianity more into the lives of the faithful, as would logically be the goal with any priestly order, but also it makes particular sense within the Jesuit historical context. In a time of crumbling papal and Catholic authority, perceived as riddled by corruption, many people were turning to Protestantism or away from the Church in general. Loyola and the Jesuits sought nothing less than the revolutionary revitalization of the Catholic faith. By causing people to think about the Catholic stories and beliefs so prominently and invitingly displayed in their churches, the Jesuits engaged people in a way and to an extent that they hadn’t been before, and that was the reason places such as Il Gesù were decorated at such cost and with the most able and innovative painters. Those who questioned the faith were intentionally being drawn back in.

This focus on engaging the church’s visitors wasn’t confined to the sculptures and frescos and paintings, though. The very design of Il Gesù was contrived to gain, focus, and maintain the attention of those present. The apse of the church is larger than most churches preceding it, because the acoustic properties of both its semicircular cove and the central nave are powerful distributors and amplifiers of the preacher’s voice and available lighting, making him visible and audible to the entire church. This was an essential aspect of Il Gesù’s design, because in keeping with their efforts to engage people, the Jesuits were known for their fiery and rousing sermons. This meant that all those in Il Gesù and churches like it were surrounded by the spectacular images and voices of the Jesuits. They were entertained and educated at the same time. By piquing the listener/viewer’s interest with exciting stories, the Jesuits hoped to grab back the attention, faith, and so souls of their observers.

And, it must be said in conclusion, the Jesuits were very successful in their goals - their efforts were in no way idle or misplaced. The Counter Reformation was a powerful success, stunting the growth of Protestantism at the Church’s expense. Though the Jesuits certainly weren’t the only force at work in support of the Counter Reformation, they were certainly the spearhead of the movement’s growth. Their reinforcing of orthodox Catholic belief (rather than aping Protestant ideas) in a reformulated message was extremely effective in regaining lost support for the Church.

Of course, Catholicism was also meaningfully reformed at this time as well, and many of the most offensive practices of the Church (such as the infamous indulgences that so angered Martin Luther) were forbidden, but the Jesuit influence in saving Catholicism cannot be denied. It was the leadership of the Society of Jesus that revitalized Rome and the Church, halting its moral decline. And indeed, their success is evident even today, long after the conclusion of the Counter Reformation. The Jesuits were reprimanded officially by the pope for their overly conservative practices in the 1700s when the European religious wars were passed and the Counter Reformation waned. Still, the design of their churches, particularly Il Gesù, are found all over the Catholic world, defining Baroque architecture. And the other practices of the order, the missionary and educational work, continues meaningfully into our time, where thousands and thousands are educated and cared for by Loyola’s men every day. Il Gesù stands now not only as a still well attended church, but also a monument to this truly effective force of Catholic believers.

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