Il Gesù and S. Ignazio

[La Chiesa Nuova] [San Clemente]

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Reformers have a way of showing up at critical points in Catholic Church history. As Francis and Dominic in the Middle Ages, Ignatius of Loyola could not have chosen a better time to appear on the historical scene. In the early sixteenth century the Protestant revolt was exploding throughout Europe. Rome, recognizing the urgent need for a counterattack against Lutherans and Calvinists, found a brilliant standard-bearer in St. Ignatius. His new religious order, the Jesuits, helped accomplish a consolidation and regeneration of the Church from within.

The Counter Reformation
[Ignazio da Loyola] At the time (1517) Martin Luther posted his 95 theses of protest on the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral, the Holy See was occupied by the Medici prince, Leo X. This pleasure-loving humanist, ambitious politician, inveterate nepotist, and munificent patron of the arts recklessly sold indulgences along with his palace furniture in order to pay his huge debts. Unhappily, he was typical of the Popes of his day.

The Church soon recognized its need to correct those defects which had provoked the Protestant schism, and so it launched the thoroughgoing reform and revival we now call the Counter Reformation. Meeting intermittently under five Popes from 1545-1563, the Council of Trent re-examined and redefined Catholic teaching and reformed the clergy. By the end of the century, the spread of Protestantism had been checked, papal extravagance repressed, and genuine spirituality encouraged in the priesthood.

Ignatius and the Jesuits
[Ignazio da Loyola] Youngest son of a Basque nobleman, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was brought up to be a knight. He set off to become a valiant soldier, but was wounded in the French siege of Pamplona. During a long convalescence period in the remote family castle, young Ignatius recuperated by reading Legends of the Saints and the Life of Christ. It was at that time he experienced his profound religious conversion. After years of penitence and prayer, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, run-ins with the Spanish Inquisition, and university studies in Spain and Paris, Ignatius arrived in Rome with several followers in 1537, and offered his services to the Pope. His new religious order, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. By the time of Ignatius' death in 1556, the Jesuits numbered 1,000 in nine European provinces, and following the pioneer work of Francis Xavier in the Far East, were sending missionaries far and wide.

Ignatius transposed his soldierly ideals to the religious sphere, creating a tightly structured, rigorously trained, and deeply committed organization. The Society became the Pope's "army" in the Counter Reformation, using as its weapons advanced academic studies, the education of youth, and zealous missionary activities. The Jesuits almost immediately began to argue against Protestant theologians in Church councils, set up excellent schools throughout Europe, and were bringing the Gospels to Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Il Gesù
Il Gesù (The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus) is the Jesuit Mother Church. It occupies the site St. Ignatius chose for his headquarters shortly after he founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. That year Pope Paul III Farnese gave the Society a small neighborhood chapel, Santa Maria della Strada (Our Lady of the Wayside), which although conveniently located, soon proved much too small for the expanding order. Ignatius' dreams for a large and appropriate church-headquarters were not realized in his lifetime. It took over 40 years, three foundation-stone ceremonies, and six architects (Nanni di Baccio Bigio, Michelangelo, Vignola, Giacomo della Porta, and Jesuits Giovanni Tristano and Giovanni de Rosis), before Il Gesù was consecrated in 1584.

Spiritually, Il Gesù incorporates Jesuit values and articulates Catholic doctrine as reaffirmed by the Counter Reformation. Architecturally, it marks a transition between Renaissance and Baroque. The plan of the Gesù became the model for Jesuit churches throughout the world.

Exterior: Il Gesù stands in the heart of downtown Rome, on one of the city's busiest and noisiest intersections. It is a meeting place for all classes and generations of the city's population.

"St. Ignatius placed a great deal of emphasis on the location of the Society's churches. He always built his headquarters in urban centers, where the Jesuits could easily carry out their preaching, teaching and social ministries." Father Tom Lucas, from the Jesuit University of San Francisco, is one of the Society's experts on St. Ignatius and Jesuit architecture. He was in Rome as the English Press and Information Officer for the 34th General Congregation, and agreed to a consultation with Inside the Vatican.

Father Lucas continued: "II Gesù, for instance, was situated at a perfect crossroads between the Pope and his court, the Campidoglio (center of city government), and teeming city life in a developing neighborhood, where rich and poor, Jews and Christians, the refined and the illiterate, lived and worked side by side."

II Gesù's façade served as the model for Catholic churches for centuries to come. Giacomo delta Porta's sober tripartite front has classical elements, although its enormous side volutes already anticipate the Baroque.

"This type of façade," Father Lucas explained, "achieves Ignatius' idea of the church as a gateway, through which the Jesuits emerge for their apostolic activities in the city and in the world, and through which the city is drawn into the sacramental life of the church. It stands, carefully oriented to the surrounding streets and piazza, as a great portal inviting the passerby to enter."

Interior: Any visitor is struck by the difference between Il Gesù's interior and that of earlier Roman churches. Here we have the nave as one huge hall, a shallow apse with the altar moved up front, and side chapels blocked off as separate entities (so that all attention is riveted to the altar).

Father Lucas continued: "The significance of Jesuit architecture was not its novelty, but its functionalism. Jesuit churches take earlier elements and make them into a practical package which emphasizes Church teachings, as defined by the Council of Trent. The interior accentuates the two great functions of a Jesuit church: its large central nave with the laterally placed pulpit serves as a great auditorium for preaching, and the highly visible and prominent altar serves as a theatrical stage for the celebration of the Real Presence in the Eucharist."

Decor: Il Gesù's decorations are largely Baroque, dating from the late 17th century. Father Lucas went on: "The Jesuits lacked funds and patronage in their earliest years, and originally the interior of the church was undecorated. St. Ignatius helped to plant the seeds for the Baroque, however. His 'incarnational spirituality' found God in all things beautiful, including the arts -- painting, sculpture, music, rich décor -- as revelations of God in the Here and Now. With Baroque decorations, Jesuit churches appeal to the heart as well as the head, providing splendid stage sets for celebration of the Mass."

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Giovanni Battista Gaulli, known as "Il Baciccia," painted most of Il Gesù's ceiling frescoes between 1672-1685. (You may find these under scaffolding for restoration). But Father Lucas assures that: "The vault fresco, representing 'The Glory of the Holy Name of Jesus,' seems to open up a hole in the ceiling, through which heavenly light pours onto downwards-cascading colossal figures and into the nave and altar. Thus the Jesuit church becomes not only a gateway to and from the world, but a window into paradise." The lateral chapels, which are separated from the nave and each surrounded by lovely candlelit balustrades, are serene little corners attracting a coterie of faithful devotees.

St. Ignatius' chapel-tomb (first, left aisle) is an explosion of Baroque magnificence, with lapis lazuli, alabaster, semi-precious stones, all kinds of colored marbles, gilded bronze, and silver plate. (The original solid silver statue was carted off and melted down by Napoleon's French in 1798.) It took more than 100 artists, under the direction of Andrea Pozzo (we'll meet him later) to accomplish this luxurious frenzy. Could St. Ignatius have approved?

More to the saint's taste, perhaps, would be the intimate little chapel (left transept) of the Madonna della Strada, which hosts an image from the façade of Ignatius' first church. In a round jewel-like setting, scenes from the Life of the Virgin by the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Valeriano (1542- 1596) circle the tiny altar.

Directly across from St. Ignatius' chapel is that of the first Jesuit missionary saint, Francis Xavier, designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). A plaque tells us that the saint's arm, "which blessed so many converts in far away lands," now resides in the silver and lapis reliquary above the altar.

S. Ignazio
The Church of St. Ignatius was constructed half a century later than Il Gesù. It is entirely Baroque in style, and can be said to represent the Jesuits' triumphant phase, and that of the Counter Reformation. This was originally part of the Roman College, one of the Society's earliest and finest educational institutions. Founded in 1551 as a "school of grammar, humanities, and Christian doctrine, free of charge," the Roman College embodied St. Ignatius' conviction that "all the good of Christianity and the world depends on the good education of the young" (as his spokesman wrote to Philip II of Spain in 1556).

By the early seventeenth century, the Roman College's original chapel had become too small for its bustling 2,000 students. Gregory XV Ludovisi, who was a Roman College alumnus and had canonized Ignatius in 1622, nudged his nephew Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi into funding a new church. (The Ludovisis amply recompensated themselves by emblazoning their names and family crest throughout the church. The inscription on their tomb states: "One raised St. Ignatius to the altar, while the other raised altars to Ignatius.") Work was entrusted to the College's own mathematics professor, Orazio Grassi, and the church was opened in 1650.

Exterior: As mentioned above, the Church of St. Ignatius originally formed part of the large and complicated complex of the Roman College. It now faces on to one of Rome's most unique (rococo) and lovely piazzas. Its tripartite façade is very similar to that of Il Gesù, which, as we have said, provided the model for many Jesuit churches worldwide.

Interior: St. Ignatius' floor plan repeats that of Il Gesù, but on a greater and grander scale. The church's Jesuit rector, Father Giulio Libianchi told us: "The first characteristic of St. Ignatius is its functional quality. As the chapel for the Roman College, it also served as the school auditorium, where important lectures and conferences were held. Here famous theologians expounded on doctrinal matters and students defended their doctoral theses. In the seventeenth century, the church was also an important cultural center, hosting concerts and public ceremonies for the Roman population."

As in Il Gesù, St. Ignatius' huge nave with side pulpit was and still is ideal for such events. Father Libianchi was too modest to add that he is personally responsible for restoring to St. Ignatius its earlier cultural role. It is now Rome's preeminent church for important concerts, and for Christmas and other festivities thousands flock to hear international orchestras and choirs.

Decor: "The second characteristic of St. Ignatius," Father Libianchi continued, "is that it is the Jesuit Sanctuary for Youth. Here two of the Jesuits' most beloved young saints are buried. (St. Aloysius Gonzaga [1568-91], who refused the honor of becoming a Spanish prince to study at the Roman College, entered the Jesuit order, and died at the age of 23, after ministering in Rome's plague hospitals; and St. John Berchmans [d. 1621], a young student at the Roman College, who died here at 22 years of age)." The elaborate Baroque tombs of these appealing saints face each other from both sides of the transept.

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Father Libianchi's eyes twinkled as he explained: "Much of the transept ceiling painting was done by young art students at the Roman College, under the guidance of their professor, Brother Andrea Pozzo. We can identify portraits the students did of each other and of their relatives. The large figure of Judith, for instance, has the face of one collegian's mother, her maid is his grandmother, and Holosfernes' severed head is the likeness of a too-strict school caretaker."

The rector went on: "The final important characteristic of St. Ignazio is that it is a superb example of Baroque illusionism." When money ran out before a dome could be built, the clever Jesuit artist Andrea Pozzo (1681-1701) painted a fake dome over the altar. The trompe d' oeil perspective is the biggest joke in Rome (the uninitiated standing underneath never guess that the ceiling is really flat).

Father Libianchi walked us under Pozzo's great vault fresco. As we progressed, the painted sky seemed to open out, figures of saints and angels went flying outwards into space, and several colossals (infidels and heretics?) tumbled downwards, desperately grappling onto the billowing clouds. The fresco shows St. Ignatius in Glory and his Apostolate in the World and has four monumental women, appropriately dressed to represent the four continents which were being converted by Jesuit missionary activity at that time.

This triumphant burst of emotion and color seems a fitting tribute to Jesuit successes and the victorious Catholic Revival, one century after Ignatius' first church was opened for worship.

by June Hager

Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.

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[La Chiesa Nuova] [San Clemente]