Il Gesù, Rome

Created at a dramatic moment in European history, this explosive ceiling fresco celebrates the triumph of Jesus.

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta, Church of Il Gesù, Rome (consecrated 1584, ceiling fresco, The Triumph of the Name of Jesus, by il Baciccio, also known as Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1672–85)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’ve just walked into Il Gesù, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. This order was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish noble focused on preaching and converting the peoples of the world to Catholicism.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:21] Especially in Asia and Latin America. In the late 16th century, there was a need for a new kind of church architecture. The Protestant Reformation had occurred, [with] Protestants challenging the authority of the church in Rome, of the pope. The Counter-Reformation had begun, the Catholic Church’s efforts to fight back against Martin Luther.

[0:41] The Jesuits were the main allies of the pope in this response to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] And the effort to reassert the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] This is the Church Triumphant. When you walk in here, there’s no doubt that the Church has a sense that it has triumphed and will triumph over the challenge of Protestantism.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] The focus, as soon as you walk into the church, is on the altar and the performance of the Eucharist that takes place there.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. More Masses were performed during this period. More preaching took place. There was an engagement of the laity that was critical in this Counter-Reformation period.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] The church is enormous, in order to hold the great numbers of faithful.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] What makes this church different than what came before? The architects of the High Renaissance favored the centrally planned church, that is, a church that was based on a circle or a Greek cross, that is, a cross with equal arms. They moved away from the traditional cruciform shape of a basilica.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] In sharp contrast, this church is responding to the ideas that were set forth in the Council of Trent.

Dr. Harris: [1:56] It was at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church determined their response to Martin Luther and the Protestants. After the Council of Trent, we see a new interest in clarity in art, in making the message very direct.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] This church is designed to make the miraculous as accessible as possible.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] As soon as you walk in, you’re struck by the breadth of the nave. We don’t have side aisles.

Dr. Zucker: [2:21] Instead, we have side chapels, and despite the immensity of the church, the focus on the altar. One of the things that Vignola did was to shorten the church in back of the crossing, so that the altar is pushed forward much more than in any comparable church of this size that came previously.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] The transepts are also shortened.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] In fact, the transepts do not move laterally past the footprint of the chapels, so that the church really does function as a rectangle.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] This focus on the altar, on holding large numbers of people who would come to hear sermons, this is what was important. What we have is a return to the basilica.

Dr. Zucker: [2:59] So far, we’ve been talking about this church in relationship to the Counter-Reformation, but this church remains deeply indebted to Renaissance architecture, specifically the work of Alberti.

[3:10] The breadth of the barrel vault recalls the Church of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua, and the facade unites the first and second stories with the use of these beautiful scrolls that are a direct reference back to Alberti’s facade for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This architecture derives authority from those precedents.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] In fact, we see classical references if we look at the nave walls, where we see pairs of fluted pilasters with Corinthian capitals, above that a frieze, then finally a cornice, the barrel vault, the dome over the crossing. These are all elements derived from ancient Roman architecture. We could think about the Pantheon just a few blocks away.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] Or the ancient Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. This is the ancient vocabulary of the city of Rome being brought to bear in this new era, when the Jesuits are celebrating the Catholic church as the universal church, as the triumphant church.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] Now, the decoration of the ceiling dates to about 100 years after the architecture itself and was done by the great Baroque painter Gaulli.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] This is one of the great ceiling paintings in the city of Rome. We have at its center the initials “IHS.” We see that everywhere in this church. This monogram symbolizes the name of Jesus.

Dr. Harris: [4:26] St. Paul wrote that in the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

Dr. Zucker: [4:34] Of course, the name of this church, Il Gesù, is the name Jesus itself.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] The power of the name of Jesus to help us achieve salvation. Now, barrel vaults are heavy things, but here it opens to the heavens, where we see the name of Jesus with a cross on top, surrounded by golden light. Everywhere we look, angels [are] alighting on cornices, seeming to fly through the air.

Dr. Zucker: [5:00] But then slightly lower down, we see a number of figures suspended on clouds, creating a kind of arc across the barrel-vaulted ceiling. These figures are painted in wonderful foreshortening.

Dr. Harris: [5:11] These are the elect. We see them floating from where we are on earth up toward heaven, up toward that name of Jesus. The illusion is so convincing because the artist is breaking the frame of the main area of the fresco. Carrying the painting around it using paintings on wooden panels that cover the architecture of the vaulted ceiling.

Dr. Zucker: [5:36] And are slightly lifted off the ceiling, creating an even greater sense of dimensionality. As if that wasn’t enough, what the artist has done is to paint shadow on the ceiling itself.

[5:47] Creating this incredibly convincing illusion that those figures exist in three dimensions above us and are casting shadows on the actual architecture.

Dr. Harris: [5:56] This must have made you feel, in your body, a sense of the miraculous.

Dr. Zucker: [6:02] That’s not to say that people in the 17th century believed these paintings to be real.

Dr. Harris: [6:07] We don’t believe everything we watch in a movie. While we’re watching it, we feel as though it’s real.

Dr. Zucker: [6:12] There’s one painted group that we haven’t spoken about. They’re largely in shadow. If the arc were the elect, those rising to heaven. These are the damned being cast down into hell.

[6:22] One of favorite aspects of this part of the painting is the figure holding a book. He comes out of the ceiling in such a convincing manner. If we were to measure him, he would be so much larger than life.

Dr. Harris: [6:33] It’s using that technique of foreshortening to move these figures in and out of the viewer’s space that makes this so compelling. Boundaries dissolve in this church; the boundary between the earthly and the heavenly.

[6:48] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Il Gesù, Rome," in Smarthistory, April 8, 2021, accessed April 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/il-gesu-rome/.