A Glimpse into Grandeur: Art of the Gesù Church

“The Holy Name: Art of the Gesù: Bernini and His Age” has been organized to honor the 75th anniversary of Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Fairfield, Connecticut. The exhibition and accompanying events focus on an unprecedented assemblage in the United Stated of artworks and documents occasioned by the realization of the decorative program for the renowned Gesù Church in Rome. From its inspired beginnings in the mind of St. Ignatius Loyola, through the lengthy building and decorative process carried out by his successors, the Gesù Church has been fitted as the Mother Church of the Society of Jesus. Its remarkable story, from the façade to the apse, comprises a rousing narrative about Jesuit apostolate and cultural mission, intertwined with the flowering of religious and sacred art in the Baroque era.

Domenico Zampieri, called Domenichino. St. Ignatius of Loyola Visions of Christ and God the Father at La Storta, ca. 1622. Oil on Canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. 
The exhibit focuses on the artistic cornucopia effected by the sustained and prudent leadership, primarily of the 11th Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Fr. Giovanni Paolo Oliva, S.J. (1600 – 1681) who wed the Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam intentionality to the significant creative capacities of a few well-chosen individuals and thus ended up enriching the interior of the church with truly exceptional artworks. Combined with the mighty Farnese patronage and the inspired advice of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who exercised both his artistic and consulting talents with this project, it is impossible to imagine anything but a happy outcome for the Gesù, as indeed it turned out and continues to be almost 400 years later. The Fairfield exhibition brings together five remarkable loans from the church in Rome as well as over fifty artefacts from various institutions and organizations in the United States and abroad. A collection shedding a birghter light on the depth and breadth of vision that inspired the artistic efforts invested in decorating the voluminous interior of the staple Jesuit building.

At the center of the exhibit space sits a glass case housing the Farnese chasuble (1575 – 89) - a token of a powerful patronage and high artistic caliber that made the church and its interior possible. This dazzling vestment is laid flat to protect its opulent silk, gold and silver threads employed in a sophisticated needle painting technique. The reverse side which is shown on display shows verdant flora designs in continuous arabesque arrangements. The entire outline and expanse of the background fabric are teeming with voluptuous spirals; from among the shimmering leaves and colorful flowers, emerge angels bearing ecclesial edifices in a variety of architectural styles. The central panel features figurative scenes – the most conspicuous one being the Return of the Prodigal Son. At the time when textiles could be costlier than jewels, paintings, or sculpture, this gift stands out as a great token of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s beneficence and a pledge of his patronage. As it is, the construction of the Gesù Church was also sponsored by his wealth. He commended one of the most outstanding Mannerist architects, Giacomo da Vignola, to take on the design of the building and Giacomo della Porta, whose works instigated Roman Baroque, to complete the façade.

Chasuble of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, ca. 1575-1589. Silk embroidered with gold, silver, and colored silk thread.
Detail: Chasuble of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, ca. 1575-1589. Silk embroidered with gold, silver, and colored silk thread. 
To the right of the entrance staircase of the exhibition hall, displayed on a substantial pedestal and set against a dark navy-blue background is a lone, splendid marble bust of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This artwork visits the United States for the first time and for the first time, since its unveiling in 1624, travels outside of Rome. The carving is of exceptional quality and its display at the Fairfield Museum is a singular and not-to-be-missed opportunity to study this work at an eye level intimacy. As soon as we come vis-a-vis with the Bellarmino bust, it becomes apparent that at the hand of Bernini, marble seems to be an entirely pliant, almost warm material rather than solid stone.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bust of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino. 1624. Marble. 
The Bellarmino sculpture is endowed with true to life personality and liveliness. The bust also carries a wonderful sense of decorum and is an exemplary piece of art for religious sculpture in general. The carving is very refined and masterful, and it is something of a happy shock to realize that Bernini was only in his early twenties when he carried out this work. Decorative detailing, down to the delicate lace design on the sleeves, the pensive gaze and hands clasped in prayer, make this sculpted portrait expressive, but not theatrical. The bust was commissioned and gifted to Il Gesù by Pope Gregory XV and Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. It is one of the two elements, the other being a large memorial plaque, remaining of the funerary monument built for Cardinal Bellarmino. The monument structure itself has gone, missing since the 18th century. Numerous art historians have been trying to learn its fate, but thus far no one has been able to uncover its whereabouts. The dislocated Bellarmino bust remains the monument’s essential and lingering memento.

Johan Adol Gaap. Cartegloria of St. Ignatius. 1699. Silver, gilt bronze, lapis lazuli, and glass. 
Among the collection of treasures on show at Fairfield, also impossible to miss is a lavish baroque cartegloria from the altar of St. Ignatius, crafted by the German goldsmith Johann Adolf Gaap (1667 – 1724). Crafted in silver with gilt bronze detailing, lapis lazuli, and colored glass cabuchons. Admiring this work by Gaap, we can try to guess reasons behind such an exuberant design. Since the purpose of a cartegloria is to enshrine paper or parchment with prayers of the Mass, the design of the frame echoes shape of a parchment scroll. At the same time, the curling of the frame calls on the curved volutes often used in architecture of the time and specifically those found on the façade of the Gesù. At the crown of the frame is the famous Christogram also seen at the summit of the principal altarpiece. The most prominent, central section of the frame includes two lateral angelic figures supporting a scroll and handling two spears, one spear with a pointed tip and one with a with sponge, references to Christ’s Passion. At the foot of the curling frame is an embossed relief of three large nails. When we look at these opulent frames, we discern that the goldsmith incorporated essential features of artwork already found in the church, together with the best goldsmithing techniques of his day, added to the fundamental understanding of the Holy Mass as Sacrifice when he designed this memorable cartegloria.

Considerations of various artworks that belong to the aesthetic program of the Gesù would not be satisfying without a look at one of the most important Baroque frescos painted for a church, The Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus. The exhibition in Fairfield presents a bozzetto (painted small scale study). In this case it is needful to admit that beholding this ceiling fresco in Rome, in the Gesù, and in person should be on the ‘must see’ list of anyone with an even remotest interest in the arts. While several artists were considered for the painting job of the imposing barrel nave ceiling of the Gesù, the commission was awarded to a lesser known and very young Genoese painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli, nicknamed Il Baciccio. It was the enthusiastic recommendation of Bernini that helped this talented twenty-two year old win such an important undertaking. As if against all bets, Gaulli far exceeded expectations with this extraordinary work and only strengthened Bernini’s position of honor as the foremost artist and artistic advisor in 17th century Rome. The Triumph of the Name of Jesus came out to be one of the most stunning and important masterpieces of religious art in the history of the Catholic Church.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli. The Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus, 1676-79. Photo of the Ceiling. 

Save for the white stucco figures executed by Antonio Raggi, the surface of the ceiling is entirely covered in trompe l’oeil painting technique which aims to create convincing three-dimensional images. Gaulli’s accomplishment here is an illusionist capture of an infinite space and an otherworldly realm anticipated in the Book of Revelation. Around the luminous IHS, angels, cherubs, and saints hover in adoration. At the lower right corner, on an opposing diagonal from the Christogram, a tumultuous grouping of demons and damned souls falls out of light into a creeping darkness. The composition is dramatic and dynamic, the result is dazzling and undeniably awe-inspiring.

It’s become a matter of commonplace expression that the exhibit at the Fairfield Museum is a foretaste of Rome and something of a replacement of a trip to the Eternal City. Nonetheless, visiting the exhibit leaves an altogether different impression. It is impossible to replace or even anticipate the experience of walking into one of the most beloved interiors in the Church’s history. The effort to bring all the Gesù related artefacts together is a wonderful testimony to the generosity and collaboration between private and public institutions in attracting much needed and valuable attention to good religious art, but it would be misguided to say that the assemblage is meant to substitute for the visit to the church in Rome. While the artworks are the crown of the exhibition, the animating conceptual core of this accomplished event is a discourse about the germinal impact of art patronage and material culture in fashioning culturo-religious identities and legacies. This impact is not to be underestimated, and an illuminating lesson of “The Holy Name: Art of the Gesù: Bernini and His Age” is fairly clear: if we are interested in making history, we must not shy away from investing effort into making great art or from making pilgrimages to see the monuments of our Faith.

The Holy Name: The Art of the Gesù: Bernini and His Age
An Exhibition to Celebrate 75th Anniversary of Fairfield University
Chief Curator: Linda Wolk-Simon
Fairfield University Museum, Fairfield, CT
Dates: Feb 2, 2018 – May 19, 2018

Photo Credits:
Kinga Lipinska
Wikipedia, The Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. Public Domain.

O’Malley, John and Gauvin Baily. The Jesuits and the Arts. St. Joseph University Press, 2005.

Kinga U. Lipinska
Art Dealer & Project Consultant working with new liturgical art commissions, renovation planning and heritage restoration.

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