Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola – an area of false impressions and optical illusions

Church of Sant'Ignazio, vault – Apotheosis of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Andrea Pozzo

Church of Sant'Ignazio, vault – Apotheosis of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Andrea Pozzo

Passersby entering this church, generally tourists, know exactly why they have come here. And the view which extends before them can by no means fail to impress. These who have wandered here by accident, cannot believe their own eyes and stand mouth agape with wonder, when looking upwards, they see above their heads a true vastness of the heavens – a perfect painting. The onlooker has in front of him a creation consisting of architectural, sculpture and painting elements, but put together in such a way, that he does not know where illusion ends and reality begins. The fresco, which we are speaking of is one of the most flawless and impeccable works of Baroque – a theatre of false impressions and optical illusions.

Church of Sant'Ignazio, vault – Apotheosis of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant’Ignazio, façade – cornice with an inscription commemorating the foundation of Ludovico Ludovisi
Church of Sant’Ignazio – inscription commemorating the foundation of Ludovico Ludovisi, decorations – Alessandro Algardi
Church of Sant'Ignazio, illusionary dome and paintings in the pendentives depicting Old Testament prophets, Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, illusionary dome – Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, scene depicting a wounded Ignatius Loyola at Pamplona – the beginning of his spiritual journey, presbytery ceiling, Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, personification of Africa, fragment of a vault painting
Church of Sant'Ignazio, personification of Europe, fragment of a vault painting
Church of Sant'Ignazio, personification of Asia, fragment of a vault painting
Church of Sant'Ignazio, central part of a vault painting – Apotheosis of St. Ignatius, Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, frescoes at the top of the apse – St. Ignatius healing those afflicted with the plague
Church of Sant'Ignazio, Altar of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Pierre Le Gros
Church of Sant'Ignazio, Altar of St. Aloysius Gonzaga – Pierre Le Gros, church transept
Church of Sant'Ignazio, Altar of St. John Berchmans in the left transept of the church, design by Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, Altar of St. John Berchmans, design by Andrea Pozzo
Church of Sant'Ignazio, Ludovisi Chapel funerary monument of Pope Gregory XV and his nepot Ludovico Ludovisi
Church of Sant'Ignazio, statue of Pope Gregory XV, fragment
Church of Sant'Ignazio, medallion with the image of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi from the tombstone of Pope Gregory XV
Church of Sant'Ignazio, allegory of Justice (Giustizia), Camillo Rusconi, Ludovisi Chapel
Church of Sant'Ignazio, allegory of Prudence (Prudenza), Camillo Rusconi, Ludovisi Chapel
Church of Sant'Ignazio, allegory of Fortitude (Fortezza), one of the virtues in the Ludovisi Chapel, Camillo Rusconi
Church of Sant'Ignazio, angel flanking the Altar of St. John Berchmans, Pietro Bracci, left transept of the church
Church of Sant'Ignazio, angel with a crown of thorns flanking the Altar of St. John Berchmans, Pietro Bracci, church transept
Church of Sant'Ignazio, angel flanking the Altar of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Bernardino Ludovisi
Church of Sant'Ignazio, angel flanking the Altar of Aloysius Gonzaga, Bernardino Ludovisi
Church of Sant'Ignazio, statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Camillo Rusconi – casting of the original found in the Basilica of San Pietro in  Vaticano
Church of Sant'Ignazio, The Death of St. Joseph, Francesco Trevisiani, Sacripante Chapel (second on the right)
Church of Sant'Ignazio, sarcophagus with relics of St. John Berchmans
Apse of the Church of Sant’Ignazio, on the bottom – the Vision of St. Ignatius, on the sides Ignatius sending Francis Xavier to India and accepting Francisco Borgia into the society
Piazza di Sant’Ignazio in front of the Church of Sant’Ignazio
Piazza di Sant’Ignazio in front of the Church of Sant’Ignazio
Church of Sant’Ignazio and the square – Piazza di Sant’Ignazio

Passersby entering this church, generally tourists, know exactly why they have come here. And the view which extends before them can by no means fail to impress. These who have wandered here by accident, cannot believe their own eyes and stand mouth agape with wonder, when looking upwards, they see above their heads a true vastness of the heavens – a perfect painting. The onlooker has in front of him a creation consisting of architectural, sculpture and painting elements, but put together in such a way, that he does not know where illusion ends and reality begins. The fresco, which we are speaking of is one of the most flawless and impeccable works of Baroque – a theatre of false impressions and optical illusions.

This is a virtual world, therefore regardless of the fact whether one likes the splendor of Baroque churches or not – it is impressive indeed. And it is exactly this impressiveness that the builders and especially the decorators were after, in this  church dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola – the founder of the Order of the Jesuits. It was also a praise hymn to the Society of Jesus, which in the XVII century experienced a period of its greatest glory.




The initiative for the creation and financing of the church fell to the ambitious Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who in 1626, four years after Ignatius of Loyola was canonized, brought together a committee which was to plan the church. It was to be one of the largest and most imposing in the city. The church was built in the years 1626-1650 according to the designs of a Jesuit with a mathematical education – Orazio Grassi. He was also the creator of the façade, inspired by the façade of another significant Jesuit church - Il Gesù. In comparison with the original, the one here is more artful, which was achieved by giving it more dynamism, with the use of protruding columns, which top off the abutments and an extended cornice which divides it transversely, and on which there is an inscription, immortalizing…. not the saint Jesuit, but the founder – cardinal Ludovisi. In the church interior, above the enterance there is a decorative plaque with an inscription which is also dedicated to him and is supplemented by the coat of arms of the Ludovisi family and the allegories of Religion and Fame. It was completed by one of the leading sculptors of those times - Alessandro Algardi (1650).

The interior is a single nave with a cradle vault, opening with arcades into deep chapels. It is finished off with an enormous apse, visible from the enterance. On the intersection of the nave and transept a dome was placed, but it is really a virtual trick. The one that was planned here was not completed, while in its place the principal decorator of the church – the Jesuit painter Andrea Pozzo spread out a 13-meter canvas, on which he painted architectural elements, in an excellent way imitating the actual dome. It is a magnificent example of quadrature, thanks to which, that which is two-dimensional, obtains three dimensions. The frescos of the apse are also his doing. Those in the main altar show the vision of St. Ignatius in a chapel in La Storta (central picture); he is accompanied by other saint Jesuits (Francis Xavier and Francis Borgia). The paintings crowning the presbytery depict a young Ignatius during the siege of Pamplona, when a cannonball massacred his leg, which was an impulse for his conversion and a start of a new life. A glorious summary of this life can be witnessed on the paintings of the main nave, those which also make a tremendous impression immediately after entering the interior. They represent  the Apotheosis of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is in those paintings that Pozzo showed his talent for creating illusive architecture, fo operating with perspective foreshortenings and creating space, which seems to open itself into the vastness of the heavens. Thanks to his painting tricks Pozzo created an architectural area twice as high as the actual one, while at the same time “suspending” levitating figures in the air, about which it is impossible to say whether they are  still a sculpture or already a painting.




The iconographic program completed in the Church of Sant’Ignazio was thoroughly developed by the Jesuits and was to illustrate the spread of the Fire of Divine Love and the true faith by the Order of the Jesuits. The saint himself, floating on a cloud, is so high up, that we can barely recognize him. Above him we see the Holy Trinity, Christ with a Cross, God the Father, and a dove. The light coming forth from those figures reaches the chest of St. Ignatius and reflecting from it, spreads out into five directions. One of these beams reaches a shield held by an angel with the letters IHS, meaning the abbreviation, which the Jesuits took on as their emblem. The remaining beams of the divine light, are directed towards the four continents, freeing them in this symbolic way from the burden of heresy and paganism. The continents are hidden in the allegoric figures of women, shown in the four corners of the painting (Europe, Asia, Africa, America). Among these the most dignified is Europe, mounted on a horse, holding a scepter and a globe, dressed in a rich robe, since it is here that the foundations of the true faith, meaning Roman Catholicism, were laid. All of these personifications are accompanied by an image of a saint Jesuit martyr (Aloysius, Francis Xavier, Peter Claver). Only America (seated on  a leopard with feathers in her hair) is without one, since the Jesuit mission in the New World was so effective, that no missionary died during it. The figures vibrating above America are those converted to the true faith. Africa with a black visage, seated on a crocodile, looks upon a child (with a pale face) battling with infidels. On the other hand, Asia seated upon a camel points towards a saint Jesuit, walking towards Ignatius.

As we can see the iconographic program presented in the Church of Sant’Ignazio was a political program as well, in which the leading role of the Jesuits was emphasized, as those chosen by the Lord as intermediaries between Him and the faithful. The message was also directed towards Protestants (who did not accept any intermediaries between God and man), and with whom Jesuits battled in Europe, with great success. However, the paintings were also an expression of the legitimization of the Jesuit missions all over the world, since the members of the Jesuit Order were predestined by the Lord to carry forth the aforementioned fire of the true faith.

In accordance with the intentions of Andrea Pozzo, a truly transcendent feeling of divine presence can be felt standing in a circular filed marked on the church floor. Looking on from this location, we experience the greatest illusion of space, created thanks to mathematical calculations of Orazio Grassi. Entering this imaginary world, we can with our own eyes see, that the current technologies known to us today, do not offer anything new, and moreover we do not need 3D glasses to enjoy three-dimensional effects.

 

The frescos were finished by Pozzo in 1694, and brought him enormous fame. He was invited to decorate other Jesuit churches and others as well, dying in Vienna where he was buried. In the Church of Sant’Ignazio he created a painting, which was the crowning achievement in long-lasting struggles undertaken in Rome in the past, by Agostino Carracci, Guercino, Giovanni Lanfranco or Pietro da Cortona. All these artists strove to create an ideal illusion, but it was Pozzo who succeeded in doing so in a truly impeccable way.

Of course seeing the works of Pozzo is reason enough to visit the church, but there are several other objects inside which are worth seeing as well. The side chapels seem to be in hiding, and are an overture before the imposing transept, which hits the onlooker straight on as he is directing his steps towards the main altar. In both its arms there are monumental altars, devoted to Jesuit saints.

 

  • In the right transept

In the right transept there is an altar and a tombstone devoted to Aloysius (actually Luigi) Gonzaga, who cared for the sick, and who died at the young age of 23 during a plague in Rome. The decorative, full of splendor altar, was designed in 1699, again by Andrea Pozzo, on the other hand the marble relief depicting the apotheosis of the deceased was created by Pierre Le Gros, often employed by the Jesuits.

 

Next to it is the Cappella Ludovisi adapted for the founder of the church, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who commissioned the execution of the tombstone monument for himself and his uncle, Pope Gregory XV. Both the clergymen were associated with the Order of the Jesuits – the pope himself began his clerical career within their ranks, then canonized Ignatius of Loyola. His nephew, on the other hand, who during the short pontificate of his uncle amassed a great fortune, was the protector of the Order of the Jesuits, as well as a well-known patron of the art. His modest image is found   in a medallion sort of at the feet of the monumental papal pedestal, which in 1714 was completed by the aforementioned favorite of the Jesuits – a sculptor of French descent, Pierre Le Gros. It must be admitted that the pope, who sat upon St. Peter’s throne a mere 28 months, received a truly royal tombstone. It was not however, as was the habit, a foundation of his nephew, but of the Jesuits, who after a humiliating quarrel which lasted tens of years, between the order and the heirs of cardinal Ludovisi over money, which was to be set out for its construction, finally financed its creation themselves. This took place 80 years after the death of the cardinal and nearly one hundered years after the death of the pope, but it may be assumed, the Jesuits were driven not only by gratitude to the founder of the church, but also political foresightedness. It is at this time, that dark clouds started gathering over the order. Reprimanded at the beginning of the XVIII century due to their missions in China, accused of disobedience, they were subject to widespread criticism, but what is worse – lost the support of the then pope. The so-called accommodations quarrel, undermined the prestige of the Jesuits. In order to accentuate their unbreakable bond with the papacy, they built this imposing monument of papal glory, in this way underlining a long, marked by devotion tradition, which connected the order with the Holy See. The effect is truly convincing. At the feet of the enthroned, surrounded by angels pope, two figures are seated – Religio and Abundantia (Abundance), which are the allegories of the rise of faith and abundance, which were the result of the cooperation between the bishop of Rome and the Order of the Jesuits. The whole emanating luxury and splendor was made out of multi-colored marble. It is the last of such monumental tombstones, which were created in Rome – the last act of the staging of commemoration, which served an ad hoc propaganda and advertising goal. It is further underlined by the inscription on the pedestal: ALTER IGNATIUM ARIS – ALTER ARAS IGNATIO, which means: “The one [Pope Gregory XV] placed St. Ignatius on the Altars, and the other [cardinal Ludovisi] built Altars to St. Ignatius”. Leaving the chapel of the Ludovisi family it is worth taking a look at the sculptures found there, which are allegories of virtues – Fortitude, Justice, Strength, and Prudence, which were created by the skilled continuator of Gian Lorenzo Bernini Camillo Rusconi.

  • In the left transept

Here we see an equally pompous altar of another Jesuit saint – the Flanders-born, Jan Berchmans, who died at a young age, while studying in Rome and did not even live long enough to be ordained as a priest. The design of the altar made by Andrea Pozzo, refers once again to the decorations of Le Gros. On the other hand the marble relief of rather low quality with the scene of the Visitation, was created by a second-rate sculptor Filippo Valle in 1750. The angels flanking the altar, by the able Baroque sculptor, once again a student of Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Pietro Bracci, are also an important decorative element

Leaving the church, we must direct our attention to the square where it stands. Piazza di Sant’Ignazio is one of the best XVIII-century urban arrangements in Rome.