Studies on the Jesuits and the Arts

December 8, 2015 in 201512, Featured News, News

The Winter 2015 Studies, just out, is a special issue dedicated to the Jesuits and the arts, particularly in the Baroque age, between the end of the 16th century and the early 18th century. This was the age of great internal reform in the Catholic Church as well as of developments and ‘offensives’ against the recently-emerged Reformation churches which, more specifically, constituted the counter-reformation.

What has inspired this volume of Studies is the recent bi-centenary commemorations of the restoration of the Jesuits in 1815. To mark this anniversary there was a historical conference in Belvedere College in September 2014 and an art exhibition, entitled ‘Passion and persuasion: Images of Baroque saints’, held in the National Gallery of Ireland. Accompanying this exhibition, which was hosted jointly by the Irish Jesuits and the Gallery itself, was a series of lectures and a conference on related topics. It is to these productions that Studies dedicates this issue.

The issue leads with a paper by John Gash, art historian from the University of Aberdeen, on ‘Counter-reformation countenances: Catholic art and attitude from Caravaggio to Rubens’. The great art works of that era, Gash argues, enunciated the ideology, as well as the ecclesiastical politics and policies, of the counter-reformation. Gash notes intriguingly the manner in which, for example, Caravaggio’s Taking of the Christ (on permanent loan to the National Gallery from the Irish Jesuits) illustrated various aspects of the new spiritual agenda in the century after Luther. In accordance with the injunctions of the Council of Trent, this work acts as a liber pauperum, an unambiguous lesson in scripture and theology from a Catholic perspective for the edification of the poor and unlettered.

Gash provides other instances of how baroque art reinforced “the shifting contours of Catholic faith, as it navigated its responses to the Lutheran and Calvinist challenges”. These seem to reflect a phenomenon which Henri de Lubac lamented in the mid-20th century, namely the Catholic experience of learning one’s catechism against one or other party such that some essential feature of the faith may be obscured. A good example of this is described at the end of Gash’s paper. Speaking of one of Rubens’ great altarpieces, The Miracles of St Ignatius Loyola, Gash notes that Ignatius and a line of Jesuit priests stand on elevated ground behind an altar, separated from the ordinary faithful in the body of the church. This echoed Trent’s insistence on the priest as the sole intercessor between God and the laity – a rejection of Luther’s emphasis on the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

Thee are many other excellent contributions to the volume, including two other essays specifically considering Caravaggio. Other essays investigate the works of El Greco and of Bernini and such themes as the ‘memento mori’; but what dominates the rest of the volume is various treatments of iconography – representations of San Isidro, of the Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, and of Jesuit saints. Gauvin Alexander Baily takes a fascinating look at the iconography of Jesuit saints in the Church of San Pedro in Lima, Peru. And last in the volume but far from least is the text of John O’Malley SJ’s lecture on ‘The Jesuits and the arts in the Tridentine era’, a “whirlwind tour” of the works of Jesuit artists in Italy, in the rest of Europe, and in such far-flung places as Latin America, Japan and China.

One unique feature of this volume of Studies is the sixteen pages of full-colour plates in the centre. These illustrate many of the subjects of the essays, which is a considerable help to the reader. The editor, Bruce Bradley SJ, is quick to appreciate the great help he received from Audrey Nicholls, whom he took on as Associate Editor for this special issue. Dr Nicholls was the Guest Curator of the ‘Passion and Persuasion’ exhibition, and Fr. Bradley, in his editorial, comments that “it would simply not have been possible to produce this special of Studies without her hugely generous commitment to the project.”

To listen to Dr Nicholls speaking to Pat Coyle, director of Irish Jesuit communications during a walkabout in the National Gallery in mid-April 2015, click here.

To listen to Pat Coyle interview John W. O’Malley SJ about the Jesuits as prolific patrons of the arts from the 16th to the 18th century, click here.