Il Gesù, Rome

This article was contributed by Kurt Nemes.

The Chiesa Il Gesù (Church of the Gesù), a 16th-century late Renaissance church in Rome, is the mother church of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.  Originally very austere, Il Gesù's interior was opulently decorated starting in the 17th century. Now its frescoes, sculptures and shrines make it one of the foremost examples of Roman Baroque art. 

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History of Il Gesù

In 1540, Saint Ignatius of Loyola needed a church to serve as the center of his newly founded Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), which the Farnese-family Pope Paul III formally recognized that year. One of the Society's members was the priest of a church called Our Lady of the Way, which the Pope designated as the Society's official church.  Saint Ignatius, finding the church too small, began fund-raising to construct a church worthy of the "Name of Jesus."  It took him 10 years to get the necessary permits before he could break ground. 

But the original site wasn't ideal, so new plans were drawn up with Michelangelo being involved in the design.  A second ground-breaking ceremony took place, but this time wealthy neighbors fought the construction which would affect their houses. The Pope's grandson, who was now Cardinal Farnese, agreed to fund the church and the final ground breaking took place in 1568, 18 years after the first.  Unfortunately, St. Ignatius never lived to see the construction, but the church became his final resting place, making Il Gesù an important shrine for pilgrims to this day.

The church also plays a pivotal role in the Counter-Reformation, which was the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther.  The Counter-Reformation's goals, worked out during the Council of Trent (1545-1563), were designed to reassert the power of the church, standardize the training of local priests, stimulate pious devotion, and wipe out the corruption in the church, which had fueled Luther's movement.

The Council also issued a decree on art in response to the lush mannerist style of artists like Michelangelo, who included voluptuous nudes, commoners and pagan images in their paintings. The decree stipulated that religious art could not be designed to incite lust, be disorderly, or contain anything that was profane or unbecoming "the house of God."  Importantly, the decree stipulated that subject of the work of art was what should be venerated, not the work of art itself, which would have been considered idolatry. This still allowed the church to create shrines like the tomb of St. Ignatius and the over-the-top decoration that characterizes this period, which were designed to inspire awe at the magnificence of the Catholic Church.

Quick Chronology

1534 St. Ignatius founds the Society of Jesus in Paris while studying theology there and settles in Rome.
1540 Pope Paul III recognizes Society of Jesus. Ignatius begins fund-raising for his church in Rome.
1550-51 Foundation laid under direction of Giovanni Bartolomeo di Lippi, an architect and sculptor also known as Nanni di Baccio Bigio, construction delayed until 1554. Michelangelo called into to redesign church, refusing a commission.
1554 Second foundation laid; again construction founders because of disputes with neighboring Muti and Altieri families.
1568 Cardinal Farnese agrees to fund the church and final construction begins. Church designed by Jacopo Barozzi, known as Vignola.
1573 Vignola dies and work is completed by Giocomo Della Porta, who designed the façade and the dome.
1584 Church consecrated by envoy of Pope Gregory XIII.
1661-79 Frescoes inside the church painted by Baciccia.
1696-1700 Altar-tomb of St. Ignatius designed and by Andrea Pozzo and others.

What to See at Il Gesù

Façade

In 1571, Giacomo della Porta's design for the façade of Il Gesù was accepted.  The main architect, Vignola also died that year, and Porta was put in charge of finishing the church.  Della Porta's façade conveys a sense of harmony and seriousness that perfectly expressed the goal of the Counter-Reformation to assert the authority and majesty of the Catholic Church.  The façade is divided into an upper and a lower portion.  The lower portion is wonderfully reminiscent of Palladian architecture, and its columns and pilasters quote the harmonious lines of ancient Greek and Roman temples.  Set into the wall are two statues of St. Ignatius stamping out ignorant savages, not tremendously politically correct today.  The upper portion is has graceful scroll-shaped buttresses on each side, which delight the eye and echo the theme of the Jesuits being learned scholars and teachers of the faith.

Frescoes by Baciccia

Truly the most extraordinary painting in the church, and perhaps in all of Rome after the Sistine Chapel, is the Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus which adorns the nave vault.  Giovanni Battista Gaulli, known as Baciccia, a gifted painter from Genoa, was supported by the famous sculptor Bernini and won the commission to paint the frescoes for Il Gesù when he was just 22.  Eighteen years later, he unveiled the Triumph.  Surrounded by a gilt coffered ceiling, the fresco depicts the loyal and pious ascending to join Jesus in heaven and the impious being cast down.

Baciccia achieved an incredible three-dimensional trompe l'oeuil with the help of his pupil, Antonio Raggi.  Raggi fashioned foreshortened stucco and wooden figures that were affixed at the bottom of the painting, which Baciccia then painted so they appear to be part of the main fresco.  The effect is uncanny. Fortunately, the church has placed a slanted mirror under the fresco so you won't develop a crick in your neck while gawking at this masterpiece. 

The inside of the magnificent dome by Giacomo della Porta is also covered with a trompe l'oeuil fresco by Baciccia.  It depicts wise and learned men from the Bible, praising Jesus on their ascent to heaven to sit at his side.  This fresco and the stunning one along the length of the vault blur the line between painting and sculpture:  figures seem to tumble out of the paintings and become three dimensional as they hover above one's head.

In addition to the nave and dome paintings, Baciccia continued to decorate the church with frescoes, particularly on the pendentives (the triangular spaces where columns expand into arches and join to support the dome).

Left Transept: Chapel of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Many churches have a transept that intersects the nave to create a footprint which forms the shape of a cross. Because of the need to fit the church into the tight space between existing houses, however, the left and right wings of the transept of Il Gesù are quite shallow.  Still, the space has been put to good use on each side, especially the left, which houses the altar-tomb of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.  The Jesuit artist Andrea Pozzo, himself a master of trompe l'oeuil frescoes, won the commission for creating the altar. Utilizing silver, gold, bronze, rare marbles, and minerals like malachite, lapis lazuli, and porphyry, Pozzo employed over 100 craftsmen to create one of the wonders of Roman Baroque art. 

The original statue of the Saint was made of pure silver, but unfortunately it was melted down to pay taxes to Napoleon.  It has been replaced with a stucco replica covered with silver foil, but it is still stunning.  Every day at 3:30pm a mechanical device designed by Pozzo plays loud music and lowers the painting of the saint to reveal the statue.  Above the saint is a sphere originally hewn from a solid chunk of lapis lazuli. 

To the right of the altar sits Pietro Le Gros'sculpture entitled The Triumph of Faith over Heresy.  This sculpture depicts Mary casting Martin Luther and his precursor, Jan Huss, out of heaven.  An attendant angel rips their translations of the Bible and their writings to shreds.  The militant nature of the Jesuits and their mission to spread the faith and reassert the power of the church is clear in this dramatic work.  A companion sculpture entitled “The Triumph of Faith over Idolatry” by Jean-Baptiste Theodon further cements the message of the Jesuits.

Other Features of Note

In the right transept sits the Altar of St. Francis Xavier. Francis was one of the seven monks who, with St. Ignatius of Loyola, founded the Society of Jesus.  He was a notable missionary who spent years in India and Japan. Designed by Pietro da Cortona, the altar's multicolored marble columns frame a painting of the death of the saint by Carlo Maratta.  Cortona's silver reliquary contains the right forearm of the saint, which is said to have converted some 300,000 souls. 

Behind the main alter of Il Gesù, under the apse, is an altar in memory of Saint Roberto Bellarmine.  The saint was a notable Jesuit theologian, and judging by the fierce bust of the saint by Bernini, he must have been something of a firebrand.

Finally of note is the chapel of the Santa Maria degli Astalli to the left of the main altar.  This chapel houses the 14th-century icon of Santa Maria della Strada,which came from the original church that was razed to make way for Il Gesù.  The icon originally hung on the façade of the earlier church.

Quick Facts on Il Gesù

Site Information
Names:Chiesa del Gesù · Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all'Argentina · Il Gesù
Country:Italy
Categories:churches
Faiths:Jesuit order
Styles:Baroque style
Dedication: Holy Name of Jesus
Dates:1568-84
Status: active
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:41.895912° N, 12.479868° E
Address:Piazza del Gesu, Via degli Astalli, 16
Rome, Italy
Phone:+39 06 69 70 01
Website:www.chiesadelgesu.org
Hours:Mon-Sat 7am-12:30pm, 4-7:45pm
Lodging:View hotels near Il Gesù
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

More Information

Renaissance west facade by Giacomo della Porta, 1571. Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, 16th century.... © Holly Hayes
Detail of the Renaissance west facade by Giacomo della Porta, 1571. Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits,... © Holly Hayes
Baroque fresco of The Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus on the ceiling of the nave by Giovanni Battista... © Holly Hayes
Dome over the crossing with frescoes by Baciccia. Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, 16th century.... © Holly Hayes
Interior view looking east to the altar. Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, 16th century. Rome, Italy. © Holly Hayes
Interior view from the small transept, looking east to the apse and altar. Il Gesu, the mother church of the... © Holly Hayes
Chapel of St. Ignatius of Loyola designed and Andrea Pozzo, 1696-1700, and containing the saint's tomb. Il... © Holly Hayes
The tiny Chapel of Santa Maria degli Astalli contains the 14th-century icon of Santa Maria della Strada. The... © Holly Hayes
Interior view looking west. Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, 16th century. Rome, Italy. © Holly Hayes
A richly ornamented wall is reflected in a mirror provided to visitors for easier viewing. Il Gesu, the mother... © Holly Hayes

Map of Il Gesù, Rome

Below is a location map and aerial view of Il Gesù. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.