Rome: Il Gesù

Il Gesù.

The Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina – simply called Il Gesù by just about anyone – is the mother church of the Jesuit Order. Although founded in 1534 and approved six years later, the Order did not provide the Catholic Church with a pope until 2013, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio (born 1936) was elected Pope Franciscus. The church of Il Gesù is very large and its design was immensely influential for many centuries. It is well worth a visit, which should be planned late in the afternoon, as the church is still actively used for celebrating mass multiple times each day. But before we take a closer look at the church and its treasures, I feel that it is useful to tell a bit more about the Jesuits and their founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).

The Jesuits

Ignatius of Loyola was the thirteenth and last child of a Basque nobleman. He was a soldier born into a family of soldiers. In 1521 he was involved in a war between the Kingdom of Navarre, supported by France, and Spain. Fighting for Antonio Manrique de Lara, second Duke of Nájera, the 29-year-old Ignatius was hit by a French cannonball which shattered both of his legs. Since battlefield medicine was horrible in those days, he could easily have died of an infection. Perhaps if he was lucky, he could have lived out the rest of his life as a cripple. As it turned out, he was exceptionally lucky. The doctors decided to have one of his legs broken again so that the bones would heal better. Obviously they did not use any form of anaesthetics, so Ignatius must have suffered excruciating pains in the process. But he recovered, became a devout Catholic and lived for another 35 years, 35 years that were of immense importance for the Roman Catholic Church and the Counter-Reformation movement.

Saint Ignatius crushing Heresy.

After his career in the military had ended, Ignatius devoted himself entirely to religion. In 1534, while studying in Paris, he founded the Compañia de Jesús, the Company of Jesus. The word ‘company’ has military connotations and was no doubt inspired by Ignatius’ own background as a military man. There could be no doubt that Ignatius had founded a militant order, intent on converting the New World to Catholicism and – as it turned out – fighting Protestantism in Europe. The word ‘company’ was translated into Latin as societas, hence the ‘Society of Jesus’. One of his co-founders was Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta, who became known as Franciscus Xaverius or Francis Xavier (1506-1552).

In 1540 the new Jesuit Order was approved by Pope Paulus III (1534-1549) and a year later Ignatius and his companions took their public vows in a chapel of the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura. In 1542 the Jesuits moved to a house near the small church of Santa Maria della Strada, which was home to a famous medieval icon, the Madonna della Strada. In 1550, the church was donated to them. Unfortunately, the Santa Maria della Strada was simply much too small for an order that was steadily growing, so the Jesuits decided to construct a much bigger church in the vicinity. This is where the history of the church of Il Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuit Order, starts.

Building the Gesù

The first two attempts to build a new church, in 1550-1551 and 1554, were a dismal failure. The Jesuits were dirt-poor and ran into trouble with the municipal authorities, who rejected the church design. Ignatius of Loyola died in 1556, so he never lived to see the completion of the first true Jesuit church in Rome. It was not until 1565 that a third attempt to construct a church was made. The Jesuits had found a Maecenas in cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), grandson of the pope who had approved their order, and in 1568 work on the Gesù could start in earnest. The architect in charge was Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), who cooperated with the Jesuits’ own architect Giovanni Tristano (died 1575). Unlike Tristano, Vignola was a brilliant architect, but in 1571 his health began to fail him and he subsequently left the project, dying two years later. By 1571, much of the church had already been completed. Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602) took over from Vignola and completed the dome, the sanctuary and – most importantly – the façade. When Tristano died in 1575, his place was taken by Giovanni de Rosis (1538-1610), another Jesuit architect who has been largely forgotten.

Interior of the Gesù.

The church of Il Gesù was completed and consecrated in 1584, although Della Porta’s façade mentions the year 1575 (MDLXXV). The façade is massive and entirely made of travertine limestone. Above the main entrance we see the letters IHS, the symbol of the Jesuit Order and a reference to the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek: Iota, Eta, Sigma, IHSOUS. The Jesuits were certainly not the first to use these three letters; the Franciscan missionary Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) had done so too and had devised a symbol comprising the aforementioned three letters surrounded by a blazing sun (see Siena: Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico). The Jesuits were no doubt inspired by his creation, adding three nails from the Crucifixion to the design. Please keep in mind that the letters IHS are Greek and not Latin. All etymologies using Latin are therefore wrong. IHS is not an abbreviation for ‘In Hoc Signo’ (a reference to the vision the emperor Constantine is supposed to have had), and the etymology ‘Iesuiti habent satis’ (‘the Jesuits have enough’), while funny, is also incorrect.

The Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius – Il Baciccia.

The façade features little decoration. We see the name of the aforementioned cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a plethora of columns and two niches with statues representing Saint Ignatius (left) and Saint Francis Xavier (right). The former is crushing Heresy under his heel (see the image above). Heresy is apparently a woman: note the rather conspicuous breast. The woman was likely modelled on the Greek monster Medusa: her hair appears to be a bundle of snakes. On the other side, Francis Xavier is trampling on Paganism, which is represented by a man.

The Gesù became a model for other Jesuit churches throughout the world. Upon entering the church, we see a vast open space. There is a single nave, about 75 metres deep, which is clearly intended to accommodate large masses. The Jesuits wanted the crowds to focus on the priests giving their sermons and on the celebration of mass at the high altar. Hence there are no aisles with clumsy columns blocking the line of sight. Choir screens and choir enclosures are also absent, so that people attending a church service can see the high altar and the side pulpits from wherever they sit or stand. The church has eleven similarly shaped chapels, two of which – the most spectacular ones – can be found at both ends of the transept. I will discuss them below. In the chapels we find interesting works by artists such as Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630), Federico Zuccari (ca. 1540-1609), Niccolò Circignani (Il Pomarancio; ca. 1530-1597) and Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592).

Il Baciccia

The Triumph of the Name of Jesus – Il Baciccia.

In spite of their obvious talents, none of these artists have truly left their mark on the Gesù. Only two artists can claim to have done that: Giovanni Battista Gaulli, nicknamed Il Baciccia (1639-1709), and the Jesuit painter and architect Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). They turned the church of Il Gesù into a proper Baroque church and it is their decorations that dominate the current church interior. These are in fact so dazzling that one would almost forget that much of the church was originally just sparsely decorated. This was likely how the soldier Saint Ignatius himself would have wanted it: simple and austere, Spartan even. In this respect he probably shared the views of his near-contemporary Saint Filippo Neri (1515-1595), whose Chiesa Nuova was also only provided with extravagant decorations after his death. In the case of the church of Il Gesù, the decision to embellish the church interior with splendid frescoes and sculptures was no doubt inspired by the canonisation of Saint Ignatius in 1622 (although this first of all kick-started the construction of the church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, just 300 metres to the north of the Gesù). The man responsible for the decision to make Ignatius a saint was Pope Gregorius XV (1621-1623), who had received his education at the Jesuit College in Rome.

Il Baciccia, who was obviously inspired by Bernini, painted Baroque frescoes for the nave ceiling, the pendentives of the dome, the inner surface of the dome itself, the conch of the apse and the Chapel of Saint Ignatius. His ceiling fresco is truly amazing, with spectacular trompe-l’oeil effects. The church authorities have put mirrors in place so that visitors can more easily appreciate all the fine details from down below (alternatively, one can be bring along a set of binoculars). The fresco was executed between 1670 and 1683 and depicts the Triumph of the Name of Jesus. Again we see the letters IHS with a cross, radiating a brilliant white and divine light. The blessed, supported by clouds, are drawn towards the light. At the bottom, the doomed are repulsed and are falling down. The use of perspective is truly impressive and the poor sods really seem to be coming towards us. Il Baciccia would later paint a similar ceiling fresco depicting the Triumph of the Franciscans for the church of Santi Apostoli, but it cannot hope to rival his fresco at the Gesù. The stucco angels surrounding the latter work were made by Antonio Raggi (1624-1686) and Leonardo Retti (died 1714).

Il Baciccia’s fresco on the interior of the dome is equally impressive. It represents Paradise and gives viewers the idea that they are truly looking up to heaven. Note the Dove of the Holy Spirit in the centre. On the pendentives we see prophets, evangelists and doctors of the church. The fresco in the conch of the apse depicts the Adoration of the Lamb of God. There can be no doubt that it is a good work, but it somewhat pales in comparison to the other frescoes by Gaulli.

Paradise – Il Baciccia.

Chapel of Saint Francis Xavier.

The Chapels of Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier

When Ignatius of Loyola died in 1556, the Jesuit Order had just 958 members. Seventy years later, just after Ignatius’ canonisation, that number had already grown to about 15.000.[1] The seventeenth century would prove to be the Golden Age of the Jesuits. At the end of the century, it was decided to remodel the two chapels at the end of the transept. These had originally been dedicated to the Resurrection (the chapel on the right) and the Crucifix (the chapel on the left), but were now rededicated to Francis Xavier (also canonised in 1622) and Ignatius of Loyola.

It is generally agreed that the Chapel of Saint Francis Xavier was designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), but the remodelling was only executed after his death and the architect in charge seems to be unknown. We do know who painted the altarpiece, which depicts the death of Francis: it was Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). Unlike Ignatius, who stayed in Europe, Francis travelled to Asia to spread the Catholic faith there. He died on Shangchuan Island, off the coast of mainland China and west of Hong Kong and Macau, in early December 1552. The stucco relief above the altarpiece depicts his apotheosis. The chapel may be a little disappointing compared to the Chapel of Saint Ignatius at the other end, but it is of great religious importance as one can find the relic of an arm of Saint Francis here (note that the current Pope, although a Jesuit, named himself after Francis of Assisi rather than Francis Xavier).

Chapel of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Let us turn to the other chapel now, which was fitted out by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) between 1695/1696 and 1699/1700. Pozzo was responsible for the overall design, but obviously did not do the work all by himself. In fact, over 100 artists were involved and it would be impossible to name them all. Pozzo presumably painted the altarpiece in the chapel himself. It is certainly not a masterpiece, but the mechanism behind it is ingenious. Every day at 17:30, the painting is lowered, revealing a statue of Saint Ignatius behind it (a video of this event can be found here). The original statue was made by the French sculptor Pierre Legros the Younger (1666-1719) in 1697-1698. It is no longer there; Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) had the statue, made of silver and gilded copper, molten down to be able to pay his war debts to revolutionary France. The new statue was made in 1804 by an artist from Antonio Canova’s studio.

Other highlights in the chapel include the ceiling fresco, again by Il Baciccia, depicting the Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius (see the image above), and the large sculptural groups on either side of the altar. The one on the right represents the Triumph of Religion over Heresy, again by Pierre Legros the Younger. Religion is a woman carrying a flaming torch and a cross. The two heretics are likely protestants and they do not stand a chance against her. The lower heretic, who is almost falling off, seems to be struggling with a snake as well. Note the little cherub on the left who is tearing pages from a book, which no doubt contains heretical views. The sculptural group on the other side is by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (1645-1713). It shows us how Faith triumphs over Idolatry. A barbarian king (note the crown) is looking up at the personification of Faith, who has her foot on what appears to be a dragon’s head. Idolatry is holding on to the king’s arm, but in vain, as he no longer has any interest in her.

The Triumph of Faith over Idolatry / The Triumph of Religion over Heresy.

Decline, fall and resurrection

Bust of Saint Roberto Bellarmino – Bernini.

In 1749, the Jesuit Order had 22.500 members and was immensely influential. But the Jesuits’ influence had made them many enemies. They were seen as arrogant intellectuals, who were involved in all sorts of intrigues. In many Catholic countries they largely controlled the educational system because they had a virtual monopoly on schools and colleges. This was seen as a serious threat. In Portugal, the Jesuits were opposed by the powerful Marquis of Pombal and in France they were hated because there were fierce anti-papal sentiments in the country and the Jesuits were seen as the most loyal champions of the Pope. In 1764, King Louis XV of France suppressed the Jesuits and in 1767, King Charles III of Spain banished all Jesuits from his country. Under immense pressure from the Catholic monarchs of Europe, Pope Clemens XIV (1769-1774) had no option but to dissolve the Jesuit Order in 1773. It was more than a little ironic that it was Clemens (a Franciscan) who suppressed the order, as he had written a book about Saint Ignatius some thirty years previously. The suppression was reversed by a bull signed by Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) in 1814.

As a result of the suppression, the Jesuits lost possession of the Gesù, their mother church. They fortunately got it back in 1814. The sanctuary of the Gesù was remodelled between 1834 and 1843, which explains why its appearance is Neo-Classicist rather than Baroque. The architect involved was Antonio Sarti (1797-1880). As with the Chapel of Saint Ignatius mentioned above, the altarpiece can be lowered to reveal a statue behind it. Regretfully, the remodelling of the sanctuary also involved the destruction of a monument for the great Jesuit theologian San Roberto Bellarmino (Robert Bellarmine in English; 1542-1621). The monument had a bust of Bellarmino by the great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), which has fortunately been preserved. It can be found above the left door in the apse.


  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 114-115;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XXII;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 93-96;
  • Robert Hughes, De zeven levens van Rome (Dutch translation of Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History), p. 324-331;
  • Il Gesù on Churches of Rome Wiki.


[1] Robert Hughes, De Zeven Levens van Rome, p. 328.


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