It was a completely new experience for me. I had never thought I’d get a good laugh in a Jesuit church and yet my visit to the Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in July of 2018 started off in a hilarious way. As with most churches in Rome, the Sant’Ignazio has a rather strict etiquette with regard to dress. Knees and shoulders should be covered. The church helpfully provides large shawls for visitors who turn up wearing shorts or skirts. One woman who came into to the church saw the shawls and a nun walking around with her head covered, and subsequently assumed that she had to cover her head as well. She frantically began to wrap the large piece of cloth around her head, until the nun – who also acted as a custodian – kindly informed her that she was overdoing things.
The church of Sant’Ignazio is closely connected to the Roman College (Collegio Romano) of the Jesuits, founded in 1551 and nowadays located just south of the Sant’Ignazio. It replaced an earlier church called the Santa Maria Annunziata, which had been completed by the Jesuit architect Giovanni Tristano (died 1575), who had also worked on the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits. Construction of the Sant’Ignazio was kick-started by the canonisation of the Order’s founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), in 1622. The pope responsible for the canonisation was Gregorius XV, a former student at the Roman College.
Gregorius and his nephew, the cardinale nipote Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1632), assembled funds to make construction of a new church possible. It was to be dedicated to the Order’s founder. The job to build it was entrusted to a committee led by the Jesuit priest and professor Orazio Grassi (1583-1654), a noted polymath. The committee was set up in 1626 and work on the church started the next year. By 1650 enough of the new church was standing to start using it for religious activities. It took another 35 years before the Sant’Ignazio was fully completed. And then of course it still had to be decorated. It was the decorations that turned the Sant’Ignazio into one of the most interesting Baroque churches in Rome.
The Sant’Ignazio di Loyola is undeniably Andrea Pozzo’s church. This Jesuit lay brother, painter and architect (1642-1709) was not the only artist who provided the church with decorations, but he was definitely the only one who truly left his mark on it. Starting in 1685, Pozzo began painting frescoes for the pendentives of the dome that was never built, the ceiling of the nave, the apse and the vaults of the two chapels that were created at both ends of the transept.
Although plans had been made for a dome, these were ultimately scrapped, probably because of a lack of funds (the story that some monks complained that a dome would block the light from entering their library sounds like a myth to me). In a stroke of genius, Pozzo then decided to paint the fake interior of a dome on a flat piece of canvas some 17 meters in diameter. This was then put up on the spot where the dome had been intended. The trompe-l’oeil effect is truly impressive, but the light has to be good in order to fully appreciate all the details. Unfortunately the canvas we see today is not the original, which was lost during a fire in the nineteenth century. It was replaced with a faithful reproduction. The pendentives of the proposed dome still have their original frescoes by Pozzo. They feature two women: Judith (with the head of Holofernes) and Jael, the woman who killed the Canaanite general Sisera by hammering a tent peg into his skull. This event from the Book of Judges is depicted in full detail. The other two pendentives feature King David and Samson.
Even better than the trompe-l’oeil dome is Pozzo’s dazzling fresco on the ceiling of the nave depicting the Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius. The saint himself is on a cloud near the centre of the fresco, close to the cross. Light radiates from his body and is dispersed to the four continents in the corners, Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Each continent is represented by a woman riding an animal, and these are a camel, a crocodile, a jaguar (a bear according to some sources) and a horse respectively.
All continents except for America are also represented by a saint from the Jesuit Order. Just below Saint Ignatius we see the saints for Asia and Europe, which are Francis Xavier (1506-1552), who died on an island off the coast of China, and Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591), a young Jesuit who studied at the Roman College and died in Rome at the tender age of 23. The saint for Africa is Saint Peter Claver (1580-1654), the patron saint of slaves and missionaries to African peoples. Since he worked in South-America for much of his life and died in Cartagena in what is now Colombia, he also has a connection with the American continent.
On both short sides of the fresco we find Latin texts. When combined, they read:
“Ignem veni mittere in terra(m), et quid volo nisi ut accendatur.”
The text is from Luke 12:49. These words, spoken by Christ, mean “I have come to bring fire on earth, and all that I want is that it burns”. The text and the Latin word ignes were obviously chosen for a reason: they refer to Ignatius, the ‘fiery one’.
The use of perspective of the fresco is masterful and one completely forgets that one is looking at a curved ceiling; the curves are completely invisible. Pozzo’s fresco certainly rivals Il Baciccia’s ceiling fresco in the church of Il Gesù. This was painted just a little earlier and Pozzo must have studied it, perhaps hoping to surpass it one day.
In 1697, Pozzo was commissioned to do the altars for the chapels on both ends of the transept. The chapel on the right is dedicated to the aforementioned Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591). While nursing the victims of a terrible plague, he caught the disease himself and died. He was beatified in 1605 – which may have earned him this chapel – and then canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedictus XIII (1724-1730). The best part of the chapel is the relief inside the beautiful aedicule, a work by Pierre Legros the Younger (1666-1713), completed in 1698. The vault was frescoed by Pozzo.
The chapel on the other side is dedicated to the Annunciation and has a shrine dedicated to Saint Jan Berchmans (1599-1621), a Flemish Jesuit who was a mere 22 years old when he died. His canonisation took place in 1888 during the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). The chapel matches well with the one on the other side, which was exactly what Pozzo had intended. Again he painted the frescoes for the vault, but completing this chapel took considerably more time than construction of the chapel of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. The altar relief depicting the Annunciation was made by Filippo della Valle (1698-1768) in 1750. This was long after both Pozzo and Legros had died.
Finally, Pozzo also painted frescoes for the apse of the church. These are all about the life of Saint Ignatius and one of them – the one on the right in the apse – also features Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the Jesuit who travelled to Asia. The most interesting fresco is probably the one on the ceiling of the apse, which features Ignatius at the Siege of Pamplona. Here the future saint was hit by a French cannonball which shattered both of his legs. It was an event that changed his life and triggered a series of events that led to the founding of the Jesuit Order, culminating in Ignatius’ canonisation in 1622 and the construction of this church in 1627-1685.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 105-106;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XXII;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 189-191;
- Robert Hughes, De zeven levens van Rome (Dutch translation of Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History), p. 331-332;
- Sant’Ignazio di Loyola on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Both are buried in this church. They basically share a tomb.
 Saint Peter Claver was also canonised in 1888.
Update 31 January 2022: images have been improved and new ones have been added.