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Jesuits and the Arts

“The Society of Jesus was probably the most prolific patron of the arts in the Baroque era”. This was the bold claim made by renowned historian John O’Malley SJ during his illustrated talk on ‘The Jesuits and the Arts in the Tridentine Era’. The award winning author from Georgetown University in the USA was in Ireland at the invitation of the Irish 1814-2014 Restoration Committee. His lecture was part of a series of lectures organised by the committee in conjunction with the National Gallery of Ireland. ‘Passion and Persuasion,  Images of Baroque Saints’  features an exhibition of paintings accompanied by lectures from invited guests, in room seven of the gallery from 11 February to 31 May.

Dr Audrey Nicholls, guest curator of the exhibition gave a warm introduction to Professor O’Malley listing his many achievements, awards and books, including the now classic What Happened at Vatican Two.

Professor O’Malley began his talk by referencing the ‘Decree on Sacred Images’, hastily compiled in the last year of the Council of Trent. The decree was issued largely as a response to pressure from French bishops, concerned about the influence of Protestant iconoclasts in France (and in Protestant European strongholds). They saw the veneration of sacred images in Churches as akin to idolatry. The Council endorsed the veneration of sacred images as a pathway to God.

The Jesuits took to promoting the arts as part of the Counter-Reformation, with gusto, although the ten men who founded the Jesuits in 1540 were all of a scientific or intellectual as opposed to artistic bent. St Ignatius himself stopped the chanting of Vespers. Public pressure soon led to this decision being over ridden and under the Jesuits musical performance began to thrive. Indeed, within a short number of years the newly formed Order was supporting and contributing to artistic endeavor in many fields.

The early Jesuits were educators and wherever they built a school they built a church. This necessarily drove them into architecture, sculpting and painting. They used local artists often but if needed, were happy to employ craftsmen from other countries. It was clear from the slides shown by John O’Malley, that in different countries the Jesuit would sometimes adapt their creations to the local culture, as evidenced in Japan for example. Other times the European baroque influence was evident. At the time of ‘the reductions’ in Paraguay in the early 18th century, Jesuit craftsmen (mostly Brothers) were sent to help build and adorn the churches. This lead to the creation of many beautiful churches in a variety of styles.

John O’Malley said the Jesuits were as eclectic in painting as they were in architecture. They were (no doubt in vigorous response to Luther) enthusiastic contributors to the phenomenon of Baroque art with its ornate, exaggerated and exuberant characteristics displayed in music, dance, design and painting. He reminded the audience that Reuben was a lifelong collaborator with them, Bernini completed the Spiritual Exercises. The best known Jesuit artist is Brother Andrea Pozzo is responsible for the wonderful ceiling painting of St Ignatius’ Church in Rome and he wrote and published a seminal work called ‘The Art of Perspective’. Sir Christopher Wren wrote the preface to this work when the two volumes were translated into English. Not only was he a Baroque painter he was also an architect, decorator, stage designer, and art theoretician.

John O’Malley spoke about the talented Giuseppe Castiglione SJ and showed some of his paintings for the Emperor of China. The Chinese artist and convert to Catholicism and the Jesuits, Woo Lee, was clearly equally gifted. All his example and illustrations were just an attempt to whet the appetite, he said, just a few examples of the Jesuit contribution to the arts in the Baroque era. Scholarship over the past twenty years had allowed Professor O’Malley to make the claim that the Jesuits were most prolific of patrons at that time. So it was fitting, he said, that he give this lecture in Dublin, in close proximity to the National Gallery of Ireland. For it is there that ‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio hangs, gifted on indefinite loan to the gallery and people of Ireland, by the Jesuits.