‘Passion and Persuasion’ is the title of an art exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland, run in conjunction with the 1814-2014 Irish Jesuit Restoration Committee, and in particular Fr Noel Barber SJ. It focuses on Baroque seventeenth-century paintings by some of the great Counter-Reformation artists of saints such as Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Sebastian, Irene, Rufina, Alexis and Joseph. Dr Audrey Nicholls, who specialises in Italian art, is guest curator of the exhibition. She met with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications and gave her a guided tour of the exhibition, which you can listen to here.
The Reformation and its concomitant suspicion and rejection of religious art and images led to the Council of Trent’s ‘Decree On Sacred Images’ which upheld the importance of religious art. In particular the Catholic Church believed in the value of religious paintings as educational tools, particularly for those who could not read or write. They also regarded saints as important role models who could inspire and educate their flock.
As a result, the representation of saints in art was encouraged. Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, who were working in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and were close to the papal hierarchy, were the main protagonists of the new style. The artists represented in this exhibition directly reflect the artistic inheritance left in their wake.
The exhibition also demonstrates the impact on art of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. Whilst he himself was not a direct promoter of the arts, he wrote his now famous Spiritual Exercises in the early 1520s. In it he encouraged the reader to use their imagination during their prayerful mediation of Gospel scenes, employing all of the senses. This method lent itself very well to artistic representation and the current exhibition draws on the Gallery’s collection of Italian, Spanish and Flemish artists, among them, Giordano, Mattia Preti, Jacob Jordaens, Guercino and Domenichino.
The exhibition also has on display a 1676 edition of the Spiritual Exercises, illustrated and opened on a page which features a drawing of Christ’s meeting with Mary Magdalene in the garden. He is holding a spade! It’s on loan from the Jesuit library in Milltown Park, along with another book by Jesuit Jerome Nadal, a companion of Ignatius of Loyola. This work contains 153 detailed and beautiful engravings of gospel scenes and is opened at the scene of the taking of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.
They are accompanied by two other books, both on loan from Marsh’s Library in Dublin. The Book of Saints was written by Jesuits as an antidote to the proliferation of legendary and apocryphal tales attaching to purported saints. Its aim was to set the record straight regarding bona fide saints and was used widely by artists since it was first published in 1643. On display is a 1643 and 1685 edition of the books which, according to Audrey Nicholls, were of very high academic quality.
‘Passion and Persuasion’ has been running in room 7 of the National Galley of Ireland since 11 February. The response from the public to it and a series of lectures and workshops organised along with it, has exceeded all expectations. It remains open until 31May. Admission is free and all are welcome. For those who can’t get there the virtual aural tour above, with its many allusions to St Ignatius and the Jesuits is a real treat. It is also a helpful guide to those hoping to attend the event.