From 1527 to 1590 over 50 new churches were built in Rome. One of these was Il Santissimo Nome del Gesù (The Most Sacred Name of Jesus), the mother church of the Society of Jesus, which was founded in 1534 by the Spanish soldier-turned-priest, Ignacio de Loyola. Six years later the Jesuit Order was formally approved by Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49).
Il Gesù, as the church is much better known, was begun in 1568. It was built by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73), often simply called il Vignola, for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Pope Paul III’s grandson. Following Vignola’s death in 1573, the church was completed by Giacomo della Porta(1533-1602), who designed its façade. The inscription reads: ALEXANDER CARDINALIS FARNESIVS S R E VICE CAN FEC MDLXXV(Cardinal Alexander Farnese, vice-chancellor of the Holy Church of Rome, made this, 1575). The two statues depict St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier.
Il Gesù, with its single broad nave, was expressly built to hold a large congregation, all of whom should be able to see the high altar and hear the sermons, which were a central feature of Jesuit teaching. In 16th century Rome, sermons were usually only given during Lent and Advent, but the Jesuits made year-round preaching one of their principal activities.
Vault of nave
The church was originally decorated in a simple and rather austere style, but in the second half of the 17th century all this changed. The Jesuits pulled out all the stops and simplicity was replaced by opulence, as the Society of Jesus sought to attract worshippers through grand spectacle.
The fresco (1672-85) which adorns the ceiling of the nave is a splendid example of this. Painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709), better known as Il Baciccia, the fresco, an absolute masterpiece of trompe l’oeil painting, depicts the Triumph of the Name of Jesus. We are reminded of the words of St Paul (Philippians: 2:10): ‘That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father'. The Jesuits’ monogram, IHS, shines in a blaze of divine light. Il Baciccia goes one step further than his contemporaries in his mesmerising illusionistic effects, when his figures spill over from the picture frame into the gilded vault.
The fresco is surrounded by flying stucco angels, the work of Antonio Raggi (1624-86) and Leonardo Retti. The windows of the nave are also flanked by pairs of stucco statues, also by Raggi and Retti.
Extravagance is also the keynote in the design of the Cappella di Sant' Ignazio, which is dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).
Fresco by Il Baciccio
The fresco is surrounded by stucco angels, the work of Antonio Raggi (1624-86) and Leonardo Retti.
The nave windows are flanked and surmounted by stucco statues
The windows of the nave are flanked and surmounted by stucco statues, also by Raggi and Retti.
Interior of dome
The frescoes in the dome are the work of Il Baciccia, who was only twenty-two years old when he received this prestigious commission. The fresco in the cupola depicts Paradise Singing the Praise of Jesus, while those in the pendentives depict the Four Evangelists, the Four Doctors of the Church, Four Prophets and Moses and the Law.
The inscription at the base of the dome proclaims: DONAVIT ILLI QVOD EST SUPER OMNE NOMEN VT IN NOMINE JESV OMNE GENV FLECTATVR CAELESTIVM TERRESTRIVM ET INFERNORVM (He was given a name which is above every other name, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend, heavenly, earthly or hellish).
Adoration of the Lamb of God by lo Spadarino
The sanctuary was remodelled between 1834 and 1843 by the architect Antonio Sarti (1791-1880). A new high altar was installed in the neo-classical style, a far cry from the Baroque extravagance of the rest of the church. The altarpiece depicts the Circumcision of Christ (1840) and is by Alessandro Capalti (1807-68). The fresco in the apse is the Adoration of the Lamb of God by Giovanni Antonio Galli (1585-c.1651), also known as lo Spadarino.
The rather fine half-length statue (1621-24) of St Robert Bellarmine, which stands on the left of the sanctuary, is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a Jesuit theologian, who was canonised on June 29th 1930 by Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-39).
The left transept is home to the magnificent Cappella di Sant' Ignazio, which is dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).
The chapel in the right transept is dedicated to St Francis Xavier (1506-52), a friend and follower of St Ignatius, who worked as a missionary in the Far East, where he died. Sixty or so years later, an arm was removed from the saint’s body to be displayed in this chapel. The chapel was designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and the altarpiece was painted by Carlo Maratta(1625-1713).