Order within chaos:

Sant’Ignazio’s ceiling painting as a solution to cultural issues

Architect: Orazio Grassi
Year: 1650
Location: Campo Marzio, Rome
1. The church Sant’Ignazio
2. The Counter-Reformation and the Jesuits
3. Baroque Architecture
4. Andrea Pozzo
5. Description and interpretation of the ceiling painting
6. Details
7. The four continents
8. Comparison to Il Gesù
9. Problems and solutions

The church Sant’Ignazio

The church of Saint Ignatius is a part of the Collegio Romano (Roman College), which belongs to the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome. Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, had established a small but rapidly growing "School of Grammar, Humanity, and Christian Doctrine" in 1551, the Roman College. The Roman College attained the status of a University in 1556 and moved to its present location in Rome in the 1560s, where the church of the Santissima Annunziata, the Most Holy Annunciation, was built. Pope Gregory XIII contributed to enlarging the church and the whole college. In his honor, the university is called Pontifical Gregorian University since that time [2].

As the school kept growing and the church of the Most Holy Annunciation could not hold the growing number of students , the Jesuits wished for a new, larger church. Ignatius was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, an alumnus of the Roman College, who also initiated the building of a church in Ignatius' honor on the Roman College itself, which should replace the church of the Most Holy Annunciation. Construction works for this much larger Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius, built in baroque style, began in 1626 and it was opened for the public in 1650 [1]. As a part of a university campus, the church of Saint Ignatius was not only constructed for prayer and religious service, but also as the school's auditorium. Lectures, conferences and even concerts were held here [3].

At the time the church was opened, it was still quite plain and colorless from the inside. This changed when Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit professor, received the order to decorate the church's interior in 1680. Originally, the architects had planned to provide the chapel with a dome, similar to that of Il Gesù, the Jesuit “Mother Church” in Rome. The dome was never built, though, because the neighbours, dominican nuns of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, feared that the dome would cast a shadow on their library, a serious issue in times before the invention of electric light. Provisionally, an ordinary ceiling took in the place where the dome would have to be built later, when the dispute with the nuns would have been settled. Also, financial problems played a role.

At first, Pozzo's plan to just paint the dome onto the ceiling was conceived as an improvisatory solution to bridge the time until the real dome could be constructed. He used a technique called trompe d' oeil in which perspective is used to achieve a three-dimensional effect in a painting. The illusion is so powerful that if you stand at a specific position in the church, it really appears as if the church possessed a dome. As we can see, this improvisatory solution has lasted for over 300 years now.

Encouraged by the very positive reactions of the Romans to the illusionary dome, the Jesuits decided to let Pozzo paint the church's vault, as well [4]. The result is a huge, magnificent fresco which also makes use of trompe d' oeil techniques and in which Saint Ignatius is portrayed as the connection between God and the people.

The Counter-Reformation and the Jesuits

On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act launched the reformation. Many priests did not approve of the lifestyle that was advocated by the Catholic Church; Luther criticized the indulgences and the doctrines of the Pope and the Church. He believed that the Church was corrupt, selling indulgences to people in order to ‘save their souls’. This was a form of revenue for the Catholic Church. However, Luther questioned priests’ ability and authority to absolve one’s sins. The reformers felt that people should themselves be able to study the Bible, in order to use their common sense to come to conclusions about faith and God. In their opinion, the decorations and rituals of the Catholic Church were distracting people from what really mattered: God. The reformers were not necessarily aiming to cause a schism in the church. Rather, they wanted to revert the church back to its old values and former piety. These were times of disorder, as the core values of the Church that had gone relatively unchallenged for a very long time were now being scrutinized. Initially, there were only a few preachers who actively challenged Catholic faith, but soon the reformed ideas about religion caught on with the masses [5].

Threatened by these events, the Catholic Church responded by launching the Counter-Reformation. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), decisions were made concerning the values, opinions and content of the Catholic faith. The goal of this council was to reestablish the power of the Catholic Church [6].

Founded in 1534, the Jesuits were a catholic order, centered around Iñigo Lopez de Loyola, or, as he would be known later, Ignatius of Loyola. In 1540, the society was approved by Pope Paul III. The Jesuits’ core values were chastity, poverty and obedience. As Ignatius himself put it, “[…] That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity[…], if [the Church] shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black”. The goal of the Jesuits was initially to aid those in need, especially the ill. Later, they were known for their contributions to education, culture, research and missionary work in several parts of the world. Officially called ‘Societas Jesu’, or, ‘The Society of Jesus’ , the Jesuit order promoted obedience to the Pope, but at the same time acknowledged that there were some serious problems within the Catholic Church, such as corruption and venality.

The Jesuit society was a highly hierarchical order in which it usually took several years to advance. Young Jesuit men were trained spiritually and academically to be prepared for ‘whatever mission the Pope gives’. This training usually lasted 8-14 years. The order was led by a Superior General, who was elected by the General Congregation to serve for life. The Superior General was aided by assistants, who were advisors from several parts of the world or parts of the society (such as education). Because Jesuits were generally rich, educated individuals, the order soon acquired power by expanding itself to other regions, such as China, India and Japan. Because of the strict obedience to the church and the high social status of its members, the Jesuits have been called the church’s elite army [7].

Baroque Architecture

The origin of the word Baroque has remained unclear even till today. It has probably derived from the word barocco, meaning an obstacle in schematic logic in Italian or imperfectly shaped pearl in Portuguese. Baroque is used to refer to the European art period from approximately 1600 - 1750. It does not only refer to the architecture, but also other forms of art. Architecture in the Baroque period is directly linked to the Counter Reformation within the Catholic Church.

Baroque Architecture was different from Renaissance architecture. Architects were ´bored´ with the symmetrical, neat shapes from the Renaissance. Buildings became curved and asymmetrical. The surfaces of Baroque buildings are continuous rather than neatly divided into sections. Architecture became influenced by dynamism; buildings expressed a vivid sense of motion. This sense was created by extravagant effects, such as strong curves and decoration. Oval was the Baroque's most distinctive shape. Walls were curved and sometimes sculptured, which gave the building a static character. Baroque buildings can best be seen from a certain viewpoint (sometimes the buildings had more viewpoints), whereas Renaissance buildings could equally be seen from all points. The buildings were meant to dominate the environment For churches, Baroque architecture was used to propagate faith in the church and state.More specifically, architecture was used to express the triumph of the Catholic Church.

The interior of Baroque buildings was highly decorated. It was filled with paintings, sculptures and other decorations. Marble and bronze were often used materials. The tips of pillars and walls were usually curved and gilded, and pediments were decorated. A lot of colors and ornaments were used for decoration. The ceilings often showed frescoes. For many of these frescoes illusionism was used. It was used to express emotion, and it very often gave the sense of an infinite view. These frescoes were very elaborate. Windows were positioned for dramatic light effects.

Andrea Pozzo

Andrea Pozzo, born on 30 November 1642, during the feast of Saint Andrea, was a writer, painter and architect living in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. When he reached the age of thirteen, he decided to become a lay brother in the Jesuit church [8]. After ten years, Pozzo was invited to come to Rome by the General of the Society of Jesus, to develop his artistry in perspective to a greater extent. Unfortunately, the General died before Pozzo arrived in Rome, without leaving any instructions about his reason for arriving. Because of this, Pozzo was put to work in the kitchen to learn about obedience and humility during the first five months of his stay [9]. During his time at the Society of Jesus, where he was surrounded by master painters and architects, Pozzo practised his painting, architectonic and writing skills, mainly creating Jesuit Biblical scenes on canvas. When first drawing perspectives on small scale on canvas, Pozzo also started painting in quadrature: creating illusionary perspectives on the walls and ceilings in many churches situated in north and central Italy and in the areas surrounding Vienna [8].

From 1681 until 1702, Pozzo settled in Rome to work on his masterpieces including the nave, dome and altar of the Sant’Ignazio church [10]. In 1702, Pozzo was asked to come to Vienna. From then on, Pozzo made many different paintings in churches in Florence, Trento and Montepulciano and was the architect for the Jesuit College in Belluno [10,11]. In 1709, Pozzo died in Vienna [8].

Pozzo was the great mind behind the ceiling painting in the Sant´Ignazio church, which was made in 1685. and was called the Entry of St. Ignatius into paradise. Earlier, Pozzo had been given instruction to paint a false dome inside the Sant’Ignazio church [12] because the church was not allowed to build a real dome as this would have taken away the light in the near library. Since the painting of the false cupola is mainly solving an architectural problem, the main focus of this page will be on the ceiling situated at the entry of the church. More specifically, we’ll focus on the facts of how and why this painting has been construed in this specific way, and on the underlying contextual and historical problems it relates to.

In line with the Baroque style that Pozzo used, his paintings were not necessary objects that stood separate from floor, wall or ceiling. Instead, as one of the best artists of his time, he used the Italian Baroque trompe l'oeil to create the illusion of height and space in his Entry of St. Ignatius into paradise on the ceiling of the Sant’Ignazio church [13]. Pozzo was a well-known artist for his ceiling paintings and for the astonishing architectural perspectives he thereby created. By creating the perspectives the way he did, he made the viewer aware of the fact that the painting did not directly represent reality, but instead had the power to be more than just reality. It makes the spectator believe that what is represented corresponds with a preexisting referent [12]. Not only the entire paintings, but also the smaller sections it consists of, have a representational and presentational function [13].

Pozzo’s use of trompe l‘oeil combined with pictorial representation produces a feeling of greatness but also doubt in the spectator, which are not only about the skill of the artist and the nature of art, but also about our own power of perception and our own capacities for knowledge [13]. Pozzo uses the power of vision and perspective while creating religious art to convince the spectator of the glory of God and the Jesuits. The perspectives he made are used to create superior religious truths in his art [8]. However, the spectator must stand on one specific point to experience the illusion created in the painting. Standing at any other place will reveal its real status as a painting [13].

Description and interpretation of the ceiling painting

The interior of the Saint’Ignazio is filled with paintings. We will focus on the one which is probably most remarkable. It is the ceiling painting on the front side of the church: The entry of Saint Ignatius into paradise. At first sight the painting seems to picture a chaotic collection of people. With a closer look, however, many figures and their functions will become discernible.

The painting shows what the Jesuits believed to be the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Ignatius is pictured in the center of the painting. Above him is Jesus (carrying a cross) and above Jesus is God. The painting is divided into four sections which are not entirely separated from one another. The four sections (corners) represent the four continents known at that time: Africa, Europe, Asia and America. Underneath are many non-biblical figures.

Many straight lines can be seen, such as the rays of light and the connections between the corners of the painting that represent the four continents. In the center of the painting there is more light, that seems to come from Ignatius. These rays go to the four continents. In this way, Ignatius spreads the light, which originates from Jesus and God, to the people, and by extension, the spectator. The light and the four continents depicted in the painting show an important aspect of the Jesuits, the fact that they saw themselves as missionaries for the Catholic faith. The Jesuits went to different countries (such as China and Japan) to spread the Catholic faith. In the painting, we see that Ignatius is not looking at us, but rather looking up, receiving the light. He is portrayed close to Jesus. During the time Pozzo painted The Entry of Saint Ignatius into Paradise, this was seen as blasphemy. The holiness of Ignatius was still controversial amongst non-Jesuits. In Il Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits, we see that Jesus is still pictured as the central figure. In the Sant’ Ignazio this is much less the case. Pozzo clearly saw Ignatius as a great holy person, the commander of the army. Ignatius’ body language tells us the same: he is portrayed with a powerful body language, while Jesus is portrayed more modestly.

The other figures in the painting have different expressions and body languages. Some of them look up to Ignatius and heaven, others look down towards the ground. Some of them reach up to Ignatius and his light, while others shield themselves from Ignatius as if they are trying to escape him.

Although the painting looks chaotic at first sight, the painting is made in an orderly way and is meant to express hierarchy. This great emphasis on order expressed the perceived lack of order within the church, and maybe even more so, the world. A clear hierarchy with the church at the top was what the counter-reformation feeled it had to reestablish at that time. In the painting, this hierarchy is created by positioning the most important figures in the center of the ceiling, and the less important figures further away from the center.

The entry of Saint Ignatius into paradise is painted in a relatively concrete way (like the other paintings we see in the Saint’Ignatio church). Pozzo creates this concreteness, for example, by painting God on the ceiling, something that was not typically done in his time.

The painting shows the deception of elevation and of great space, which is caused by false arches and columns. The use of perspective and the use of trompe l'oeil produces the illusion of height. The viewer gets the impression that the center of the painting is higher than the corners. It therefore appears that God, Jesus and Ignatius a farther up than the other figures. It has been painted in such a way that the spectator gets the feeling that he or she is looking at a three-dimensional image. Hell's fires and Heaven's heights are portrayed either metaphorically or allegorically. The painting is sublime; the observer is supposed to be overcome by the artistically enhanced space, the strong emotions that are produced by the upward thrust of the columns, the light that comes from God (through Ignatius), the plurality of characters, the wind that shows movement and the implied action. The painting is an appeal to the reasonable soul, an instruction that comes from the Jesuitical missionary work.

The spectator will therefore feel part of the hierarchy. Moreover, the spectator feels one with the painting, and while looking at the painting, the ceiling becomes a part of this moment. There seems to be an interaction between you as the spectator and the angels pictured on the ceiling. While watching the ceiling, you see how angels beckon you, trying to get you to choose for the light of God (and Ignatius). At the same time, the spectator is also warned: all the pictured persons in the painting who do not choose to obey Ignatius and God are punished by these same angels. The latter consequence is better understood when you remember that the Jesuits saw themselves as an army that fought for faith. Not choosing (Catholic) faith would thus, as it seems, prompt the Jesuit order to use violence.

In other words, the spectator gets the feeling that he or she also has to choose at this moment: looking up towards heaven and choosing for the great and good Ignatius and God; or deciding to look away, thereby falling further away from Ignatius and getting banished to Hell. It should be clear from the painting which option would be the right thing to do in the eyes of the Jesuits: choosing to keep looking up and thereby choosing for the Catholic faith. Another aspect seen on the ceiling is the fact that, while taking a closer look, Jesus seems not to look in one specific direction. This can be understood as another warning for the spectator: Jesus sees everything, including all the decisions you make. Thus, the painting is used to bring a message to the people and to persuade them with images. This is different from older paintings in which letters or other script were used to deliver a message.

What is so exceptional about Pozzo's ceiling fresco is that it manages to describe an essentially rigid and inflexible hierarchy in a very dynamic way. While the contemplator is standing at the very bottom of this hierarchy and at a very large distance of the top (God and just beneath God, Ignatius), he is, in a way, 'sucked' into the scene. This combination of rigidity and dynamic emphasizes the strict order of the world, in which God, the Jesuits (as represented by Ignatius) and to a lesser degree also the Catholic Church play the central roles. At the same time and in opposition to earlier Christian art, the illusionary depth of the fresco makes the contemplator a part of this hierarchy. It stresses that you are not a passive observer of the world, but actively participating in it. Of course, standing with your feet on the ground and separated from the transcendent world by the mere distance between you and the ceiling, you are more a part of the earthy world. It is this world which you can shape while receiving the blessings of God via Ignatius. So, Pozzo stresses the pragmatism of the Jesuits concerning real world politics just as their rigidity concerning the order of the spiritual world.


When taking a closer look at the painting we see different notable details. For example, we see an angel holding a mirror reflecting the words IHS (meaning Iesus Hominum Salvator, which can be translated as Jesus, Saviour of man) to us, the spectators. Moreover, these words seem to reflect the light coming from Ignatius. This could be understood as an indirect way to give us the same epiphany that Ignatius had; recall that he saw the light himself and thereby suddenly became inspired to found the Jesuit order. The Jesuits were convinced that insight was something that came to you as a sudden flash of inspiration, a moment of epiphany. They strictly separated religious insight from scientific knowledge: religion should come to you through feeling and inspiration and should not be studied through scientific methods. This created a feeling of ambiguity and tension, since certain scientific advancements were contradictory to Christian assumptions (such as Galileo’s discoveries). This does not mean, however, that one’s ratio was not to be used. Quite the contrary: the Jesuit order encouraged critical, scientific thinking. Many of its prominent members were also intellectuals and scientists.

This ambiguity creates a paradox, as well as an important problem: insight was gained through a moment of divine inspiration (a feeling), but at the same time, the world was explored through science. Moreover, the invention of the printing press made (religious) texts readily available to common people. Because of this, the Catholic Church lost its ‘monopoly on knowledge’: they no longer dictated how the world worked and how people should interpret it. Rather, people could now gain knowledge through reading books themselves. Obviously, this constituted a great threat to the Church’s power and authority. Furthermore, with the discovery of new continents (America and later Australia), Europe was confronted with new peoples and worldviews. They encountered people who did not unconditionally accept the Christian doctrine as the truth.

The Jesuits attempted to solve this problem by depicting the world as they wanted to see it; they acknowledged the seemingly chaotic state of the world: at first sight, the painting is very messy and chaotic, and there is so much to see one could stare at it for hours on end. However, when you study it more closely, you see the universal order that derives from Ignatius. This way, the Jesuits tried to come to terms with the fact that, even though the world as they knew it was drastically changing and expanding, there was still a universal truth. In this way, we too, are shown IHS. Interestingly, they show us the sign in a mirror. This suggests that through reflection (meaning, our ratio), we can come to divine insight.

The four continents

The four different continents are all displaced as women, thereby displacing an abstract concept in a concrete form. This is important to be aware of, since this was exactly the purpose of Pozzo’s painting: making all the ambiguities clear and concrete and thereby dismissing the chaotic problems the Jesuits faced. When looking as Asia, we see that she looks up and reaches her hand towards Ignatius and the light. It shows us that the missionary work from the Jesuits is working in Asia, and that this continent is accepting the Jesuit faith. However, we see that still some people try to hide themselves behind Asia, as not to face the light. But, when looking at the angels depicted next to Asia, is seems as if they are holding a dish filled with baptismal water which reflects the light spread by Ignatius. Perhaps these angels represent the missionaries who try to save these heathens by making them see the light and become good Catholics.

Africa seems not to be interested in the Jesuit faith, and instead looks down to us, the spectators. The painting also shows us that this is not an acceptable response: angels try to throw off these non-believers in Africa and banish them to Hell.

America is also looking downwards, but for a different reason. There is a lot of movement in this continent, and America is depicted as battling for the Jesuit faith. She seems angry and is effectively throwing off the non-believers.

When looking at Europe, we see her depicted as very confident and prominently sitting in a lay-back manner. In her one hand she is holding a staff to command the other continents, and in her other hand she seems the hold the world. It seems as if she is the executive who orders the rest of the world and is the most dominant continent. This is also depicted by painting the Pope and other holy persons right next to Europe, thereby forming the most important and prominent continent. This is rather logical from the Jesuit point of view, because the Jesuits’ headquarters were situated in Europe and tried to convince the other continents through their missionary work.

Comparison to Il Gesù

Sant'Ignazio and Il Gesù are very similiar to each other if we compare the general architectural structure of both churches. In many aspects, Il Gesù was the prototype after which Sant'Ignazio as well as many other Jesuit churches were built. They both share the baroque facade with the huge portal, the large central nave with small, separate side chapels and the emphasis on the main altar. Comparing the interior decoration of Sant'Ignazio to that of Il Gesù, it becomes apparent that there are important differences in content as well as in presentation. Here, we will concentrate on the ceiling frescoes in the two churches.

Several interesting differences between the ceiling frescoes of the two churches can be observed. The first one popping into the observer's eye is that the ceiling in Il Gesù is decorated ornamentally, with a central painting surrounded by golden stucco. In Sant'Ignazio, the whole ceiling is painted, there is no ornamental decoration at all and gold plays no significant role. Both make use of perspective, but the technique used in Sant'Ignazio is much more elaborate and of more importance to the meaning of the painting's content.

Interesting is to note that while in Il Gesù, the letters IHS (a monogram for the Holy Name of Jesus) occupy the central place in the painting, in Sant'Ignazio that is Ignatius himself. Perhaps you can take this as evidence for the fact that the written word had been discredited by the Reformation, which had turned away from the (spoken) word of the church towards the (written) word of the bible. So, by replacing a word with a person and Jesus with Ignatius, the Jesuits may have wanted to reestablish that the main source of guidance in Christianity was the church, as represented by the Jesuits. As mentioned before, the Jesuits attached great importance to education and science, but at the same time did not consider these disciplines sources of knowledge on spiritual issues. Science and religion were strictly separated in Jesuit schools and universities.

Problems and solutions

A piece of art can be understood as a solution to a problem [14]. Which problems might the makers of The entry of Saint Ignatius into paradise have been confronted with? And which solutions do they offer in this piece of art?

The main problem the Jesuits encountered at that time was probably what they perceived as sheer chaos in the world. Another problem may have been that the Jesuit order in itself was quite ambivalent. First, let us have a look at three historical developments of that time that may have contributed to the perception of a chaotic outside world. Then, we will consider how the Jesuits themselves adopted three different roles that may have conflicted with each other.

First, the increasing contact with cultures from other corners of the world introduced Europa with a formerly unknown diversity of human life. America had been discovered at the end of the 15th century and subsequently conquered and also with parts of Africa and Asia there was busy trade and sometimes war and colonization. The far-travelling Jesuits came into contact with peoples that looked different and behaved differently than any of the long known European or Middle-Eastern peoples. Perhaps most shocking to them was that these people were not Christian, nor had they ever heard of the Christian god. How great the impact of this recently discovered diversity on the world view of the Jesuits was is expressed in the depiction of the four continents in the fresco. The depictions of the continents themselves contain some disorder, as described above, but their array in the painting is highly ordered as they take in the corner points of a square. They are all on the same ‘level’ and there is no hierarchy in which one stands above the rest. Most importantly, they all receive the same light coming from Ignatius, who stands above all of them. The solution to the problem of chaotic diversity across human cultures is thus a universally overarching religion. Of course, this is the Catholic faith as represented by the Jesuits. That this solution will be achieved by means of violence, if necessary, is expressed in a quite straightforward manner.

Second, the Reformation had deeply divided a Europe that had been united under the Catholic banner for a long time. This division within Christianity had led to a fierce struggle about what was the truth and about who got to define what the truth was. In the painting this struggle is represented by the variety of figures turning away from Ignatius and Jesus, of which some are thrown down by angels.

Finally, in the 16th and 17th century, science was making huge steps forward and had begun to challenge religious authority in some regards. This development, which began around 1543, the year in which both Nicolaus Copernicus and Andreas Vesalius each published an immensely important scientific work, has been called the scientific revolution by some (15). In Rome, Galileo Galilei had been accused of heresy in 1633 for stating that the world was not the center of the world and moved, and his trial took place just a few steps away from the church of Saint Ignatius. In the ceiling fresco, science is less expressed in the content, but it has been used in the creation of the piece. The painting technique used to achieve the trompe l'oeil effect make use of mathematical calculations and are difficult to master. By using scientific methods to make a religious painting, science is brought into service of religious practice. The Jesuits attached much importance to scientific ways of knowing the world, but they would never allow science to challenge their faith. Science was a good way to learn about the earthly, but not a means to approach the divine. For the latter you needed to hope for a revelation, as Saint Ignatius had experienced one himself . The rays of light spreading from Ignatius to the world represent this kind of divine knowledge.

The Jesuits tried to integrate three different functions: They saw themselves as good Christians, in the first place, but they also served as soldiers for the Catholic Church. Giving Christian charity with one hand and sword strokes with the other may have led to inconsistency in how the Jesuits perceived themselves. Furthermore, the Jesuits’ emphasis on science may have conflicted with their dogmatic stance in theological questions. In Pozzo’s ceiling fresco, the problem of ambivalence is expressed in the complexity of the depicted science. Above, we discussed this in more detail. The solution to the problem of the Jesuits’ inner ambivalence is the same as to the problem of a disordered outside world: A strict, eternal, and unquestioned hierarchy that encompasses both the earthly and the divine. In this hierarchy, the Jesuits would serve as the central link between above and below.


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