During my art history course in Florence we had a few free days to “rome” around Italy and explore different art, architecture and sites for ourselves. While in Rome, a group of friends and I decided to see the church of the Gesú. It was quite the vision. Because the church of the Gesú was funded by Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, the Jesuits had virtually no say in the decoration of the church. This could be why the church is decorated so ornately, with gold embellishments and Baroque art. Even though myself and 18 other students were lucky enough to see this beautiful church in person, Fairfield has provided a means for other students, staff and the public to have a glimpse into this church that dates back to 1580. “The Holy Name. Art of the Gesú: Bernini and his Age” showcases masterpieces from this famous church, which have never before been seen in America.
“I recommend every student goes to see this exhibit. As always, the museum offers free entry for all, so families should come to the museum, as well. Without a guided tour, it is harder for students to understand the significance of the works — I felt the same way taking my first walk through the space. Reading the identification tags and asking questions to the docents helped me fully appreciate the works,” said art history and history double major, Annie Kamradt ‘19.
Upon walking into the Fairfield University Art Museum, people are immediately greeted with a 65 in. x 38 in. oil painting of Saint Ignatius seeing Jesus and God. “Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta” was painted by Domenico Zampieri in 1622. In this beautiful depiction of Saint Ignatius, we see movements of the early stages of Baroque art. Jesus has extremely defined features, most notably in the muscles in his arms that make him look sculptural. God is depicted with a gestural movement, with arms extending downward to Saint Ignatius in a welcoming mannerism. Saint Ignatius himself is shown with eyes that are awe-stricken, his arms folded in a humble manner. We also see clear representation of the concepts of foreground, middleground and a background with mountains that have a film of fog over them, so they disappear into the distance — a style that rose during the High Renaissance with the emergence of Leonardo da Vinci.
It’s important to note that during the time the church of the Gesú was created, the Catholic faith was attempting to remain in control of Christendom during a period where the Protestant Reformation was in full force. This could explain why many of the paintings or other works show God and Jesus welcoming strong Catholic leaders, such as Saint Ignatius. Saint Ignatius took rise in the Catholic church during the counter-reformation, which is why the church of the Gesú is essentially placed at the center of the city.
People can see first-hand the elaborateness of this church through some of the works on display in the Bellarmine Museum. Some works include the “Chasuble of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese,” which is silk embroidered with gold, silver and different colors; bronze sculptures of Francesco Beros, where one depicts Saint Ignatius and the other depicts Saint Xavier; Ciro Ferri’s bronze sculpture of Saint Teresa of Avila; Alessandro Algardi’s bronze plate of “Saint Ignatius of Loyola with Saints and Martyrs of Jesuit Order.”
“A piece I loved was the ‘Chasuble of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese,’ which is made of silk and embroidered with a variety of colored threads. It is crazy to me how one could create such an intricate design that looked almost like a painting solely out of embroidery, and this is truly a piece you need to see in person to fully appreciate its magnificence,” said Emma Antonie-Portinari ‘20.
Additionally, Bellarmine holds other elaborate features of the church, such as their altarpieces and paintings and sketches of domes. Johann Adolf Gaap’s “Cartegloria of Saint Ignatius” comes from the altar of Saint Ignatius. This three-piece altarpiece is decorated in jewels and has the Latin text of the Mass. The large central piece shows images of The Passion of Christ and sun rays surrounding the IHS emblem of the Jesuits. This piece glistens within the museum, as it’s an early form of Baroque goldsmithing and is an eye-catching addition.
The exhibition even showcases a half dome that is painted in a pure Baroque style, where the drapery and gestural movement of the characters look majestic and like whip-cream. The people and angels float amongst the clouds and are embraced by a strong glowing beam of light, shining from the center of the dome.This dome is a painted model for the apse fresco of the Gesú, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli in 1690.
The true show-stopper of this exhibition and perhaps the exhibition’s greatest attraction is the “Bust of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino” — patron saint of Fairfield University. This masterpiece was sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1624. Bernini was commissioned to create this sculpture after Saint Bellarmine’s death. Typically, this bust is placed high-up in the church of the Gesú, as it used to be surrounded by a tomb; however, thanks to this exhibition, people can observe the bust at eye level and appreciate the detail and smoothness of Bernini’s finished project.
“One piece I particularly found fascinating was the ‘Bust of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino’ by Bernini. If you look behind the bust you will find that the sculpture is almost completely hollow in the back, this allows light to shine through the stone,” said Antoine-Portinari. “I learned that this was a magnificent feat for Bernini, for had he made the wrong move when sculpting the bust, he would have gone right through the stone.
Kamradt echoed the same passion for Bernini’s sculpture, “The bust of Robert Bellarmine was finished in the early 1620s; for four hundred years, this work has remained in Rome. Just think about how absolutely insane that is: the first time in four hundred years that the bust leaves Rome is to come to the Fairfield University Art Museum,” said Kamradt. “Students will most likely never have the opportunity again to get up close and personal with a Bernini sculpture. The minute details and pure skill of Bernini will never be as apparent to students as it will be standing in Bellarmine. Bernini is the Michelangelo of the Baroque Art period: he is a legend. Being able to say you have stood in front of a Bernini is like saying you got to see the David in Florence.”
In addition to showcasing masterpieces and ornate findings in the church of the Gesú, the exhibition also displays many engravings and even sketches for different projects. “My favorite part of the exhibit is the Bernini sketch of the plans for the fresco on the ceiling. The patrons wanted Bernini to paint the ceiling, but he, like his Renaissance equivalent Michelangelo, preferred sculpting,” said Kamradt. “Bernini guaranteed his disciple’s work by keeping a close eye on the project. Bernini’s direct involvement in the project is documented in drawings he made for the dome frescoes. I love seeing the creative process of Bernini; his quick charcoal sketch is better than anything I could even create. Seeing the inner workings of Bernini’s mind show the level of sophistication and skill he possess in his craft.”
The exhibition demonstrates an extraordinary job of placing artworks in a seamless pattern, where viewers are taken on an engaging tour around each corner of the Bellarmine museum. From printed books, engravings, oil paintings, sculptures and altar pieces, this exhibition gives people a glimpse into the Roman Baroque art of the mother church of the Society of Jesus.
If it wasn’t already emphasized enough, students would greatly benefit from seeing this unique exhibition. For starters, none of the money to make this exhibition possible was taken from tuition, which means that students are really going for free. All funding for this exhibition was donated by different colleges, universities, art museums and libraries across the U.S. So, 500-year old art at no cost, equals an opportunity you cannot pass up.
“Fairfield students may not realize what great significance this exhibit brings to them. The exhibit is gaining international attention; this is a really big deal,” said Kamradt. “As a result of this global awareness, the value of a Fairfield University degree is rising. Within ten years of its establishment, the Museum was able to show such a prestigious exhibit, capturing the same spirit and attitude of Fairfield students. The exhibit only benefits the University. Fairfield students need to find the time before the end of the semester to spend even just one hour admiring the internationally renowned exhibit sharing the rich history of the Church of the Gesú.”
“The Holy Name. Art of the Gesù: Bernini and his Age” will be on display at the Fairfield University Art Museum, located in Bellarmine Hall until May 19. The museum is opened for regular hours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Check their website https://www.fairfield.edu/museum/gesu/ for information regarding guided lectures, tours and contributing donors.