The church of Sant’Ignazio in Rome is the church dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, on which construction began a few years after that saint’s canonization by Gregory XV in 1622. When my husband and I walked into its nave, we were pleasantly surprised to meet a man offering free tours for English-speaking visitors. The man turned out to be a professor of architecture at one of Rome’s universities and had a keen appreciation for the architectural and decorative details throughout the church, as well as for the Jesuit worldview that had conceived them.
To our astonishment, the first question he asked us as we began our tour was, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” When we answered “Catholic” he gave an audible sigh of relief. He explained that the Protestants who come to tour these churches simply do not understand the rich symbolism of the artwork or the use of such costly materials in the decoration of the altars. They always ask, “Why doesn’t the Church give all of these riches to the poor?” Our tour guide observed what Protestants don’t understand, that Catholics, and particularly Jesuits, see the entire created world as a gift from God and therefore, the most precious created things are most appropriately used for the adornment of the space used to worship God, thereby becoming a benefit to all of us. Also, the Jesuit-Catholic view of the church space was not simply as a place to worship but a place in which one could be educated about the Faith simply by viewing the symbolism in the artwork. One did not need to know how to read or have a higher education to understand the Faith—he could simply look and understand, and therein lay a merciful spiritual provision for the poorer classes (diametrically opposed to the Protestant requirement that everyone be able to read Scripture). The tour guide went on to observe a very practical fact that the construction and adornment of these churches was a crucial part of the economy of Rome and employed a great number of common laborers, so in actuality, it was also a material provision for the poor. This last idea was something I had not thought of before, but made perfect sense.
Having attended a typical Novus Ordo parish for my formative years, I will admit that I sometimes have empathy for the Protestant view of things. What I was accustomed to as a child was a very sparsely decorated, square church, and so even though I know intellectually that rich, symbolic art and architecture is more Catholic, my feeling upon entering a church thus adorned is not immediately in conformity with my knowledge. I often have to work to conform my feelings to the Church’s tradition in this area and as I do I am reminded of how important it is that children have regular immersion in the visible traditions of the Church so that they do not have to struggle to have a pious love for such beauty and the real teachings of the Faith which are its underpinnings. Feelings aren’t everything of course, but it is much easier to ignore an intellectual teaching when one has no emotional connection with its visible manifestation. Listening to our tour guide I realized that the Jesuits who designed and adorned Sant’Ignazio had an exceptional ability to connect the Sacred to the natural world and to common men’s lives, because they realized the practical spiritual and material needs of man.
Another beautiful instance of this Jesuit view of things was described to us as our guide pointed out the false dome in the center of the church ceiling. The church did not have the money to construct a real dome and so the artist Andrea Pozzo painted a false dome on the flat ceiling where the nave meets the transept, which looks quite convincing, especially if one stands on a certain circle on the floor right before entering the transept. The “dome” looks best from this perspective because the painted cupola appears in exactly the right spot from this angle. However if one walks across the transept to the apse and looks back at the dome, the cupola appears to be far down on the side of the dome, almost where the dome meets the regular ceiling. Our guide related the anecdote that the artist, a Jesuit, had explained that although practically speaking this was a necessary artistic technique, it also had deeper meaning; that in life, when one stays in his proper place, where God has placed him, everything in the world around him appears in the proper order, but the further he wanders from that place the more disordered the world around him appears.
What a beautiful thought. One could meditate on it for hours. One seemingly ancillary piece of artwork in one church in Rome contains enough symbolism for profound contemplation. And there are thousands of such pieces of art in the hundreds of Catholic churches in Rome. May we truly appreciate and understand that the treasure trove of our traditional churches is priceless, that nothing in their structure and decoration is accidental, and that it all leads us to God. May we not adopt a subconsciously Protestant view of creation simply because so much of our modern environment and the people around us reflect such a view. And may we be careful to pass on a Catholic worldview to our children so that this proper ordering of Creation becomes second nature to them.
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