Jesuit Art: the motivation, excitement, and
the education. Jesuit art is very much an international phenomenon.
Art, artists, ideas, and the Jesuits themselves moved across borders with remarkable frequency.
Ignatius’ apolistic vision for the society encompassed the entire globe. The Jesuits
were truly among the first Catholic groups to articulate a coherent world view. Perhaps
this universalism is the key to their appeal. Few religious orders were enthusiastic as
the Jesuits about the fine arts. From the earliest days of the society, art was treated
as a priority, both in Europe and on the world-wide missions. Ignatius of Loyola himself made
great use of images in his personal meditations. Saint Francis Xavier also contributed to the
world-wide spread of Catholic devotional images. He set out on his first mission in 1542 with
a suitcase full of sacred pictures, taking advantage of the power of images to overcome
his linguistic deficiencies. Given the amount of attention paid to images by these early
Jesuit leaders, not to mention the extensive Jesuit artistic contribution to late Renaissance
and Baroque Italy, the Jesuits have been credited, or blamed, with creating their own style.
The Jesuits envisioned arts as the visual equivalent to sacred oratory. The Jesuits
realized that like preaching, art had an extraordinary ability to delight, to teach, and to move.
By harnessing art’s pictorial realism, expressive power, and emotive capabilities, the Jesuits
felt that they could move non-Christians to abandon their faiths for Christianity and
to lead Christians at home to a more pious life.
Meditation: living in the moment through art. For example, Jan David’s Veridicus Christianus:
its frontispiece is a delightful pun on the imitation of Christ, and thus it illustrates
the lateral of art. A group of Christians are gathered around a figure of Christ on
Golgotha, which serves as their model. Each Christian, perched before an easel, paints
his own version of what he sees, rightly or wrongly. Going back to Ignatius, the Jesuits
also stressed an image’s potential for meditation, an emphasis deriving from the spiritual exercises,
which exhorted its followers to meditate by forming mental images with the senses, or
composition of place. Art: where the mind and memory converge.
This intellectual exercise was as important for the spiritual formation of the Jesuits
themselves as it was for their congregations. Images also played a very important role for
memory by fixing the often very complex ideas and events of Christianity in the mind. In
accordance with both classical and Renaissance theory, the Jesuits taught adults and children
alike to use pictures to store and retrieve information. This mnemonic function is brought
out most clearly in Nadal’s Gospel, whose images are itemized with letters keyed to
captions below. Art: enjoying the celebration.
Finally, the Jesuits used art to celebrate themselves. Beginning around the time of the
1609 beatification of Saint Ignatius, the Jesuits commissioned artists to celebrate
the lives of Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier in art. Celebration is at the heart
of the Jesuit education mission: to excite, to educate, and to motivate the individual
to spiritually elevate and celebrate with the eternal heavenly father.