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Il Gesù, including Triumph of the Name of Jesus ceiling fresco

Video transcript
(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: This is Steven Zucker up here with Beth Harris and Frank Dabell, an art historian in Rome. We're standing outside an extraordinary church. Beth: We're standing in the middle of traffic essentially, really in the heart of the city. Frank: It's not quite a traffic island, but we are in the midst of Rome. We're very close to the Pantheon and 10 minutes from the Forum. That explains the centrality of this church founded as the mother church of the Jesuit Order in the mid to late 1500s after the death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, its founder. The church is called the Gesu, which simply means "Jesus". This is a glorification of the name of Jesus. Steven: And you can actually see it right there emblazened on the facade of the church. Frank: Yes, the IHS which is sometimes read in Latin, sometimes in Greek as an interpretation of the letters of Jesus' name. Beth: We also see the name of the patron. Frank: The name of the patron is very important, Alexander Farnese; an enormously rich, powerful and art-loving Cardinal. I might add that we're standing in the pouring rain, Frank: So I think it's time to go inside. Steven: I think let's run in. Steven: As we walk in here now, although the color is gorgeous, it's softened because it's dark. Frank: It's dark today because it's cloudy. As you can hear, we're still in the heart of Rome Beth: (laughs) Traffic going by. Frank: But this is the point ... The sound of it reminds me, this is something that is turned up loud. This is loud, and it's loud and clear. This is a very rational space, with it all, with a Baroque's appeal to many people's imagination rather than intellect. This is really a delight for both the senses and the mind because there is a sense of focus. It's not a complicated space. We come back to that name of Jesus on the ceiling which encompasses the theme of the whole church. Steven: It seems as if that notion of simplicity, you could never use the word "spare" here, but you can say that there has been a sort of removal through the Council of Trent. Frank: Yes. While the Council of Trent wanted to direct this in simplicity. This looks very ornamental because it's the materials themself, but if you analyze materials, you could even say that they're spare because they're classicizing. They are the kind of fluted Corinthian columns and pilasters that we would see in Renaissance churches, it's just that they're made of Sicilian jasper, ochre marble and all sorts of other rich materials, some of them actually spolia, that is recycled pieces from Ancient Rome ... I don't know exactly what, but it was a common practice to rebuild the new Christian Rome out of its ancient "pagan past". Beth: We've got this total focus on the altar, the real removal of the aisles as a space for traffic. Frank: There's a space for individual chapels on the sides, but the emphasis is on the great space, above us this huge explosive ceiling with frescoes at the far end, the name of Jesus in a starburst made of gilded bronze. Both of them relate very closely to something that already existed in Rome in the earlier Baroque period, and that is Bernini's great apse decoration in Saint Peter's where you have a similar burst of light, coming in that case from the Holy Spirit, the dove is a piece of stained glass there ... Beth: Where the wall dissolves. Frank: Where the wall dissolves. This is going from the earthly to the heavenly, from the secular from us standing here to the sacred ... Of course from matter to spirit. But it's made of raw matter. It's made of stucco. Some of it is very cheap material. It's just painted stucco, but it's theatre. That is what we do. Even when we go to the theatre and the movies, we explode out of our terrestrial being temporarily. Beth: We suspend our ... Frank: We suspend and we move into that other realm. This is indebted hugely to Bernini. Steven: There's this really beautiful, sort of coming together of architectural space, of painting, of sculpture, of stained glass, of gilding of color, just all these elements that become a beautifully synthesized hole, as you said, which then suspends our belief. Frank: Here what we have is not just a sky that goes to infinity with clouds and an ultimate glow, a spiritual glow, of course it's not just the sun up there, but it's heaven; but the borders are ambiguous. During Renaissance art, and certainly Medieval art, this ambiguity was just out of the question. Nobody would say, "Should we shade it this way or that?" Everything had to be clear. By this point in the history of art, people knew what they were looking at I think, in a more simple way and it was fine to make things ambiguous. We don't know whether we're looking at shading up there or a painting or shape. We don't know for a moment, I've seen many people stop here and wonder whether those cherubs and angels are made of solid material or painted. In fact, the fresco extends on wooden and other boards. It's like stage machinery, stage sets, out of that central space and actually partly covering the vaulting of the ceiling. On top of that, a glaze ... And in fresco we would just call it a wash, of darker paint extends actually onto the architecture and creates the illusion that we're seeing the shadows from those clouds. Beth: I think about that joining of the spiritual realm and the earthly realm that happens in the Baroque so often. Frank: This is the church triumphant. The name of Jesus is the one thing that we must follow, but if you are blind to it, if you reject it, if you refuse it, being a different religion, of course this gets very political, or just ignorance or obtuseness, you are the rejected and you're even the damned. You are those figures who are falling out of that sky into shade, into shadowed areas up there already and ultimately falling down to earth and below that, into hell. Triumphalism is the theme here. It's not just in the 1600s, but it was established before that because the Protestant reformation, which grew through the 1520s and 30s, is now over 100 years old and we have major wars of religion in Europe. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians that kill the other hundreds of thousands. This was a very dramatic moment in European history. Beth: It's very hard to imagine that moment in European history, that moment of, you must take sides and that need to be so certain of your faith in a way and I feel that here. I feel that kind of tower of certainty. Steven: We're in the heart of Rome and this is the place ... Frank: I think it's not difficult to politicize, in fact, we would say for some people of faith today, the art exactly mirrors what they believe; this certainty, the structure, the discipline of it and death, the afterlife. That ultimate aspiration that everyone has to go to somewhat peaceful, secure and everlasting is expressed here with absolute certainty. We're seeing this as a question of light and dark, as tourists or as pilgrims, but just visually we forget the element of pure sensuousness that comes from music, from the smells; incense, fresh-cut flowers, and all of those elements put together with Steven: With the architecture ... Frank: ... And the art in the architecture. Steven: Actually the point you're making about the ritual of the mask is critical because it's those smells, it's the color, it's all of that sensuality, but it's also the fervor of those around you. It's the intensity ... Frank: It then becomes emotional and there we have that little formula about Baroque art appealing to the emotions rather than to the intellect. Beth: I think about it as appealing to the body. Frank: But this is the guts because ... Frank: When we come in here, when those lights suddenly come on, even that grabs us. Christianity is a mystery color and that is something that is incomprehensible literally, and it can only be received through spirituality, and we would say through emotion, through poetry, all the things that are not purely rational, but this is a really theatrical blend so it's a very, very powerful one. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)