Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

Times Literary Supplement -- July 30, 2004

Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque

Evonne Levy
University of California Press, 353pp, $55.00

by Ian Garrick Mason

Until recent decades, Jesuit art and architecture had usually been stigmatized as propaganda - dismissed by nineteenth century critics, for example, with the term "Jesuit Style". But rather than condemning the label, Evonne Levy, an art historian at the University of Toronto, affirms it. As she notes in her new book, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, the core of the Counter-Reformation project was the recovery of souls lost to Protestant sects, and so it was natural that emphasis be placed on content rather than artistic style. "For Christian images there is one end: to persuade to piety and bring people to God", wrote bishop Gabriele Paleotti in 1582.

Levy discusses the theoretical issues pertinent to the evolution and definition of rhetoric and propaganda, but she also devotes a great deal of space to the tangible examples of propagandistic Jesuit art: the stunningly ornate Chapel of St. Ignatius in Il Gesł, the Jesuit Mother Church in Rome, for instance, or Andrea Pozzo's painting on the vault of the Church of St. Ignatius, "The worldwide mission of the Society of Jesus", which depicts the hierarchy of divine grace. As described by Pozzo in his 1693 treatise Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum, from the wound in Jesus' side "issue forth rays of light that wound the heart of St. Ignatius, and from him they issue, as a reflection spread to the four parts of the world . . .". Such message-laden and awe-inspiring imagery was certainly intended to "create subjects" and to further the reputation of the Jesuits.

But for Levy, the key question is not whether the Jesuits had "corporate" motives - of course they did - but whether we can learn to see the art they created as both propaganda and "art". For in trying to make ourselves immune to the wiles of propagandists, be they seventeenth-century Jesuits or twentieth-century Soviets, our culture has built up an aversion to any work that cannot prove itself to be disinterested. Art for art's sake has given us an ideal of independence and honesty, but it has also given us a narrow and one-dimensional definition of art. It is this, she argues, that we must attempt to change.