The Jesuits: In the Making of a World Religion

Simon Ditchfield looks at the achievement of Ignatius Loyola and sees the Society of Jesus, which he founded, as the first organization with a truly global reach.

Vertigo sufferers visiting the Baroque church of S. Ignazio in central Rome are well advised to take a stick, or better a sure-footed friend, to hold onto when they look up to admire the frescoed vault painted in 1691-94 by the Jesuit Andrea Pozzo. A master of perspective and painterly illusion, Pozzo constructed a spectacular trompe l’oeil architectural framework that takes the viewer out through the nave ceiling, beyond personifications of the four continents of Europe, Africa, Asia andAmerica, into celestial space. Here the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) sits on a cloud gazing in rapture at the figure of Jesus holding the Cross.

Variously entitled: ‘Triumph of St Ignatius Loyola’ and ‘Allegory of the Missionary work of the Jesuits’, this dizzying fresco bears witness to the scale of the Society’s mission. Yet, the prime focus of the painting, Iñigo de Loyola, the youngest of the eleven children of a Basque nobleman, did not set out to found a worldwide missionary order. On the contrary, when serious wounds to his leg at the French siege of Pamplona in 1521  forced him to abandon his vocation as a soldier, he began his apostolate as a begging, solitary pilgrim. After living for a year in prayer and penance atManresa (1522-23), near the famous Marian shrine of Montserrat, where he underwent a profound spiritual conversion, he made his way to Jerusalem. Here he intended, single-handedly, to convert the Muslim occupiers or die in the attempt until he was reluctantly persuaded by the embarrassed Franciscan Guardians of the Holy Places to return home.

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