Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2004
Alan Tapié Baroque Vision Jésuite: Du Tintoret a Rubens Il Barocco nella visione gesuita. Da Tintoretto a Rubens Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2003. 414 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Paper $58.00 (2850566470)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, Caen, France, July 11–October 13, 2003

Any outsider to the field surveying the recent spate of big thesis exhibitions could not fail to notice the discrepant narratives of the Baroque currently in circulation. The Genius of the Rome, 1592–1623 (held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2001) supported a story of individual styles and individual patrons’ taste, sometimes a chaotic situation, but one governed by individual choices that were only secondarily infringed upon by institutional needs or demands. By contrast, the organization of Visioni ed estasi: Capolavori dell’arte Europea tra Seicento e Settecento (held at the Vatican in 2003) was more decisive in giving the definitive farewell to the Barockbegriff, as noted by Marc Fumaroli in his contribution to that catalogue.

With the exhibition organized by Alain Tapié at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, Baroque Vision Jésuite, the subject of this review, the embattled Jesuit thesis of the Baroque (most cogently framed for the figurative arts in Werner Weisbach’s Der Barock als Kunst der Gegenreformation [Berlin: Paul Cassirer, 1921]) is resuscitated. Since the mid-nineteenth century, spiritual practices invented (or newly packaged) by the Jesuits were viewed as having produced the Baroque, casting a spell on style because of the Jesuit claim on individual souls (inevitably those of artists, too). Given the breadth of the thesis it is safe to say that for the historiography of the Baroque, the Jesuit thesis ranks in importance with Erwin Panofsky’s argument about scholasticism and Gothic architecture.

Indeed, the Jesuit question stood at the center of one of the inaugural studies of the Baroque (albeit one focused on architecture). In Renaissance and Baroque (1888; London: Fontana Collins, 1964), Heinrich Wölfflin rhetorically asked: “What has Gothic to do with the feudal system or with scholasticism? What bridge connects Jesuitism with the Baroque? Can we be satisfied with comparisons with a vague movement towards an end that totally disregard the means? Is there aesthetic significance in the fact that the Jesuits forced their spiritual system on the individual and made him sacrifice his rights to the idea of the whole?” (76). These questions (which the author never answered) motivated the formal method developed by Wölfflin and upon which Baroque Vision Jésuite rests much of its case. The Caen exhibition reinstates the Jesuits as the inventors of the Baroque after the last big rejection of this very idea, namely Rudolf Wittkower’s reframing of the Jesuit role in the Baroque as a contribution (rather than the cause) in his and Irma B. Jaffe’s Baroque Art: The Jesuit Contribution (New York: Fordham University Press, 1972).

The Caen exhibition (originally planned also for Rome) was organized around almost one hundred paintings from France, Italy, Spain, and Flanders, with prominent representation of Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, and Simon Vouet. Most works displayed were sumptuous, beautiful, sometimes strange and wonderful large-scale paintings, many of them parts of altarpieces from prominent Jesuit foundations. The exhibition unfolded in the following sequence of rooms: Origins (Ignatius’s Venetian experience); Origins (the Roman Gesú); Luis de Morales; Emblematic Visions; Angels (sublime bodies); Theophanic crowns; Effusions: Mysteries of the Virgin; Life of Christ; Martyrs; Jesuit saints; autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola; Meditations on Death and Resurrection. The catalogue essays focus on Jesuit art and Jesuit theories of images (part 1); area studies emphasizing Italy, but with interventions on France, Spain, and the Low Countries (part 2); and a full catalogue (part 3). Included in the exhibition but unfortunately absent from the book were the fine series of Flemish engravings (from the collection of Bernard Mancel, conserved at Caen), curated by Ralph Dekoninck, which range from illustrations of devotional tracts to Jesuit portraits. Written by an international team, the catalogue (in French and Italian versions) varies widely in the extent of the research and quality of results. The entries in particular are not uniformly of the highest scholarly standard (and the editing of the Italian edition is very sloppy). Here I focus on the handful of essays that carry the major theses of the exhibition (or, in some cases, challenge it).

Alan Tapié, curator of the exhibition, posited a subtle variant on the question of the Jesuit relationship to the Baroque: he argues for a biographically generated beginning for the Jesuit vision, with Saint Ignatius’s brief period in Venice as a foundational moment for the spiritual practices around which a Jesuit vision was organized. (Tapié’s formulation is typical of the Society of Jesus’s view that its identity and history emanated from Ignatius’s own experience; this proposition, however, is a rather difficult one to make for the evolution of seventeenth-century art.) Hence the city of Venice (and its art) suggested to Ignatius the imagination de lieu, the organizing principle of the devotional imagination in the Spiritual Exercises. And from the sensual naturalism of Venetian painting comes, then, via the Exercises, the close-up realism of Luis de Morales (and every other iteration of an expressive, naturalistic Baroque painting). Having established the priority of painting in generating the Spiritual Exercises and, in turn, the priority of the Exercises in directing Baroque painting, the exhibition’s principles of the Baroque as a Jesuit vision are in place. The thesis of the show is, in effect, a merging of what have been, heretofore, two previously diametrically opposed views: that visual artists influenced the Jesuits’ own spirituality, and the existence of a Jesuit way that could not help but have determined the style of art.

Given the exhibition’s premise that the Jesuits stood behind the fundamental themes and style of Baroque painting, Tapié could justify the inclusion of dozens of paintings that were created for other patrons or other religious orders, or that treated themes which the Jesuits were not alone in promoting. This very problem—that Baroque painting writ large was indistinguishable from the Baroque Vision Jésuite—was made manifest by the exhibition’s installation in a core of rooms encircled by galleries housing the formidable permanent collection at Caen. Several times I slipped out of the exhibition perimeter into the museum’s Baroque rooms, but I could not tell that I had left the Baroque Vision Jésuite.

The Spiritual Exercises (a practice in which the exercitant comes closer to God) are at the core of the exhibition’s thesis, viewed here as governing Baroque painting from its production to its reception. Throughout the catalogue, the Exercises provide a structural analogy not only for pictorial idioms but also for the organization of decorative programs, and for the effect of paintings on viewers. Writing about Gaulli’s frescoes in the Roman Gesú, Claudio Strinati (co-organizer of the exhibition) writes: “It is legitimate to sustain that the entire decoration of the Gesù can be interpreted as a translated prayer, in partial application of the Spiritual Exercises” (87, also 91). The Jesuit scholar Heinrich Pfeiffer writes similarly about the Jesuit Andrea Pozzo as painting an inner vision, dictated by the Spiritual Exercises, now made visible to all. In other essays the Exercises govern the activity of seeing art in a church. The most literal version of this view, as argued by Odile Delenda and Gauvin Bailey, is that the Exercises were a source governing the choice of imagery and the programmatic coherence of pictorial cycles (243, 155–56).

To some extent these arguments are a mushrooming into an all-encompassing explanation of the discussion of the Spiritual Exercises inaugurated by Weisbach, but whose actual genealogy for most scholars writing in this catalogue is an important study by Howard Hibbard. In an essay on the decoration of the Roman Gesù, Hibbard suggested that the progression of the chapels in the Gesú was coherent, with imagery at times drawing upon, among other sources and practices, the Spiritual Exercises. As the title of his essay (“Ut pictura sermones”) indicates, Hibbard ultimately found an analogy for the pictorial percorso not in the Exercises but in the sermon, with its selection from scripture and commentaries. A chapel or collection of chapels must make the sermon’s argument manifest visually, with a central altarpiece and others clustered around that provide genealogies, suggest supporting arguments (in Doctors of the Church, Old Testament precedents), and appeal to the spectator using tools specific to the visual arts. One of the problems with the Spiritual Exercises thesis is that, in the end, it does not explain such choices specifically enough: Why this scene with this other scene, in this position, frame, and manner, and why now? Moreover, the Exercises thesis is now (with this exhibition and other recent publications) beginning to gather overwhelming steam, flattening out the variety and richness of texts and practices (including catechisms, sermons, masses, and theological works, among others) that have already been shown to have formatively influenced specific projects. Indeed, much existing iconographic research on, for example, the Gesù frescoes (by Mark Weil and Karolina Lanckorońska), has been passed over for the rehabilitated spiritual thesis of a Baroque art invented by the Jesuits. The Spiritual Exercises thesis also turns a blind eye to the historicity of the Exercises themselves, to the specificity of their own ideal site of locution (in an unadorned room), as well as to the specificity of a Church, a place designed for sermons and, above all, for mass.

Within the Caen exhibition catalogue one can detect a couple of dissenting voices to the Jesuit-centric thesis. In the opening essay, Marc Fumaroli speaks of an exhibition of devotional painting where ample space should logically be reserved for the Jesuits and their founder. In marked contrast to most other contributors, Fumaroli notes that religious painting cannot be reduced to the Jesuits. He does, however, see that the Jesuits had a determining role in a theory of sacred images (based on the theology of the incarnation). In a subtle restatement of the problem, Fumaroli no longer has the Jesuits directing the painter’s brush, therefore producing a style; instead, they provide the theoretical justification for painting that gives room to the invention of the diverse styles made strikingly apparent in the exhibition itself.

A very different perspective is also offered by Denis Lavalle in an essay on Jesuit painting in France. Drawing attention to the erudite treatises on images written by Louis Richeome and the great emblematist Claude Menestrier, Lavalle weighs in on the other end of Jesuit iconography: of learned theses and the capabilities of visual forms, such as emblems, to carry sacred meanings. He argues, based on a rich base of documentation of French Jesuit painting published in recent years, that for the Jesuits who did not favor a single style or artist, what mattered was the creative force of a painting, often with its modernity guaranteeing its efficacy.

Pierre-Antoine Fabre has consistently noted the ambivalence in Jesuit spirituality regarding images, about the Jesuits’ need, at times, to evacuate images rather than create more. In his essay here, Fabre once again points out this tension. He also suggests that while most of the Jesuit literature on images defends their use, the most important text about pictures are the pictures themselves. Much remains to be done to isolate and describe specific visual techniques, like the pictorial self-consciousness of the depiction of visions, about which Victor Stoichita has written so well. How does this apply to the Jesuit case? If we are to argue, for example, that the Jesuit practice of the examination of conscience (Bailey in this catalogue, following Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Sensuous Worship: Jesuits and the Art of the Early Catholic Reformation in Germany [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002]) is a characteristic of Jesuit pictorial cycles, it must be done specifically according to visual devices. What is it about an image that would leave the viewer to his own moral choices? While the thesis of Baroque Vision Jésuite needs to be regarded critically, some of the startling and wonderful paintings gathered here and in the catalogue (like Jan Lievens’s Visitation for the Jesuit church in Brussels, painted in two different styles—the side of the Virgin similar to Rubens, and that of old Elisabeth done like Rembrandt [cat. no. 38]) will be useful for future researchers looking at Jesuit (and other religious pictures)—from the perspective of paintings techniques, in Giulio Carlo Argan’s sense of the term.

Scholars will continue to debate what I call the Jesuitness of Jesuit art (Evonne Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004]) for some time to come, for the Jesuits were concerned with their own identity and art did play a part in that process of self-definition. There is at least one incontrovertible index of Jesuitness: all works commissioned by the Jesuits or by others for Jesuit churches are real traces of things that if not motivated by some essential Jesuitness, became historically Jesuit. This is to say, just like their churches (over which even more ink has been spilled than over the paintings), the forms themselves may not have been a priori Jesuit, but they were made Jesuit (mostly by the Jesuits, but in latter days also by scholars) over the course of time. Whether right or wrong, Baroque Vision Jésuite is another example of just this very impulse.

Evonne Levy
Professor, Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto