As if Rome did not already boast enough world class churches filled with the tombs of the Catholicism’s honored dead, the Eternal City is home also to the Church of the Gesu, or the Mother Church of the Jesuits. The Jesuits, the most famous post-medieval Catholic order, was the brainchild of Ignatius of Loyala. Despite his Spanish heritage, he established the headquarters of Jesuits in Rome, and founded what is regarded as one of the first truly baroque-era churches in Europe. The body of Ignatius was laid to rest here in one of the most magnificent chapels ever conceived. The Church of the Gesu may be the single most underappreciated church in Rome, especially among tourists rushing to get to the more famous sites of the Vatican.
Ignatius of Loyola is among the most colorful Church figures of the post-Reformation era. Born in 1491 in Spain on the cusp of the discovery of the Americas, Ignatius spent his twenties as a soldier in service to the Christian armies of the Spanish crown. After a religious awakening in 1521, he decided to devote his life to missionary work. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in an effort to begin missionary work there, but he was quickly deported. Back in Spain, he became famous for his zeal and missionary work. He was so zealous, in fact, that he attracted the attention of the Inquisition, who thought he might have been a heretic.
Eventually he gathered a number of followers, including his friend Francis Xavier, and in 1534 they founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Ignatius became the order’s first General Superior, and together they became champions of the Church’s Counter-Reformation efforts. The rest of his life was spent in the organization and expansion of the Jesuits as Catholicism’s primary evangelistic arm. In the later years of his life, and throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jesuits would go on to become one of the most active Catholic organizations in the establishment of churches in Spanish, Portuguese and French colonial territories around the world.
Ignatius of Loyola died in Rome in 1556, a victim of Roman Fever. Because of his importance both in his anti-Reformation efforts as well as his efforts to spread Catholicism beyond Europe, Ignatius became incredibly popular after his death, especially in Italy and Spain. In later years he would be honored with a basilica in Spain marking his birthplace. However, his body was interred in the Mother Church of the Society of Jesus in Rome.
The Church of the Gesu in Rome was founded by Ignatius in 1551 and completed in 1584. It was built on the site of an earlier church, the Santa Maria della Strada, where Ignatius had once prayed. In addition to being home the home of the Jesuits, it is also considered to be the world’s first truly baroque church. It became one of the primary inspirations for colonial church architecture that would dominate Spanish and Portuguese territories around the world.
The Mother Church of the Jesuits is one of the Church’s greatest architectural treasures, and possibly the city of Rome’s best kept secret. Heavily funded from Church coffers, the building was designed and worked on by some of the finest artisans of the Renaissance. Michaelangelo himself worked on the designs during the early stages of construction. The exterior is attractive and elegant, and the façade considered to be the first definitively baroque design of its kind. But the Church exterior utterly belies what is to be found inside.
The church interior is stunning beyond description (I know that’s said about many churches in Rome, but take my word for it…). Every inch of walls are covered with some of the finest frescoes ever conceived. Artists from Agostino Ciampelli to Andrea Pozzo to Giovanni Gaulli worked on the place. The latter designed the painting on the ceiling, the Triumph of the Name of Jesus. The church highlight is the unparalleled St. Ignatius Chapel, possibly the most gorgeous chapel anywhere, where the order’s founder and patron saint is entombed.
The Mother Church of the Jesuits is just west of the Victor Emannuel Monument in the heart of Rome. It is absolutely a fantastic place to visit for tourists working their way through the city center. It is open daily from 7:00am-7:45pm (closed for lunch 12:30pm-4:00pm). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.chiesadelgesu.org (official website)
There is no need to go into detail regarding Rome’s other churches here. However, for those who want a little more Ignatius and can get to Spain, the Sanctuary of Loyola, built near the site of Ignatius’ birth, can be found in the town of Azpeitia in the Basque Country. For those interested in the Jesuits, Rome is also home to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.