Artibus et Historiae no. 85 (XLIII)

2022, ISSN 0391-9064

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CONRAD RUDOLPH - Oliva and Gaulli’s Program at the Gesù and the Jesuit Conception of the End of the History of Salvation (Part 1) (pp. 305–335)

The dome, pendentive, nave, and apse frescoes painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli in the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuit Order, are among the most stunning of all Baroque ceiling paintings in Rome (1672–1683). Commissioned by Gian Paolo Oliva, the eleventh superior general of the Order, previous scholarship has been primarily concerned with issues of their influence and the identification of the many figures in these paintings, paying little attention to the actual meaning of the three works, and even less to their meaning as a unified program. My concern in this paper is with the meaning of these frescoes, both individually and as a unified whole. At first glance, the whole is visually overwhelming, an effect that obscures the underlying program and discourages close analysis of the content. But after careful study of the individual parts, Oliva’s program starts to emerge and Gaulli’s whole begins to make sense. And what that whole presents to the observer is the Jesuit view of progress toward the end of time as a great battle under the standard of Christ, a great battle whose final victory is expressed by means of a strongly unified conceptual dynamic put forth in the dome (Part 1) through the macrocosmic entry of Christ into his kingdom of the community of the saved at the beginning of the end of the history of salvation, and in the nave (Part 2; forthcoming) through the microcosmic entry of Jesus into his kingdom of the individual soul throughout the course of the history of salvation. In the end, Oliva and Gaulli’s program is nothing less than the visualization of the Jesuit worldview, of Jesuit spirituality, and of the Jesuit claim in the culture wars of the seventeenth century, phrased in terms of a distinctly Jesuit conception of the end of the history of salvation.

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