Jesuit Image Theory

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Wietse de Boer, Karl A.E. Enenkel, Walter S. Melion
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , June
     518 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Even more so than perhaps  by their Constitutions, members of the Society of Jesus are formed by The Spiritual Exercises in the rigorous structure compiled by Saint Ignatius Loyola. Central to the method of meditation proposed in the Exercises is “Composition of place,” the exercitant placing him or herself before, say, the New Testament scene which is to be meditated upon. In the contemplation on the Nativity, for example, he or she is urged to “see” the people present, Mary, Joseph, and the Child Jesus. Given this emphasis on seeing— though there is some debate about what is meant by the term, a discussion to which allusion is made, including its continuation into modern times, by Hilmar Pabel in this volume (255-58)—it is hardly surprising that Jesuits were particularly concerned with “image,” and especially emblem books. It is, therefore, to my mind somewhat surprising that with two or three exceptions, Pabel apart, so little is made of the connection with the Exercises. So, for example, when discussing Franciscus Neumayr SJ (1697–1765), Karl Enenkel cites a vivid description of hell to be found in Neumayr’s writings which seems clearly to reflect Ignatius’s “Meditation on Hell,” though Enenkel makes no reference to it.

Most of the fifteen essays which make up this volume were first presented at a conference entitled “Jesuit Image Theory in Europe and the Overseas Missions, 1540–1740,” held at the University of Münster in October 2014. It is clear from the wording of the “Acknowledgements” that some contributions had been specially solicited for the book without it being immediately clear which ones. The book is divided into two parts, the first containing articles which discuss image theory as it was propounded by a number of Jesuit authors, the second group being in the form of particular case studies, not just of emblem books but also of poetry and of architecture. There is also an over-long introductory essay entitled “The Jesuit Engagement with the Status and Functions of the Visual Image” by Walter S. Melion, over-long because he chooses to recapitulate in—to my mind—excessive detail what the other authors have said, as well as commenting on two emblem books, Pedro de Ribadeneyra’s life of Ignatius, and a manuscript, Libellus piarum precum, compiled for a priest resident in Trier in 1575. Jesuits did not, of course, invent the emblem book. This is commonly attributed to Andrea Alciato (1492–550), but as Pierre Antoine Fabre remarks, in the only essay in the volume which is not in English, “in this new modern alliance of word and image the Jesuit tradition has a special place” (p. 290, my translation). Melion, in his introductory essay, goes so far as to say that “the Jesuit investment in images, whether verbal or visual, virtual or actual, pictorial or poetic, rhetorical or exegetical, was strong and sustained, and may perhaps even be identified as one of the order’s defining characteristics” (7). Claude-François Ménestrier (1631-1705), the Jesuit perhaps most cited in the footnotes, and to whom a chapter is dedicated, produced an astonishing 150 books, two of which, just over two decades apart, were discussions of image theory.

Readers may well find the second set of contributions more interesting. Pabel, writing on Peter Canisius, has already been mentioned, as has Fabre on Louis Richeome. Anna C. Knaap’s topic is the building of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, an enterprise so expensive the Jesuit General became alarmed. She dwells more specifically on the technique of painting on stone. In writing about poetry, Aline Smeesters concentrates particularly on the Jesuit “Genethliac” tradition, an astrological term which was new to me and which means, apparently, composing verses for the births of the children of noble, if not princely, families, an association with the aristocracy which would cost the Society dear. The final essay, and one of the most satisfying, is by Steffen Zierholz, who writes about sacred space with particular reference to two churches in Rome, though with passing reference, once again, to the church in Antwerp, namely the chapel of the Nativity in the Gesù and the famous vault in Sant’Ignazio by the Jesuit lay brother, Andrea Pozzo. It is in this essay that the connection between Jesuit image-making and the Exercisesis most explicit. 

At over five hundred pages this is a hefty volume. It exists in print or as an e-book, though the latter format in my experience is not quite so easy to use. As befits a study of image-making and image theory in both versions it is copiously illustrated .

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael J. Walsh was a Fellow of (the now defunct) Heythrop College at the University of London.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wietse de Boer is Professor of History at Miami University (Ohio). His research is focused on the history of the Italian Counter-Reformation. His recent and current projects explore the intersections between religion and sense experience. Publications on this theme include Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, co-edited with Christine Göttler.

Karl A.E. Enenkel is Professor of Medieval Latin and Neo-Latin at the University of Münster. Previously he was Professor of Neo-Latin at the University of Leiden. He has published widely on international Humanism, early modern culture, paratexts, literary genres 1300-1600, Neo-Latin emblems, word and image relationships, and the history of scholarship and science.

Walter S. Melion is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History at Emory University. He has published extensively on Dutch and Flemish art and art theory of the 16th and 17th centuries, on Jesuit image-theory, on the relation between theology and aesthetics in the early modern period, and on the artist Hendrick Goltzius.



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