Art's Homage to Priests; Tricking the Eye

Volume Gives Visual Tribute to the Priesthood

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 18, 2010 ( It’s tough times to be a Catholic priest. Between rabid media and increasingly fickle laypeople, anyone who listens to God’s call certainly isn’t doing it for temporal glory. The relentless spotlight on a few sinful priests has obscured the tireless good that the overwhelming majority do in their quiet ministries: celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and praying for their flock.

On Wednesday, in the majestic Palazzo Ruspoli on Via del Corso, patron extraordinaire Liana Marabini offered a token of love and appreciation for priests in the form of a book presentation for «The Priest; The Image of Christ Through Centuries of Art,» by Danish author, Steen Heidemann. (The book is published in English by Gracewing).

This book offers more than 500 stunning images of priests and the priesthood, some from the earliest period of Christian art, others from the great eras of painting, and a surprising number of interesting contemporary images. Each of the high-quality reproductions is accompanied by a reflection and essay written by a priest.

“I wanted to put together a work to support and highlight the priests in the world today,” said Heidemann. Inspired by Pope Benedict’s declaration of the Year for Priests, which will culminate in an encounter in June with priests from all over the world, Heidemann used the universal language of art, researching works from the four corners of the globe, from every era, to underscore the dignity of the priest as «alter Christus.» This book, published in six languages, is the art world’s gift to the Year for Priests.

Beyond translating and publishing the editions of this gloriously illustrated tome, Liana Marabini also orchestrated a presentation that seemed like an operatic ensemble, with Archbishop Raymond Burke, Abbott Michael John Zielinski and Monsignor Gilles Wach sharing reflections on the priesthood.

Moderating this ecclesiastic equivalent of the three tenors was journalist Andrea Tornielli, who highlighted the unnoticed work of priests every day. The parish priests who open their churches, offer sacraments and look after their faithful in their “hidden ministry” are unsung heroes. Although forgotten by a press only interested in scandal, they save souls and change lives without fanfare or even recognition.

If Archbishop Burke intoned a gentle but constant refrain of the centrality of the Eucharist to the life and ministry of the priest, offering a brief reflection on the life of the Curè D’Ars, Monsignor Wach, superior of the Pontifical Institute Christ the King, provided percussion with a blow to New Age spirituality. He noted that the priest’s spirituality revolves around giving, as Christ gave himself, unlike the modern axiom of taking.

Abbott Zielinski’s impassioned and poetic thoughts seemed like an Ode to the Priesthood as he reflected on the power of images. The abbott observed that in Scripture, to forget means “to fall from one’s heart.” The memory kept alive through images, renewed generation after generation, encourages us to love the challenging figure of the priest, “who insinuates himself everywhere; in hostile times and amid gathering storms,” to “make Jesus contemporary.»

Heidemann had an inspired idea to keep “Jesus contemporary,» seeking out artists all over the world and encouraging them to produce new pictures of priests as the image of Christ. These interesting works lie side by side with the efforts of Fra Angelico and Raphael among the pages of this book. These paintings, many quite striking, draw on the words of Benedict XVI who charged artists to “work in continuity with the past without copying it.”

The secular press may paint a negative picture, but Heidemann’s book reminds us that nothing is more beautiful than the Truth.

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Making illusions

The spotlight on the new Caravaggio exhibit in Rome has all but obscured another important exhibit commemorating the third centennial of the death of the Jesuit, Andrea Pozzo (-1709), a brilliant architect, painter and draughtsman whose work had far reaching influences.

While not as sumptuously housed (the Pozzo exhibit is in the institute for graphic design next to the Trevi fountain), nor as punctual (Pozzo died 301 years ago), this is a first monographic exhibit of about 200 drawings, painting and wooden models including several works never put on public display. It opened on March 4 and will remain until May 2.

Andrea Pozzo was born in the northern Italian town of Trent in 1642. He started training as an artist at age 17 and joined the Jesuits as a lay brother at 23 moving to Milan and studying the magnificent art of Venice and Genoa. In contact with the startling perspectives and monumental decorations of artists such as Paolo Veronese, Pozzo began to excel in the art of painting illusionist architecture, termed ‘quadratura’ in Italy.

In 1681, he was sent to Rome, principally for his ability to construct elaborate painted decorations for pageants and processions. Soon however, Pozzo demonstrated a capacity for grand style decoration.

The exhibit is titled “Mirabili Disinganni” perhaps best translated “marvelous disillusions,” and explores Pozzo’s extraordinary command of prospective in creating fictitious space. If the age of discovery, where the eye had been empowered by the telescope, had revealed the farthest-flung corners of the globe, Pozzo masterfully demonstrated how easy it was to deceive sight, “the most alert of our exterior senses.”

Pozzo’s first Roman foray into illusionist painting was the commission to paint the rooms of St. Ignatius next door to the Gesù (which can still be visited today). Not only did Pozzo wreathe the walls with fictive arches and windows, but he also employed a fledgling form of anamorphic painting in the cherubs, where the side view differs from the frontal view.

The exhibit presents many of Pozzo’s preparatory drawings and color sketches as he worked out his complex illusions. He possessed a remarkable gift for making space seem larger and more majestic than in reality, opening a transcendent view of a greater reality beyond the realm of man’s feeble sight.

Between the discoveries of Galileo (died 1642) and the theories of Rene Descartes (died 1650), the faculty of sight was the principal focus of Pozzo’s age and central to his art. Pozzo would spend much time with the Minim order (for a time protectors of Descartes) at the church of Trinità dei Monti where Father Emmanuel Maignan was experimenting with anamorphic painting. Pozzo would eventually decorate the Minim refectory with his own trompe l’oeil extravaganza.

Pozzo’s most famous work was executed for the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio, dedicated to the founder of the order and begun the year after his canonization in 1623. Financial difficulties plagued the project, leaving the church still without a dome in 1685, 43 years after its consecration. The numerous designs on display testify to Pozzo’s tremendous preparation for this undertaking. Today one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions, the illusionistic dome of Sant’Ignazio was a tour de force of quadratura. Coffers appear to recede upwards as light seems to bathe the dome from windows. Unfortunately damaged by fire, the work has darkened considerably, but still manages to fool many an unwitting visitor.

This project brought demands for other similar domes, which can still be found today in the Jesuit churches of Arezzo and Vienna.

Pozzo was criticized for employing a single viewpoint for his architectural illusion, a yellow stone disk set into the floor. Many complained that the effect didn’t offer a 360 degree view.
But Pozzo’s aim was more complex than just artistic virtuosity. The perfect viewpoint stands at the crossing of the transept and the nave. The illusion holds from the doorway to that point, coaxing and jollying visitors along. But at the transept, the focus of the church changes to the high altar where the Jesuits had placed the tabernacle. Here the illusion seems to melt away as one approaches the living Christ, the Truth.

From the dome of Sant’Ignazio, Pozzo was soon given even grander commissions first to paint the vault and apse of the church and then in the Gesù to design the elaborate tomb and altar of St. Ignatius. Today, with the sound and light show every day at 5:30 p.m. when the life and mission of Ignatius is recounted amid soaring baroque music and dramatic illumination of the monument, Pozzo’s dramatic flair and expressive power is more evident than ever.

The exhibit also boasts a striking wooden scale model for the tomb of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Sant’Ignazio, allowing viewers to appreciate Pozzo’s attention to detail and studied effects.

Andrea Pozzo was frequently recruited for the elaborate religious processions and events in Rome such as the Corpus Domini celebrations or the Forty Hours Devotion. His remarkable designs with high arches and dipping volutes are some of the greatest treasures of the show. These scenic backdrops, often made of paper mache, have long been lost, but the designs offer a glimpse of how grand spectacle and breathtaking effects helped the faithful perceive a sense of the supernatural despite the weakness of their mortal faculties.

Pozzo’s groundbreaking work in quadratura was codified in his tome «Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum,» published in 1693 and illustrated with 118 engravings. Many of the original illustrative engraving have been recently purchased by the museum and are on display. This beautiful work and effective teaching tool brought Pozzo’s style and ideas to the furthest corners of the world, including China, where Pozzo’s Jesuit confreres labored tirelessly for the conversion of the Chinese.

Pozzo’s life and work is not only interesting for its great artistic achievements, but also for his vocation to develop a grand art that would sweep viewers off their sometimes jaded feet “ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.”

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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