The effects of the Reformation have dominated scholarship on later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art in Germany. Both iconoclasm and the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War created the impression that the many German principalities and states were a cultural wasteland during this period. What little remained by 1648 was deemed to belong to the age of Albrecht Dürer (d. 1528). The general impression thus has long been that an artistic and cultural void existed until the onset of a derivative late Baroque style in southern Germany. Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s latest book, Sensuous Worship, provides a welcome corrective to this impression by revealing the Counter-Reformation response to a dire religious situation for the Catholic church. Like Smith’s German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance(1994), this book allows for a more balanced view of a period often overlooked in art history.
Despite a large body of literature on the Jesuits, there has been little exploration of their concerted use of imagery, often in the form of prints, to reform spiritual practices in Europe north of the Alps.Sensuous Worship studies the Jesuits’ artistic response to the task of reclaiming and re-educating territories lost to the Reformation. Chapter I deals with the introduction of the Jesuits to Germany and explains the problems faced by Catholicism as it tried to counter near-extinction in German speaking lands. Despite the bleak situation, early Jesuits perceived a unique opportunity to educate a broad cross-section of society and grasped the important pedagogical role that imagery would play in promoting the Catholic faith.
In Chapter II, Smith describes the way that Jesuit images function as textbooks. Determined publishing efforts began with illustrations for Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Excersises and continued with works that included Jerome Nadal’s Evangelicae Historiae Imagines and Antoine Susquet’s Via Vitae Aeternae. These publications make clear that vision is the most important of human senses. Ignatius believed that the ability to turn sensual experience into spiritual understanding required training and the intervention of an advisor. Ignatius’s followers more fully realized the usefulness of the printed image as an aid in this training, resulting in the production of prints with a decidedly Jesuit pedagogy.
What distinguishes Jesuit works from other, earlier, meditative texts is the emphasis on the image over the written word. Smith provides ample illustrations of prints punctuated with sequential letters that correspond to short explanations included at the bottom of the sheet. This guidance becomes almost audible, as if a pointer were hitting a blackboard, as the letters lead the viewer through the image to the culminating lesson. In the Jesuit lesson, the text supports the image rather than overpowering it. The image remains the prevalent medium of instruction.
Jesuit prints combine traditional iconography recognizable to all, such as the Nativity ( p. 43) with a new iconography that includes such images as Christ descending into limbo through the crust of the earth (p.45), urging the exercitant to imagine the actual event. For the Jesuits, the question was not whether to employ art at all, as it was for many Protestants, but rather how best to use it for teaching the precepts of Christian worship. Ignatius tied “sensual stimulation and mental reflection” together (p. 49 ), so that vision and action could both lead to understanding. Despite their sometimes contrived compositions and overt pedanticism, these prints visually prepared the viewer for the next step in attaining spiritual insight, entry into the physical church.
The Jesuit church combined theater, music and art to create a sensual experience. For this reason, the adornment of the church was an important aspect of Jesuit worship. In Chapters 4 and 5, Smith takes the church of St. Michael’s in Munich as a case study for experience and meaning within the Jesuit setting. St. Michael’s, the first newly constructed Jesuit church north of the Alps, was an enormous undertaking in both political and financial terms. The combination of an engaged patron, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, as well as a talented pool of artists and architects, meant that the new church became a bulwark of Catholicism in the North. While St. Michael’s Church was tied to the political and religious aspirations of the Counter Reformation dukes of Bavaria, its legacy has been a powerful visual reminder of the presence of the Jesuits in southern Germany. The exterior of the church, adorned with statues of the patron and his ancestors, stood as a political statement of legitimacy, but the interior of the church was completely engaged in the task of directing the worshipper in the pious exercises.
The question of Rome’s role in controlling Jesuit church building was most notably studied by Rudolf Wittkower, but it bears revisiting, as Smith brings a new dimension to the old question of whether there is a specifically Jesuit art. Approval for new buildings came from Jesuit headquarters in Rome, but there was no prescribed style. The adornments of the church, the prints and the altarpieces must certainly be labeled Jesuit, although not on a stylistic basis, a phenomenon Chipps Smith studies in a chapter devoted to the Church of Mariä Himmelfahrt in Cologne. The Jesuits were insistently not a monastic order and wanted their colleges and churches built in the center of cities. This meant that older buildings might be appropriated to the purposes of the order and that new structures had to fit into existing city plans. The frequent confessional shifts in many localities meant that older churches might go from Protestant back into Catholic hands, but where new churches were built, they were adapted to regional architectural styles and the aesthetic preferences of individual patrons. The progress of Jesuit church building was one of assimilation, not subjugation.
Based on Ignatius’s insistence on the stimulation of the senses, the Jesuits in Germany understood how to harness the power of the visual. Often employing artists from within the order, they produced altarpieces, reliquary collections, sculptural programs and, most neglected until now, an expansive amount of printed materials. InSensuous Worship, Jeffrey Chipps Smith adeptly leads the reader through the complexities of Jesuit teaching and worship. Their response to the volatile religious situation in sixteenth-century Germany reveals the Jesuit order’s astute understanding of the power of art and architecture.
Virginia Commonwealth University