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Il Gesù

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  Il Gesù is a 16th century conventual and titular church at the Piazza del Gesù in the rione Pigna. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

Unbelievable but true -this church is not a minor basilica


The dedication is to the Holy Name of Jesus, and the full official name is Santissimo Nome di Gesù all'Argentina. However, the church is universally known as Il Gesù (note the definite article -in English, "The Gesù").

The Name of Jesus referred to is the original Greek one -ΙΗΣΥΣ. The second letter of this is eta, a long "e". The first three letters became the monogram which is the symbol of the Jesuits, to be seen on the church façade -IHS. (Ignore all bad etymologies based on the mistaken belief that the second letter of this is an "h".)

Two other churches in Rome with names inspired by this one are Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano -the "Holy Name of Mary", and Gesù e Maria -the "Holy Names of Jesus and Mary".


This is the mother church of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, and is the successor of the first one that they had. It was also, until 1870, the church of the convent of those professed Jesuits living at Rome.

The convent of the Jesuit novices was at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, and the Jesuit seminary or the Collegio Romano was at Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio. The latter is actually bigger than the Gesù. Two little churches survive locally from confraternities that the Jesuits founded, at San Francesco Saverio del Caravita and San Macuto.

The church has the municipality of Rome as a special patron. The diocesan web-page states: Chiesa di Patronato -Comune di Roma. This is indicated by the presence of the city's shield above the main door, with SPQR on it.


Santa Maria della StradaEdit

The progenitor of this church was one called Santa Maria della Strada, which was not acually on the same site but just to the south, where the entrance to the Rooms of St Ignatius now is (another suggestion is that it was on the site of the present church apse).

The origins of this church are very uncertain. When it emerged into history it was a parish church, which indicates that it might have been originally founded in the 10th century together with many other small parish churches in the Centro Storico. 

However the first documentary evidence only dates from 1337, when it had the name Santa Maria de Astariis. In an anonymous manuscript at the Vatican (Cod. Vat. 6311) entitled De Familiis Romanis, it is asserted that this name came from a family of patrons called the Astalli. This seems to be confirmed by a lost epigraph on the church's high altar, transcribed by Panciroli just before its demolition and reading: Astalli generosa domus cultuque sacrorum, atque opibus pollens opus hoc fecere decorum. It is thought that the family built or, more likely, rebuilt the church in the late Middle Ages. The name Strada emerged from a gradual corruption of Astalli.

The famous fresco icon that the church contained, the Madonna della Strada, was by undocumented tradition thought to have been a street icon (madonnella) originally, for which the Astalli family built the church. This seems to be a back-formation from Strada. The icon emerges into history when the De Grassi family built a chapel for it in the church in 1483.

When the old church was demolished in 1561, the icon was taken to San Marco. It was enshrined in its present location in Il Gesù in 1575.

Sant'Andrea de PallacinaEdit

There was another little parish church somewhere on the city block taken over by the Jesuit convent, known as Sant'Andrea delle Botteghe Oscure or della Strada. This is identified with an earlier Sant'Andrea de Pallacina. A good guess as to its location is at the junction where Via delle Botteghe Oscure becomes the Via di San Marco, near the tram terminus. 

Its former existence explains why there is a chapel dedicated to St Andrew in Il Gesù, and it has been suggested that it was located here.

Arrival of JesuitsEdit

The Basque nobleman and former soldier St Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus at Montmartre in Paris in 1534, when he and a few companions undertook to live as missionary priests not bound either to any one diocese, the celebration of the Divine Office in common or to monastic enclosure. Since all this was novel and controversial, he was wise enough to establish the headquarters of his new Society at Rome. He obtained approval from Pope Paul III in 1540, and settled in a small house near Santa Maria della Strada with his companions two years later.

The house was owned by Camillo Astalli, of the family patrons of Santa Maria della Strada, and this facilitated the grant of the church to the Society in 1550. Meanwhile, St Ignatius had developed a strong devotion to the icon of Our Lady. Since Santa Maria was a parish church, its parish was united to that of San Marco.

Abortive attemptsEdit

The infant Society decided that their church was too small, and inaugurated a project to rebuild it as soon as they got possession of it. Planning started with the appointment of Nanni di Baccio Bigio as architect and the foundation stone was laid at the end of 1550, but work was immediately halted in the following year, 1551. The Society lacked funds but, more seriously, the Maestri delle Strade, who were in charge of maintaining the city's streets, refused approval on the grounds of a possible public nuisance.

Under the patronage and with the financial support of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the project was started again in 1554. This involved buying more land and altering the position of the proposed church, but the Maestri were still not happy and progress was suspended again. This was despite the offer of Michelangelo to work on it gratis.


St Ignatius died in 1556, and there was no progress for several years under Diego Laynez who was the Society's second Superior General. He died in 1565 and his successor, St Francis Borgia, decided to make a third start. Funding continued to be provided by Cardinal Farnese, who specified Vignola to be the architect together with the Society's own architect Giovanni Tristano. Vignola gave up the commission owing to sickness in 1571, and he died two years later. By then much of the church was complete, and Giacomo della Porta took over and completed the dome, sanctuary and façade. He made no major changes to the design, apart from adding the two chapels flanking the sanctuary, and worked until 1580. Tristano had died in 1575, and his place taken by Giovanni De Rosis.

The church was finally consecrated in 1584.

Architectural theoryEdit

The layout of the church was innovative. The Council of Trent did not directly decree anything on the layout of churches, but St Charles Borromeo wrote an extremely influential treatise on the architectural implications of the Council's teachings on the liturgy and sacraments. This, the Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae (text is here) led to Vignola's layout which gave a very wide and spacious nave with side pulpits for preaching to large congregations. Further, and extremely importantly, a theatrical focus was elicited on the high altar and the celebration of Mass there. This meant the abandonment and disapprobation of the previous tradition of having high screens and perhaps choirs (scholae cantorum) in between the altar and the nave.

This innovative layout of Il Gesù became an important model for churches built during the Counter-Reformation, and is the type for celebration of Mass in the so-called Tridentine rite. Here it may be noted that northern European Catholic neo-Gothic architectural theorists in the 19th century, such as Pugin in England, were contradicting the developed Roman Catholic tradition in trying to return to the use of rood screens.

The present overwhelmingly ornate interior decoration makes one forget that the original decorative scheme of the interior was very austere and simple. For a hint of what the original church looked like, see Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (although even here there are some 19th century embellishments).

Casa professaEdit

After the church was finished, attention was turned to erecting a convent on the city block to the south. This was begun in 1599 under the patronage of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, and care was taken to preserve the rooms in which St Ignatius had lived. The result was a large set of buildings, focusing on a rectangular cloister arcaded on the south side.

It was known as the casa profesa, because only those Jesuits who had finished their formation lived here.


St Ignatius was canonized in 1622. This was the beginning of the golden age of the Jesuits, lasting for the rest of the 17th century. The Society decided to use sacred art to illustrate both the triumphs of the Church and those of its own missionary activities, and so the church with its side chapels was duly redecorated in the Baroque style.

From 1670 to 1683, Giovanni Battista Gaulli (nicknamed Il Baciccia) frescoed the nave vault, dome and apse. The result was his masterpiece, and is considered one of the most important examples of Baroque art in existence. The influence of Bernini is obvious.

From 1696 to 1700, the Chapels of St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier were fitted out by Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit artist who had already proved his genius at the nearby church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio. These altars are the apotheosis of the Baroque-style-as-theatre, and a mighty contrast to the Baroque-style-as-mathematics as demostrated by the works of Borromini (look in at Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza to appreciate the contrast).


The Society of Jesus was founded on the premiss of absolute and direct obedience to the Pope. As a supra-national organization of great power and ability, it attracted vicious hostility in the 18th century from nominally Catholic monarchs such as in France and Spain who subscribed to the doctrine of absolutism. Under pressure, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society in 1773.

The church and convent reverted to papal ownership, and the former was put in the care of secular clergy. Apparently, many sacred objects were alienated. The most notable example of looting was the silver and copper-gilt statue of St Ignatius on his altar, which was melted down for bullion on the orders of Pope Pius VI in 1798 in order to pay the reparations demanded by the French in the Treaty of Tolentino. (An apologetic myth, still perpetrated, was later confected alleging that the statue was looted by French occupying forces.)

Modern timesEdit

The Jesuits were re-founded (actually, they had never been completely suppressed) in 1814, and were given back the church and convent.

In 1840, there was an unfortunate re-ordering of the sanctuary and high altar by Antonio Sarti. In the process, the memorial to St Robert Bellarmine with a bust by Bernini was mutilated and, more seriously, the confessio or crypt chapel was destroyed. This had been dedicated to SS Abundius and Abundantius, and its ceiling had been frescoed with Evangelists and Doctors of the Church by Baldassare Croce in 1599. The fresco was transferred to the ceiling of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart.

From 1858 to 1861, polychrome marble decorations were added to the nave at the expense of Alessandro Torlonia.

In 1873, together with almost all other Roman convents, the Jesuit convent here was sequestered by the government. However, the Jesuits were left in possession of the church, the Rooms of St Ignatius and enough accommodation to administer these. The convent has since been seriously altered and adapted for secular use.

The last notable alteration to the interior of the church was the remodelling of the Chapel of the Sacred Heart by Aristide Leonori in 1920.

This church remains one of the most important pastoral outlets for native Romans in the Centro Storico. 


Oddly, despite its importance the church was only made titular in 1965 when Michele Pellegrino was appointed as cardinal priest. He died in 1986.

The current titular of the church is H.E.Eduardo Cardinal Martinez Somalo, appointed in 1988 as cardinal deacon but promoted to the rank of cardinal priest pro hac vice in 1999. This means that the title will revert to a cardinal diaconate once vacant again.


Layout and fabricEdit

The plan of the church is that of a Latin cross. Structurally it has a nave with side aisles, but the aisles inside are converted into five identical self-contained square spaces by blocking walls. Six of these are side chapels, and two are side entrance vestibules (the left hand one of these has been converted into a seventh chapel).

The transept is just slightly wider than the nave and aisles on each side, and has a dome over its crossing. The sanctuary is a transverse rectangle with an external semi-circular apse, and is flanked by a pair of square side-chapels. This gives the church eleven side-chapels in total.

The fabric is in pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone. The blocking walls of the side aisles are extended upwards beyond the aisle roofing to form three massive, solid buttresses that support the central nave side walls and the weight of the nave vault.

The nave, each side of the transept and the sanctuary each have their own pitched and tiled roof which meet at the drum of the dome. The apse has its own lower roof, a semi-dome in lead.

The rooflines of the transept end in large triangular pediments with bare tympani in brick.


Because of the narrowness of the streets around the church it is not easy to appreciate the dome close-up, but it is an important part of the city's skyline and a good view can be had of it from the Campidoglio (as here). It is not ornate.

The drum is octagonal, in bare pink brick with a large rectangular window on the four diagonal faces. Each of these has a stone frame, and a triangular pediment with a broken cornice. The drum ends in a stone cornice with modillions (little brackets), and on this is an attic plinth in brick. Each face of the attic has a square window intruding into the dome itself, with a small triangular pediment.

The dome itself is a low segment of an ellipsoid, in lead with eight ribs springing from the corners of the attic. These ribs meet at the tall lantern in the form of a circular aedicule, having eight tall and narrow arched openings with its own lead cupola and ball finial.


Given the size and status of the church, the campanile is very understated. It is over the left hand side wall of the sanctuary, and is a bellcote formed of two arches side by side with a trapezoidal pediment designed by cutting the top off a triangle.


The façade, designed in 1575 by della Porta, is one of the earliest example of Counter-Reformation architecture and has been called "the first truly Baroque façade". It was enormously influential, being replicated worldwide wherever the Jesuits established a presence. (Photo here.)

It has two storeys, is entirely in travertine limestone and sits on a plinth so that the entrances are accessed via a patio with stairs on three sides. The first storey has the dominant design feature of six pairs of Corinthian pilasters, each pair having two separate pedestals (two of these pilasters are actually columns -see below). These pilasters support an entablature, running across the façade and separating the storeys. The frieze of this has an inscription extolling Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Vice-Chancellor at the papal court:

Alexander Cardinalis Farnesius, S[anctae] R[omanae] E[cclesiae] Vice-Can[cellarius], fecit MDLXXV.

Della Porta's design had an eye on avoiding the façade looking like a cliff. The second pairs of pilasters either side of the entrance are brought forward slightly compared to the third pairs occupying the outer corners of the storey, and above these the entablature is also brought forward slightly as a wide post in shallow relief. The outer member of these pilaster pairs is doubletted along its outer edge. 

The main entrance is much bigger than the two side entrances. It has a molded doorcase, over which is a swag and then a segmental pediment with a winged putto's head in the tympanum. The cornice of this pediment is continued across the façade as a string course, being interrupted by the pilasters. Above the pediment is a large sculpture made up of a dish with festoons and winged putto's heads containing the monogram IHS in bronze. This work is by Bartolomeo Ammannati, 1576.

The two inner pilaster pairs flanking the entrance actually have the two nearest pilasters as free-standing columns, and the entablature has two vertical steps each side above to match. Above the entablature over the columns is a triangular pediment, and this is enclosed in a larger segmental pediment.

The smaller side entrances are tucked in between the first and second pilaster pairs on each side. They have triangular pediments over swags. Above these, over the string course, are two stucco statues in rectangular niches with scallop shells beneath segmental pediments on block and strap corbels. The left hand one depicts St Ignatius Loyola, trampling a figure representing Heresy, and the right hand one is St Francis Xavier treading on Paganism.

The second storey has an attic plinth, into which the entrance pediments intrude. On top of this, the central nave frontage has eight Composite pilasters in four pairs, supporting a crowning triangular pediment with a rather undersized relief of the Farnese coat-of-arms in its tympanum. The central portion of the pediment is brought forward slightly over the two inner pilaster pairs, again to avoid the cliff effect.

This storey is a large round-headed central window with a molded frame, flanked by a pair of Ionic columns supporting a triangular pediment on blocks above the capitals. The window has a balustrade. In between the pilaster pairs on either side are two empty round-headed niches with triangular pediments.

The second storey includes a pair of buttresses for the central nave side walls. These feature two enormous double curlicues.



The church has a simple and symmetrical layout. There is a single nave, flanked by three structurally identical chapels on either side and a pair of entrance vestibules. The right hand one leads to the sacristy, and the left hand one has been converted into a seventh chapel. Then comes a short transept, with two large shrine-altars at its ends and a dome over its crossing. The sanctuary is rectangular with a large semi-circular apse, and is flanked by two more side chapels.

In Vignola's design, focus is brought upon the high altar which is visible from all parts of the church. This was as a result of a new way of thinking about sacred buildings, which put the liturgical needs of the assembly before the personal wishes of patron or architect. The effect was lessened somewhat when Baroque decorations were added, as bare plaster was covered by frescoes, stucco work and polychrome revetting.


The nave has four bays, with arcades leading into the chapels and vestibules. The arches of these are separated by wide piers each of which has a pair of ribbed Composite pilasters with gilded ribbing and capitals. These support a deep entablature with a strongly projecting cornice which runs around the entire church. 

The polychrome marble work on the impost pilasters and archivolts of the arches is 19th century. Above each arch is a panel with gilded stucco swags, and then comes a gallery with a balustrade and grille. These look like cantorie or coretti, intended for musical performers. The reason for the grilles fitted to these in Roman churches is that musicians were accompanying the liturgy, not performing, and so their personal identities were not relevant. However in this church it seems that they were also used by the Jesuits in residence, to attend to the liturgies in the church without being seen (as if they were enclosed nuns).

The two entrances to the vestibules are treated differently. Instead of arches there are large doorways with pink marble doorcases.

Note the ornate pulpit on corbels attached to the pilasters between the second and third chapels, bearing the IHS monogram and embellished with alabaster.

Nave ceilingEdit

The nave is barrel-vaulted, with a pair of lunette windows in each bay and wide triple ribs separating the bays. These ribs are coffered in two rows of squares, with rosettes, and are interrupted by the central panel. This was frescoed by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (nicknamed Il Baciccia) between 1672 and 1683, and is his masterpiece. The theme is The Triumph of the Name of Jesus, with the IHS monogram in glory surrounded by the heavenly host. These figures seem to break through the vault, as they escape from the central panel and are superimposed on the gilded stucco decorations surrounding it.

The windows each have a pair of statues in white stucco, with angels in the lunette vaults and also flying around the central fresco.  These figures were sculpted by Antonio Raggi and Leonardo Retti, to a design provided by Gaulli (a cartoon of the overall work drawn by the latter is preserved in the Galleria Spada).


The cupola was designed by Vignola, and completed to his design by della Porta. The four pendentives have frescoes depicting Prophets, Evangelists and Doctors of the Church by Gaulli. These are intended to proclaim the reality of what is depicted by him in the fresco covering the entire inner surface of the dome, which is Paradise or the Empyrean

This is one of the best of the domes in Rome, under which you are encouraged to imagine that you are looking into heaven.

The entablature on which the dome sits has a frieze inscription which reads:

Donavit illi nomen quod est super omne nomen, ut in nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur, caelestium, terrestrium et infernorum. ("A name was given to him which is above every name, so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend, heavenly, earthly or hellish.")


The sanctuary was re-ordered by Antonio Sarti in a project that lasted from 1834 to 1843.  A new high altar was provided by him in the Neo-Classical style, far removed from the Baroque opulence of the rest of the church. The aedicule is against the far wall of the apse, and has four Composite columns in yellow marble, in a line above a plinth revetted in what looks like sardonyx. These support an entablature with the epigraph SS Nome Iesu sacrum. In the triangular pediment is the triangular symbol of the Trinity, and above is the monogram IHS in an ornate gilded glory which contains angels. This is by Rinaldo Rinaldi, and the pair of angels on the ends of the pediment adoring it are by Francesco Benaglia and Filippo Gnaccarini.

Apparently the four yellow marble columns were already there, as part of the poorly erected original altar. They are described as giallo antico -not! The marble looks Sienese. 

The altarpiece depicts The Circumcision of Christ (when he was given the name Jesus), and is by Alessandro Capalti 1840. There is a mechanism to pull this down to reveal a little apse with a conch coffered in octagons, which at present contains a brightly coloured statue of the Sacred Heart. The same sort of arrangement occurs at the altar of St Ignatius.

The conch of the apse has a fresco of The Adoration of the Lamb of God by Galli.

The re-ordering involved providing a door in the apse on each side of the altar, with a large rectangular window above it. Unfortunately a memorial to St Robert Bellarmine, with a bust of the saint by Bernini, was in the way on the left hand side. This had a pair of sculpted allegorical figures, Religion and Knowledge by Giuliano Finelli and was ornately decorated, but was nevertheless destroyed. The bust was saved, and put in a niche above the door. It is flanked by a pair of neo-Classical allegorical ladies in relief.

The right hand apse door has a monument above it to St Joseph Pignatelli , by Antonio Solá who was a Spanish sculptor working in Rome. Did he do the new Bellarmine monument as well? It looks like it.

The side chapels are described anti-clockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.

Chapel of St AndrewEdit

The six nave side chapels are structurally identical, with a square floorplan. The corners have diagonal piers which support a little cupola with pendentives. The décor of each chapel differs, however. Some have balustrades in red marble, with balls in the same stone on top.

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, in remembrance of an old parish church demolished to make way for the convent. The original intended dedication was to the Martyrs, however, and this is reflected in the decoration. This is entirely by Agostino Ciampelli at the end of the 16th century, including the altarpiece showing the martyrdom of St Andrew.

There is quite a collection of martyrs depicted here. On the intrados of the arch are SS Pancras, Celsus, Vitus and Agapitus, on the pilasters are SS Christine, Margaret, Anastasia, Cecilia, Lucy and Agatha, in the cupola is Our Lady in Glory, Venerated by the Martyrs, on the pendentives are SS Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprianand Polycarp, in the two lunettes are SS Agnes and Lucy (again) and on the side walls are SS Stephen the Protomartyr and Lawrence.

The doorway here to the stairs leading to the upstairs private oratory of the Nativity of Our Lady (now the museum) is a fine piece of 17th century carpentry.

​Chapel of the PassionEdit

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It was designed by Giuseppe Valeriani and painted throughout by Gaspare Celio, except for the altarpiece.

The vault shows The Apotheosis of the Instruments of the Passion, and the pendentives depict the Evangelists. The two lunettes show Christ in Gethsemane and The Kiss of Judas, then on the pilasters are The Flagellation, Christ Before Pilate, Christ Before Herod and Ecce Homo. The side walls show Christ Falls Beneath the Cross and The Crucifixion, and the arch has prophets of the Old Testament.

The altarpiece is by Giovanni Gagliardi, and shows Our Lady Venerated by Jesuit Saints. This does not really fit into the scheme, and in fact the original altarpiece was a Deposition by Scipione Pulzone which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can see what you are missing here.

Under the altar is a reliquary in green marble with bronze fittings, containing the relics of St Joseph Pignatelli whose memorial is in the apse, and who was enshrined here after being canonized in 1954.

The side walls have two monuments to superiors of the Jesuits, Jan Roothaan 1853 and Pedro Arrupe 1991.

​Chapel of the Holy AngelsEdit

The third chapel on the right is dedicated to the Holy Angels, and is the Cappella Vettori. The main paintings  are by Federico Zuccari, including the altarpiece depicting The Angels Adoring the Holy Trinity. The archivolt, pedentives and lunettes are thought to have been frescoed by Ventura Salimbeni rather than by Zuccari, but there seems to be debate about this.

To the left is The Fall of the Rebel Angels, with a lunette showing Angels Taking the Prayers of the Faithful to Heaven. To the right is Angels Delivering Souls from Purgatory, and the lunettes shows The Penitence of the Prodigal Son.

The vault shows The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven. The pendentives show The Dream of Jacob at Shiloh, The Angelic Transportation of Habbacuc to Babylon to Feed Daniel in the Lion's Den, The Three Young Men in the Furnace and Raphael the Archangel with Tobias and the Fish.

The sculptures of angels in the niches are attributed to Silla Longhi and Flamino Vacca, and the seraphim in stucco in the vault are by Camillo Mariani.

The chapel contains four ancient marble tablets with richly sculpted festoons of flowers and fruit. These were looted from the Baths of Titus in 1594, and provided with winged putto's heads in the 17th century.


The sacristy is entered via the side door on the right, just before the transept. Firstly there is a circular vestibule, containing 19th century memorials: Cardinal Giuseppe Alberghini 1847, Ignazio Alberghini 1869, Carolina Monteith 1854, Carlo Villani 1859 and Stephen Tempest 1822.

Then comes an antechamber divided in two by pillars, which contains several anonymous paintings featuring events in the Society's history. The canonization of SS Ignatius and Francis Xavier in 1622 is shown, and that of St Francis Borgia in 1671. The large paintings flanking the sacristy portal are of Pope Paul III approving the Constitutions of the Society, and Cardinals Alessandro and Odoardo Farnese as patrons of the church and convent respectively.

The sacristy itself is a large rectangular vaulted room, designed by Girolamo Rainaldi and completed in 1620. The vestment cupboards in walnut, with the wooden statues of the Apostles, are original. The vault fresco depicting The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is by Agostino Ciampelli.

There is an altar in an apse, the vault of which is decorated with scenes from the Passion attributed to Giovanni Lanfranco. The polychrome marble aedicule has an altarpiece depicting St Ignatius by Annibale Carracci.

At present, the sacristy is furnished for use as a chapel for saying Mass.

​Chapel of St Francis XavierEdit

The right transpet is home to the Chapel of St Francis Xavier, which was fitted out between 1674 and 1678 by Giacomo Della Porta. The present consensus is that it was designed by Pietro da Cortona and, after Cortona's death in 1669, Della Porta executed the work from sketches left available. The patron was Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Negroni.

Four enormous Corinthian columns in red and white marble with gilded capitals support a segmental pediment, into which is inserted a stucco relief of The Apotheosis of St Francis Xavier . The altarpiece depicts the death of the saint, and is by Carlo Maratta. The event occurred on the island called Shangchuan Dao, west of Hong Kong.

The gilded bronze reliquary on the altar contains the right arm of the saint, brought to Rome in 1614. The rest of his relics are in the basilica of Bom Jesus at Goa, India. 

The short barrel vault above contains three fresco panels by Giovanni Andrea Carlone. In the centre is The Apotheosis of St Francis Xavier (repeating the theme in the stucco sculpture below). To the right is the saint baptizing a high-status Indian lady, and to the left he is recovering a crucifix from a crab. The story behind the latter is that he lost the crucifix overboard during a storm on the way to Malacca, and when he debarked on arrival he was met by a crab on the beach holding the lost item.

The chapel was initially dedicated to the Resurrection, and the altarpiece on that theme was by Giovanni Baglione. It is now in the Louvre, Paris.

​Chapel of the Sacred HeartEdit

The Chapel of the Sacred Heart is one of the two little circular domed chapels flanking the sanctuary, which were added to the plan of Vignola by Giacomo della Porta. The dedication is now to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but it used to be to St Francis of Assisi because the superior of the Society at the time, St Francis Borgia, had him as his patron. Borgia commissioned the chapel, with financial help from Olimpia Orsini.

The chapel was re-ordered by Aristide Leonori in 1920, when the dedication was changed.

The frescoes in the dome  are by Baldassare Croce1599, and were transferred from the crypt chapel of SS Abundius and Abundantius when that was destroyed in the 1840's. They depict the four Evangelists, and the four Latin Doctors of the Church (SS Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose and Jerome). 

The painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, well-known from reproductions in many Catholic homes, was executed by Pompeo Batoni in 1767 and is one of the earliest on the theme. It used to be on the altar of St Francis Xavier, but was put here in 1920. It replaced a painting of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

The other cycle of paintings depicting scenes from the life of St Francis survive, and are an art-historical puzzle. A good outline of the problem is on the Italian Wikipedia, here. Those responsible for the paintings are considered to have been Paul Brill, and those whom Giuseppe Baglioni in 1733 described as "Giuseppe Peniz and other Flemings". 

On the ceiling of the entrance passage is St Francis Tempted by Verna, which is by Brill. The other works are: St Francis Renounces His Possessions, St Francis Preaching to the Birds, St Francis Meeting the Sultan of Egypt, St Francis Appearing to the Brethren in a Fiery Chariot, St Francis in a Vision to a Friar Minor, St Francis Taming the Wolf of Gubbio, St Francis Dies on the Bare Earth.

​Chapel of the Madonna della StradaEdit

The chapel to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to Our Lady. It enshrines the icon known as the Madonna della Strada, Our Lady of the Road. This 15th century fresco features in the early history of the Society, and has been the object of devotion from all the saints of the Society who have been in Rome. After the church of Santa Maria della Strada containing the icon was demolished to make way for the present church, the icon was kept at San Marco nearby while construction proceeded, but the Jesuits were very careful to make sure that they got her back. She is the "Queen of the Jesuits".

The icon was restored and cleaned in 2006, and is now attributed to the late 13th or early 14th century. In the process, the jewelled crowns that had been attached to it were removed.

The decoration of the chapel is very rich. The floor is in polychrome marble, inlaid with bronze stars. The dome is frescoed with angels by Andrea Pozzo.

There are seven paintings of scenes from the life of Our Lady in here, by Giuseppe Valeriano. They are: The Birth, The Presentation, The Marriage, The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Assumption and In Heaven. Each depiction is accompanied by explanatory Biblical texts on black marble.

​Chapel of St Ignatius LoyolaEdit


The Chapel of St Ignatius in the left transept was originally dedicated to the Crucifix, and was patronized by Cardinal Giacomo Savelli who intended it to be his mortuary chapel and employed Giacomo della Porta to fit it out. The original wooden crucifix that it contained (now in the next chapel) was replaced by a bronze one designed by Prospero Antichi -and lost at the end of the 18th century. In 1637 Pietro da Cortona completed the work, and the relics of St Ignatius were enshrined under the altar.

At the end of the century it was decided to re-do the chapel completely. The work was designed by Andrea Pozzo, lay-brother of the Society, and was executed from 1695 to 1699. More than one hundred artists and craftsmen contributed to this chapel, which is considered one of the most important masterpieces of Baroque art. It was restored in 2006.


The balustrade enclosing the chapel and the matching candlesticks on it are in bronze, and this assemblage is considered to be one of the few manifestations of the Rococo style in Rome. It was designed by Pozzo, modelled by Pierre Le Gros and others and cast by Carlo Spagna.


The aedicule is bowed (convex), and includes four ribbed Composite columns in gilded bronze with their grooving filled with lapis lazuli, the work of Andrea Bertoni. The precious blue stone was imported on camel-back from Badakhshan in Afghanistan. These columns stand on a two-storey plinth, the first storey in red marble with yellow trim and the second, pedestalled plinth in green marble in which is set six bas-reliefs in gilded bronze depicting scenes from the life of the saint. The columns support a split segmental entablature in green marble containing a depiction of the Trinity (see below), and in between the capitals above the altarpiece is a pair of angels by Pierre Étienne Monnot supporting a lapis lazuli plaque with the monogram IHS.

Bronze altar reliefsEdit

These are: St Ignatius Extinguishes a Conflagration Through Prayer by René FréminThe Healing of a Madman by Angelo De RossiThe Healing of a Nun by Pietro Rieff; St Peter Heals St Ignatius by Lorenzo Merlini (this is the large central one, and is his masterpiece); St Ignatius with St Philip Neri by Francesco NuvoloneHealing of Sick People with Oil From the Lamp of St Ignatius by Frémin again, and The Liberation of Prisoners by Pierre Étienne Monnot.

Above the central panel by Merlini is a curlicued tablet containing the Society's motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam, accompanied by a pair of silvered putti by Monnot.


The relics of the saint are in a gilded bronze urn under the altar, the work of Alessandro Algardi in 1637. This is the only surviving part of the original early 17th century chapel, but there is a doubt over it. Giuseppe Rusconi (1688-1758) executed the gilded bronze altar frontal with its pair of putti, and is known to have gilded the urn as well. However, some think that he may well have re-cast it. The decorative details do not look early 17th century.

Altarpiece and statueEdit

The columns flank a round-headed altarpiece attributed to Pozzo, depicting The Commission of St Ignatius by Christ. This can be lowered by a mechanism (macchina barocca), revealing behind an ornate niche containing a statue of the saint. The original one was by Pierre Le Gros 1698, and was made out of silver and gilt copper. However, this was melted down for bullion on the orders of Pope Pius VI in 1798 in order to pay the reparations demanded by the French in the Treaty of Tolentino. (An apologetic myth, still perpetrated, was later confected alleging that the statue was looted by French occupying forces.) In 1804 a new statue was made out of silvered stucco, allegedly incorporating the surviving chasuble from the original work. This was by Luigi Acquisti working in the studio of Canova

The macchina barocca was forgotten about in the 19th century, until its derelict remains were re-discovered in 2006 together with the hidden and rotting altarpiece. Nowadays, it is used to unveil the statue at 17:30 daily.

The accompanying angel and putti used to be silver and were also looted, so these are stucco as well.


The columns support a split segmental pediment in green marble, into which is inserted a large sculptural group representing the Trinity. Christ to the left is by Lorenzo Ottoni, and the Father to the right is by Leonard Reti. Above is the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a gilded glory, and in between the figures is a globe of lapis lazuli. This used to be considered the biggest piece of that stone in the world, but the 2006 restoration discovered that it was actually a sphere of travertine very cleverly covered with it.

Faith and ReligionEdit

The altar is flanked by a pair of large allegorical sculptural groups. To the left is The Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon, which shows Faith welcoming a barbarian king whom Idolatry is trying to stop. To the right is The Triumph of Religion over Heresy by Pierre Le Gros the Younger, which shows Religion (the Roman Catholic faith) pushing Heresy (Protestantism) to the ground. The putto on the left is tearing up the writings of the Protestant reformers. This is a famous allegory of the ambitions of the Jesuits at the time that the church was built.

Side reliefsEdit

Above these sculptures and flanking the aedicule are two bas-reliefs. These feature Pope Paul III Approving the Society by Angelo De Rossi, and The Canonization of St Ignatius. by Bernardino Cametti


The side walls feature a pair of very ornate floating opera boxes or cantorie for musicians, the right hand one of which contains one half of the main organ (the other half is in the corresponding position in the other end of the transept). These balconies are supported by pairs of angels, the left hand ones being by Francesco Maratti and the right hand ones by Ottoni.


The vault fresco is The Apotheosis of St Ignatius by Gaulli, accompanied by allegorical scenes in stucco bas-relief panels by Raggi and Reti.

​Chapel of the CrucifixEdit

The fourth chapel on the left hand side is the former side entrance of the church. It is now a chapel dedicated to the Crucifix, and contains a large, naturalistically painted early 17th century wooden crucifix.

This is thought to have started its career in the Chapel of St Ignatius, before being moved to a position over the high altar when the chapel was re-fitted. Then it was taken into the antechamber of the sacristy in 1840, before being installed in its present location in the late 20th century.

​Chapel of the Holy TrinityEdit

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and the altarpiece depicting the mystery is by Francesco Bassano the Younger. Under the altar are relics of St Andrew Bobola.

Durante Alberti executed God the Creator in the dome, the angels in the pendentives and Angels Adoring God the Creator and Abraham Welcomes the Three Angels in the tondi. The side walls have The Transfiguration by Alberti on the left, and to the right The Baptism of Christ attributed to Ventura Salimbeni. The angels on the pilasters are attributed to Scipione Pulzone.

​Chapel of the Holy FamilyEdit

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Holy Family, and is the Cappella Cerri. The altarpiece depicts the subject, and is by Giovanni Gagliardi who was a local Roman artist specializing in sacred themes from about 1860 to 1908.

The original dedication was to the Nativity, and the rest of the original 16th century decoration reflects this. The fresco work is by Niccolò CircignaniIl Pomarancio, and features on the side walls The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation of Christ. The lunettes have The Annunciation to the Shepherds and The Slaughter of the Innocents, and the dome pendentives show the prophets David, Isaiah, Baruch and Zechariah. The cupola has Joy in Heaven at the Birth of Christ.

There are four statues of allegorical figures of the Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude and Justice  to the left, and Temperance and Prudence to the right. The first is by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli, the second by Cosimo Fancelli his brother and the other two by Domenico Guidi.

The four memorials in here are to Cardinal Carlo Cerri 1690, Antonio Cerri 1642, another Carlo Cerri 1696 and Rosa Bianca Martinetti 1838. The last named was very privileged, because the Jesuits seem to have had an overall policy of keeping funerary monuments out of their church and this one seems to have been allowed for aesthetic reasons of symmetry.

​Chapel of St Francis BorgiaEdit

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Francis Borgia, the third superior of the Jesuits who had the church built. It was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles, and is the Cappella Ferrari.

The altarpiece showing the saint is by Pozzo, but was altered by Gagliardi in the early 19th century when some Jesuit martyrs were added. The paintings on the side walls are by Pier Francesco Mola, Il Ticinese, and were executed c. 1600. The left hand one is The Baptism of SS Processus and Martinian by St Peter in the Mamertine Prison, and the right hand one is The Conversion of St Paul.

The vault is frescoed by Il Pomarancio again. The central fresco shows Pentecost, the lunettes depict The Martyrdom of St Peter and The Martyrdom of St Paul, and the pendentives have allegories of Faith, Hope, Charity and Religion.

The monuments in here are to Brigida and Giuseppina Ferrari, 1870 and Celestino and Ciriaco Ferrari, 1877.

Rooms of St IgnatiusEdit

St Ignatius established the Society's first Generalate or headquarters next to the old church of Santa Maria della Strada. When the convent was rebuilt at the end of the 17th century his rooms were carefully preserved, and are incorporated in the present convent buildings. They may be visited, at no charge (see "Access", below). Ask at the main door, and follow the signs at the end of the corridor along which you are directed.

The access corridor is richly frescoed with scenes from the life of the saint by Guillaume CourtoisIl Borgognone. However, the diagonal wall at one end has a famous illusionistic fresco by Pozzo, giving you the impression that you are looking into a chapel containing two angels playing a violin and cello duet. Up close, the fresco is distorted, as it has to be viewed at the right angle. The technique is known as anamorphosis.

The two rooms, restored recently, are simply furnished and decorated, and contain memorabilia of the Society and of Jesuit saints. A painting shows a young St Ignatius in a soldier's uniform. There are two altars, and the one with a painting of the Holy Family is the one at which St Ignatius offered Mass on the day that he died.



The church is open, according to its website:

7:00 to 12:30, 16:00 to 19:45.

Helpfully, those in charge suggest that visits to view the interior and artworks (as distinct from those with spiritual and devotional motivations) should be made in the period:

16:30 to 19:00.

This is because the church is well-used for Mass and other sacred activities at other times.

At 17:30, the statue of St Ignatius on his altar is unveiled in a son et lumière show.

Rooms of St IgnatiusEdit

The Rooms of St Ignatius are viewable 

Weekdays 16:00 to 18:00

Sundays and solemnities 10:00 to 12:00.

There is no entry charge, but donations are welcome.


The church is one of the major Mass centres in the Centro Storico, and is appreciated by many for its straightforward celebration of the Sacrament on ordinary days. 

Mass is celebrated:

Weekdays 7:00, 8:00, 10:00, 11:00. 12:00, 19:00.

Sundays 8:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 19:00.

The feast of St Ignatius is celebrated on 31 July, and is kept with great solemnity.

The Christmas Crib is considered to be one of the finest in Rome.

On 31 December, the Te Deum is sung with great splendour; this is a long-running tradition.


It has been hoped for several years to open a museum for the church, in one of the side rooms available. This Museo della Sagrestia Nuova should now be visitable, and displays many interesting sacred items acquired over the course of the church's history.

At present, it is being advertised as open on Saturday and Sunday, 16:00 to 18:00. Further details are here.

It is located in what was a private oratory dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady, in the second storey of the convent block adjacent to and over the right hand nave chapels.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 902)

Church website

Descriptive leaflet (pdf)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Giovanni Rinaldi's photo gallery

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Smarthistory" web-page

Photo gallery of the nave ceiling

"Romeartlover" web-page

Article on the Chapel of the Madonna della Strada

Youtube video on the Altar of St Ignatius

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