Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hi Def image of Andrea Pozzo's fresco

Gazing at Andrea Pozzo’s Glorification of St. Ignatius

I first encountered Andrea Pozzo’s fresco in the San Ignazio in Rome in 1978. I say encountered because it was not just a matter of seeing the fresco but being engulfed in it, drawn as it were by a vortex that pierced the stone vault of the nave dragging you ever higher to the clouds and beyond. I did not care much for Pozzo’s other painting, the faux ceiling, a tour de force of scenographic illusion which struck me more like a stage set. But the fresco labelled as the La Gloria di Sant’ Ignazio or The Glorification of St. Ignatius was something I would go back to—again and again.

Painted on the San Ignazio’s barrel vault by the Italian Jesuit architect and artist, Pozzo, in the last years of the 17th century the fresco negates the curvature of the vault through the ingenious use of arches and pillars that zooms heavenwards to the ceiling, which in turn dissolves into the infinite vault of the terrestrial and celestial heavens.

To see this fresco, which was badly illuminated except during church services, meant dropping a hundred lire in a box that would then illumine the ceiling for about three minutes. As a grad student in Rome, living on a limited budget, sometimes I had to rely on tourists who would come to see this marvel of perspective painting, this masterpiece of trompe l’oeil. Grateful for their unintended charity I would stare at the fresco as light would flood it.

There was an old Italian brother, whose name I forget, who every afternoon would be in the San Ignazio after the obligatory siesta and who would guide tourists to a round bronze plaque embedded on the church floor. There with gestures he would indicate the focal point where best to see Pozzo’s opus. While the illusion of depth worked well at many points in the nave, here at the focus the columns and arches would appear to open up and pierce the sky. There was movement in this work.

I returned again and again to see this marvel, wishing that I had a bit of talent like Pozzo’s. After Rome, my memories of the fresco was refreshed by post cards, posters and recently by JPEG images. But as best as these images could be, the wide expanse of the fresco mutes the details in reproduction. A visit to the San Ignazio does not help either for seeing details because of the poor illumination and the distance from the floor to the vault.

Then, marvelously a 9.9 billion pixel of The Glorification of St. Ignatius is posted on the net at www.haltadefinizione.com, a website that offers large files of art works. The high def image allows you to zoom and enlarge areas so that you can see the individual brushstrokes. This intimate look at Pozzo’s masterpiece reveals details that may not be visible even if you stand beneath it at the San Ignazio.

There are smiling faces, something you don’t often see in religious works of the Baroque where the more common expressions are pain, awe, ecstasy or serene calm. But a smile, is not dramatic enough, not enough of a grand theatrical gesture. But they are there on the faces of two Africans and a blond haired women who are borne to heaven by angels. And the biggest smile of all is on Francis Xavier as he points upward, while gazing earthward to Asia.

Pozzo’s composition is anchored to rays of celestial light that radiate from heaven and hits Ignatius’ heart. The single ray divides, crosses the vault, strikes and ignites braziers, firebrands, torches and containers held by angels, who bring a visible earthy fire to the four known continents—Asia, Africa, America and Europe. And in a bit of conceit, a ray hits a concave mirror on which floats at its focal point the shimmering monogram of Jesus’ name. An angel hold the mirror aloft, a salute to the science of optics, which Pozzo assuredly studied to perfect his work in perspective.

Written in cartouches at the long ends of the nave is a Latin quotation from the Gospel that explains the composition, which translated reads “I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish it were burning.” In the Gospel, these words are put in the mouth of Jesus and expresses his restlessness and enthusiasm to get the Word to all nations.

In the context of Pozzo’s painting, the Gospel text might be erroneously applied to Ignatius, who burnt with the fire to spread the Gospel. And this tack is followed when the title La Gloria de Sant’ Ignazio is applied to the fresco. I don’t know who attached this label to Pozzo’s painting. I am not sure if this title goes back to Pozzo himself or is the fabrication of art historians. In Pozzo’s era, many religious works were not titled so it is quite possible that the adscription of the title “the glory” is not entirely his.

I suggest rather that this fresco should be named The Revelation of Jesus’ Name or to use an optical term, known to perspective painters, The Projection of Jesus’ Name. This would complement de Gaulli’s fresco at the Gesu, the Glorification of Jesus’ Name. Name is understood here in the Biblical sense of the person or the inner reality. While in the Gesu fresco, Jesus is to be honored and glorified in the Sant Ignazio, he is to be proclaimed or projected to the four corners of the world.

How do I come to this Christocentric rather than the more common Ignatius-centric reading of this fresco. We should examine the fresco more closely we can now do with the 9.9 gigapixel image of it. I argue that we can link this painting with Ignatius’ vision at La Storta and the triple colloquy of the Spiritual Exercises.

To argue for this Christocentric reading we have to pay attention to another of Pozzo’s compositional devices. Aside from the expansive lateral and diagonal sweep of his composition, there is the more central use of illusional depth. There are layers of depth suggested by Pozzo’s delineation of figures and architectural members. At the highest level, we can call the heavenly are the figures of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Beside them with arms open is Mary. The Spirit and the Father are very faintly rendered, the colors are pastel so that from a distance both seem to dissolve into the clouds. Pozzo has used aerial perspective, a technique mastered by Leonardo da Vinci and from him onward became a standard in the painter’s repertoire. The Spirit as a dove suffused in light and the Father who rests his arm on a globe sits on a throne of clouds lifted by angels and putti. Also faintly rendered is the Virgin Mary who gestures pleadingly to the Father. She too is lifted by a cloud.

At a slightly lower level is the figure of Jesus carrying the cross and not Ignatius who is placed slightly off center. Jesus is the visual center of this painting, the vanishing point where perspective lines converge. The figure of Jesus is also directly above that spot on the church floor marked by a bronze circle. Jesus gestures to Ignatius who accepts the invitation with an open arm gesture.

The elements of La Storta and the triple colloquy are here. The Father as creative Lord looks down with great approval at the Son, extending the Father’s invitation that Ignatius follow Jesus under the standard of the cross. There is Mary pleading at the throne of grace for Ignatius or the exercitant just as Ignatius instructs in making the triple colloquy triple colloquy.

With this Christocentric turn, Pozzo’s fresco reveals greater depth. Inscribed under the standard of the cross, Ignatius opens his arms in prayer and inspires many apostles in the enterprise of setting the world aflame with the fire of Christ. Ignatius kneels at a register lower than Jesus, his upward gaze makes this quite clear.

Jesuits are clustered at three corners of the fresco. One corner is dominated by Francis Xavier and the opposite corner by Aloyisius Gonzaga and a Jesuit wearing a chasuble, probably Francis Borgia. In another corner is a group of black robed Jesuits, one young in countenance and reaching out compassionately to Africa, who is most likely this is Stanislaus Kostka. These Jesuits saints and blesseds are in the company of other saints. They are at a register lower than Ignatius. So thus far we have four levels depth.

At a still lower or fifth register and near the four corners of the fresco are allegorical figures of Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Each one is seated on a totemic animal. Asia’s is the camel, Africa’s the crocodile, America’s the cougar and Europe’s the horse. While Asia seems to represent more the Near East where camels are found and not the Far East, a small detail points to a far eastern connection. The container for the divine fire borne by putti looks like a blue and white porcelain bowl from China and the figures being pulled heavenwards are depicted similar to the Indians of America. This seems to be a visual shorthand that defines an expansive boundary for Asia. After all the inhabitants of Asia were collectively known as Indios.

On a diagonal to Asia is America depicted as a woman wearing a headdress of blue and red feathers. Near her is a brightly plumed macaque. America is partly nude, one breast is exposed. She brandishes a spear as she gazes downward toward an enemy. Her mouth is open as if yelling a war whoop. Her gesture contrasts with Asia who looks heavenward and raises a hand toward Francis Xavier as if asking for his assistance. America is flanked by another figure also brandishing a spear as if to tame some unseen force.

Like America, the allegorical figure of Africa looks downward. Positioned directly across America and on the same side as Asia, Africa sits serenely while holding an elephant tusk. Africa’s totemic animal, the crocodile may allude to the Nile, while the elephant task to the lands upstream of the Nile where wild animals like the elephant roam.

Europe is the only continent left of the four known continents in Pozzo’s time. Europe dressed in deep blue and enveloped by a golden brocade cape sits serenely on a horse while resting her left hand on an orb. Looking like a proper dowager she lifts her scepter toward America and gazes at her intently.

Pozzo has illustrated European stereotypes of the continents and their peoples. Europe lords over all and that lordship is divinely ordained. Europe’s pose seated and holding an orb or globe echoes the Father’s posture. So Europe can point her scepter toward America which by this time had become an extension of Europe. America’s untamed naturalness, symbolized by America’s natural state and apparent savagery, the mysteriousness of Africa with its rivers teeming with dangerous animals, and Asia’s self-assured composure needing only to ascend to the heights of the Gospel—all reflect European perception of the world.

Then at the lowest or last register of the fresco are images of struggle and redemption. Michael brandishing the flaming sword, while an angel above hurls rocks at the devil. An angel pours water on a flame, causing it to sputter and smolder. Could the flame stand for human passion and inordinate desires, that can only be extinguished by the fountain of divine mercy? Does the water symbolize baptism, which extinguishes pagan holocausts?

From these depths unknown figures, atlases, struggle upward to be drawn into the vortex of grace defined by the light that emanates from the Trinity and ignites in fires that ascend heavenward. Pozzo’s vision is comprehensive. He has captured the genius of Ignatius’ spiritual legacy as a skilled and accomplished artist does, through the language of images, of line and color, of visual tricks of perspective. Although Pozzo remains captive of his age, his Eurocentrism, painted large he presents a hopeful picture to one who contemplates this marvel.

All told there are six level or registers in Pozzo’s perspective composition. We might think of these levels as spheres, the celestial spheres. The medieval mind thought of heaven as having seven spheres, usually counting the lost sphere as first and the highest where God resides as the seventh. So why does Pozzo have only six spheres. If we are to push this interpretation we have to locate the lowest of first sphere.

The lowest is where all this work comes together the floor where we stand to gaze at Pozzo’s work. It is the lowest sphere of heaven but it is already heaven because the church space is sacred, consecrated ground. To stand gazing upward at Pozzo’s work is to enter a circle of contemplation, which if we look attentively, open our hearts affectively will pull us into an vortex that leads us higher and higher until we too are suffused with that light that comes from the Trinity alone.

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