Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The Altar of St Francis Xavier in Rome

St Francis Xavier, whose feast is kept today, died on December 2, 1556, on the island of Shangchuan off the south-eastern coast of China. His body was taken to the Portuguese colony of Goa, India, and now rests in a silver casket in the Jesuit church there, the Bom Jesus Basilica. However, the main Jesuit church in Rome, which is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, and popularly known as the “il Gesù” in Italian, (literally “the Jesus”), possesses a very notable relic of the Saint, namely, his lower right arm and hand, which are displayed on the altar dedicated to him in the church’s right transept. This is the arm with which he personally baptized somewhere around 300,000 people in the course of the years he spent as a missionary in Asia.

The chapel, which dominates the church’s right transept, was built in the 1660s according to a design by one of the most prominent artists of the Roman High Baroque period, Pietro da Cortona. The main altarpiece by Carlo Maratta depicts St Francis’ death; the darker lower part of the chapel with the colored marbles represents this world, and the brighter upper part, heaven. Within the “broken” cornice above the painting, St Francis is represented just as he leaves the world and ascends into the glory of heaven. (Unfortunately, the glory of heaven was just too bright for effective photography this morning.)

The stucco figure of St Francis in the cornice is oriented in such a way that it rises towards this painting of the Holy Trinity in the ceiling above it, a work by Giovanni Andrea Carlone. The interaction of the various artistic forms, painting, sculpture and architecture, in such a dramatic setting was one of the most admired and widely imitated aspects of Rome’s Baroque churches, serving as a model and inspiration for countless other works throughout the Catholic world.

To either side of the central painting, Carlone depicted some of the Saint’s missionary activity: here, he baptizes an Indian princess,

and here, he is shipwrecked during his travels.
The altar seen from the opposite side of the church, where a restoration project for the altar of St Ignatius of Loyola is just beginning.

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