We were advised by our Airbnb host that the Chiesa del Gesù is one of Palermo’s most beautiful baroque churches from the outside, but he warned us against the interior. In a city where so much has been destroyed and rebuilt, I imagined that we might see something unsympathetically or ineptly restored, but I think he was expressing his opinion of the gloriously over-egged decorative pudding that drips like batter from every interior surface. This is the late Baroque, on the verge of the ornamental critical mass that produces the Rococo, and it is a style that feels somewhat alien to Sicily; it is not that the Sicilian Baroque was not elaborate, although it adopted a simpler Neoclassical form in the later eighteenth century, but that this is a Jesuit Church, designed by a Jesuit architect (Giovanni Tristano) in a style which was proper to the Jesuit order more than it was to any one place. The preponderance of putti is certainly characteristic of the Sicilian Baroque, and indeed the excesses of the interior are attributed to Sicilian sculptors, but its other features are notable by their absence, particularly in the presence of a detached campanile. The purpose of the interior is to display the power and wealth of the Society of Jesus, and it does this by, effectively, spraying itself with money.
We entered the church, on a roasting hot day, from a broad plaza, our eyes used to the large, bright, flat surfaces outside, and what greeted us was frankly baffling. A plethora of detail resists the gaze, rebuffing any attempt to interrogate its figurative content at a distance. I imagine H.R. Giger may have noted the disturbing character of the Baroque’s wildly overdetermined ornative discourse, because the bulging, writhing forms of the Chiesa del Gesù’s bas reliefs struck me immediately as an albino counterpart to Giger’s terrifying biomechanical surfaces. Biomorphic images, in this case largely of putti, are imprisoned as though in amber, petrified in mid-flow, bringing a chaos of curvature to the interior planes that is overwhelming, revolting and profoundly psychedelic. This is not a place to enjoy the trip, however. Looming over the church are fresco portraits of darkly menacing men, presumably Jesuit saints or notables; their baleful, moralising glare does not invite the worshipper or visitor to revel in the sensuous pleasures or sculptural jouissance of the church, but to huddle in fear of the iron will which commanded its existence. Your ego is loosened here, not for entertainment, or spiritual wellbeing, but to better secure acquiescence to the Jesuit Order.
The ceilings are also decorated with spectacularly lurid biblical and hagiographic scenes which appear fabulously kitsch to the modern eye, although such images were clearly entirely bespoke markers of privilege in the eighteenth century when they were made. There is none of the tranquility that one might associate with a church here, because there is nowhere for the eye to rest: it is constantly deflected, diverted and overwhelmed. If it is raised to heaven in supplication it finds itself blinded, judged, and beaten back to earth. This is the public part of the church, where the congregation are invited to have their relationship with God mediated by the Jesuit ‘soldiers of Christ’. In the ‘backstage’ areas things are calmer, although they are still magnificent. The sacristy is also beautifully decorated, and it is entirely lined with oak cupboards, filled with the Order’s crystal goblets and silverware. The oratory at the top of the building, beautifully appointed and as large as a substantial parish church, is also a far more tranquil and contemplative environment for prayer. The prosperity of the Society of Jesus, and the privileged lives of its officers, is reinforced as much in the relative restraint and tastefulness of its still breathtakingly luxurious private spaces, as in the frenzied hyperplenitude of the main church.
There are also museum spaces in the church, with a modern staircase in a glass covered atrium at the rear of the building permitting access to the oratory. These are less ostentatious, and look a little run-down; clearly the days of the Jesuit Order’s great wealth and power are long gone – indeed its global membership has halved over the last forty years. These areas house collections largely relating to the church, but including some secular objects, such as landscape paintings. They are sympathetically displayed, but when experienced in proximity to the perfectly restored main church, they feel like oddments in a dusty attic. The incredible economic gradient that separated the custodians of this church from the beggars outside their walls in the era of its construction and decoration, is only underlined by the contrast between its staggering interior and the clearly constrained budget under which its interpretative spaces are maintained. It is difficult to grasp the relationship between the seemingly infinite hours of skilled labour which were deployed for the church’s adornment, and either its historical or contemporary social context. To produce such a building now would be almost economically impossible, as is made clear by the relative absence of decorative craftwork in even the most luxurious modern buildings. The interior of the Chiesa del Gesù is a matrix of economic dominance, social compulsion, and coercive aesthetics, a locus at which power inscribed itself violently into the historical record, and which now squats like a toad within its beautifully austere exterior, rejecting any interloper’s attempt to read it, visually or cognitively. It is the building which commemorates itself.