“The Indies Down Here:” Triumphant Imagery in the Jesuit Mission in Naples
Rachel Miller, PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
Paolo de Matteis, Religion Triumphing over Heresy through the Intercession of SS. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia, and the Three Jesuit Martyrs of Japan, 1693, San Ferdinando (Formerly, San Francesco Saverio), Naples
When the Jesuit order arrived in Naples in 1552, they instituted a religious and cultural mission intended to evangelize and reform “the Indies down here,” as they referred to Southern Italy. The Jesuits labored in the Kingdom of Naples until their expulsion in 1767, working to convert prostitutes, morally lax aristocrats, peasants who were perceived as being Christian in name only, prisoners, and the kingdom’s sizable population of Muslim slaves. In the later years of the seventeenth century, the Jesuit church of San Francesco Saverio (now San Ferdinando) was renovated; a new altarpiece was commissioned from Luca Giordano and the interior of the church was covered in frescoes by Paolo de Matteis. This presentation will focus on the frescos by de Matteis, which reveal much about the role Jesuits saw themselves as playing in late seventeenth-century Neapolitan society. The church is filled with images of St. Francis Xavier converting the pagans of the world, a clear parallel to the Jesuits’ task of converting the heterogeneous population of Naples, while the variety of Xaverian miracles included in the frescoes demonstrate Jesuit attempts to promote St. Francis Xavier as a universal saint who could be counted on to alleviate all manner of ills and to channel Neapolitan devotion to local popular saints into centralized Vatican-sanctioned cults. Lastly, I will focus on the detail of Muhammad included in the nave vault fresco. Rarely depicted in European art, the inclusion of the prophet of Islam here is a manifestation of anxieties felt by Jesuits in regards to the thousands of Muslim domestic slaves and galley slaves present in the city of Naples. Muhammad, ‘the sower of discord” is shown defeated by the dove of the Holy Spirit and an allegory of Catholic Religion through the intercession of SS. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia, and the three Jesuit martyrs of Japan, a clear allusion to the Society of Jesus’s role as peacemaker in the years following the social unrest of the Revolt of Naples in 1647.