Renovated Sanctuary at the Church of the Gesù

I was in Rome this week and, never having lived there and had the chance to “do” the city properly, on every short visit I make, I try to see something new.

This trip I decided to visit the famous Church of the Gesù. This was not my first visit to this extremely significant monument of Christian art and architecture. But before my visit I saw online that last month, on Sunday, June 12 last, the Jesuit Order rededicated its Mother Church, the a church of  the Gesù. The renovation of the sanctuary was made possible thanks to the support of the Fondazione Roma, with the approval of the Vicariate of Rome, the Soprintendenza Beni Culturali and the Fondo Edifici Culto del Ministero degli Interni.

Pope Francis has commented many times recently that Vatican II will take one hundred years to fully implement and that we have another forty years of work ahead of us. So it is nice to see that some people are still working at renovating their churches to make them suitable for today’s liturgy.

Obviously Gesù is a treasure house of significant Christian art (as well as having I been hugely influential as a model of a post-conciliar church in the wake of the Council of Trent).  But Rome is full of churches that have not been properly renovated since Vatican II and many appear more as a settings for art, rather than a true domus ecclesiae.   

But I think that most of us would be against gutting those old churches and throwing out or selling the artistic treasures of earlier generations. Therefore it is not an easy task to renovate a church like this. The heritage must be preserved, but the spiritual needs of today’s worshipping community must also be provided for.  So knowing that Jesuits rarely do anything by half, I dedided to go and see what it was like.  I arrived shortly before their evening Mass and after looking at the new sanctuary, I decide to stay for the celebration, as seeing a church in action is the best way to judge if a renovations actually works.

The sacristan assured me that they were preparing some material on the renovation that would be available soon and I am sure that some of our Jesuit readers might want to add comments below (or even follow up articles correcting whatever mistakes I make). I did not take any photographs during the Mass itself, but I am sure that better photographs will soon be available elsewhere.

The renovation consisted in removing the post Vatican II altar that used to be placed behind the altar rail and bringing the sanctuary forward into the middle of the dome. What I am assuming is a reliquary occupies the place where the original post-Vatican II altar once stood. The project architect, Francesco Schiavone accomplished his commission by adding  three circular platforms for the ambo, the altar and the presidential seat. These there pieces of liturgical furniture are new.  I think they are made of bronze, but I didn’t go beyond the barrier and touch them to find out.  The other main new piece of liturgical art is a cross and baldacchino or crown over the altar. This crown is made from metal sheets; that are inscribed with an original Greek text taken from the last page of the Bible:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:17.20 – NRSV.

Staying for the Mass allowed me to experience that the overall renovation works well.  In particular the church has an excellent sound system and the lighting is perfect. These are a particular obsession of mine and I was delighted to see that they were very well taken care of here.

The other elements of the sanctuary also worked well and everything allowed for a dignified liturgy.  The platforms may look a little strange I the photographs, but they work very well. They don’t call attention to themselves, while at the same time they facilitate a clear line of sight to the liturgical action from the whole church.

If I may be allowed a few words of criticism, I would suggest that the altar is a little too small. It looked fine before Mass, but I thought it was too small and crowded once the Liturgy of the Eucharist started. Personally, I have a thing for big altars, but I doubt that this altar would have gracefully held enough pattens and chalices to administer Communion to a full church, if they decided not to use the tabernacle and also allow everyone to receive under both Species.

Additionally, I found the ambo to be a little insubstantial. It was slightly disconcerting to see that it only covered part of the lower half of the lector’s body. This could be simply a personal preference of mine, but I like a big church to have a substantial ambo that matches the altar (see SC 51 And GIRM 28). Then on the other side a less substantial lectern (perhaps from plexiglass), might be provided for the celebrant, so that the impression of two pulpits can be avoided.

Finally, and this is not really a reflection of the renovation, but the sanctuary is usually cordoned off by posts with retractable cordons (like in an airport line).  These are perfect to protect the sanctuary from inquisitive liturgists during the day, but during Mass it would be much better to move the pillars to the side and not simply roll the material into them, leaving them in place during the liturgy.

In conclusion, I was very happy with the renovation.  The positive elements far outweigh my criticisms. I look forward to more complete expositions and better photos and I hope it will provide a great example to others who are responsible for properly renovating churches sixty years out from Vatican II.

35 comments

    1. I’m afraid I didn’t see anything. The nave of the church is on a single level. There are steps outside to get into it, I think I remember a ramp on one side.

      But the three platforms in the sanctuary each have 3 steps to get up to them. There might be some type of ramp that could be added to them when there is a need for it. But I don’t think there is any permanently in place.

      Maybe someone who knows more about it could add something. The Vatican website has a video of a Mass celebrated there last March with Pope Francis in attendance: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2022-03/pope-attends-mass-for-anniversary-of-canonizations.html

      This is a little disconcerting as the same sanctuary furniture is the same here, but the platforms are totally different. I don’t know if this was some sort of half way stage, or if they can switch out the platforms depending on the occasion.

      Also looking more on the internet, I found this 2014 Mass presided by Pope Francis with the same sanctuary furniture and the platforms as in last March: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUuOT_rre0w

      Maybe someone else can shed light on this.

      1. The previous sanctuary arrangement looked aesthetically quite similar, dark browns. etc.
        As for accessibility, it doesn’t seem to be such a concern in Italy. Given Italy’s vast built heritage that doesn’t lend itself to accessibility, this isn’t a surprise. In fact, I noticed one of the project team (a former student of mine) was interviewed recently at a conference on the ambo in church design, and he mentioned explicitly the minimum requirement for an ambo would include at least 3 or 4 steps leading up to the ambo from the sanctuary…no accessibility questions in his mind then.
        People have criticised the new project for being placed as if it could be subsequently removed. Italian churches are mostly owned by a state body and, apart from that influence, there are major restrictions from the state to making changes to old buildings. Such restrictions probably required an arrangement that would facilitate easy removal in the future. The new ambo at the Lateran, while entirely under Vatican control, followed a similar approach. It was simply put in place without working on the marble pavement and steps.

  1. From the photos it seems to be an incredibly “busy” space. In other words, the architects seem to opt for filling space with signs and symbols, rather than emptying space for simplicity and focus. Each detail is remarkable in itself, but together it all seems a bit overwhelming–again, busy–almost modern baroque…? Maybe not! Balance of space and overall emotional effect is hard to judge from photos.

    My personal taste runs more towards a simplified worship space, so take that into account.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I am sorry that the distance photos I took didn’t turn out well and you can’t see the altar area as a whole. The church itself is a Baroque extravaganza, but the new elements do not crowd you out. I thought they provided a good and fairly simple worship focus in a nice contrast to the rest of the church that is already very ‘busy’

  2. It appears that the only new component of the appoints is the corona and cross over the altar; otherwise, they have just been moved and a new predella created. One can see them in this PanoSphere from 2017:

    https://tinyurl.com/2y2ss4x3

  3. I would agree that the altar is too small. It seems to my eye to be lost amid the busy-ness of the Gesu’s interior. The ‘corona’ and hanging cross attempts to give it significance, and lighting may also help, but my sense is that a more massive altar, retaining the simplicity of the existing one, would be more significant and contrast better with the baroque environment.

    Isn’t most of the decor of the Gesu interior 19th century?

    AG

    1. This Allan agrees with Alan about elongating the cube altar. While the style of the new setup would be appealing to my eclectic liturgical architectural tastes, I don’t like a clashing of styles and the dissonance this clash presents in the Jesu Church. As noted in the article, Europeans are masters of good lighting and sound systems that work exceptionally well in these massive churches and cathedrals. Having been assigned to three neo-Gothic/ Romanesque Revival churches with horrible speaking acoustics, I wish we would have spent more money to bring a consultant from Europe to fix the problems with all our sound systems.

      1. Though sound engineering can only do so much. For natural acoustics in a reformed liturgy meant to be at least mutually apprehended if not comprehended in newly designed churches, I would discourage the use of high domes on drums over the main liturgical action; much better would be shallower so-called Catalan sail vaults (a nifty piece of late Medieval engineering that Guastavino was famously reviving a century ago for churches and other public buildings*; that revival came a-cropper with mid-20th century building codes, and the lack of maths to prove the soundness of the construction, which meant the style had to be imitated in reinforced concrete until maths came along until the last generation or so).

        * https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http://www.criswellphotography.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/6-2014-Bassillica.jpg&f=1&nofb=1

        https://huellasdearquitectura.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/albany-education-building_00.jpg

      2. Btw, for folks unfamiliar with Catalan vaults as revived by Guastavino (whose firm was headquartered outside Boston in Woburn, MA), this is an excellent short video. Traditionally, they were built entirely by (very skilled) hand and eye with *no* supports/guides whatsoever, which was a great savings in wood (important as southern European woods supplies became scarcer and more dear).

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQC9m2gNyY8

        Modern architecture worthy of churches, visually and aurally.

    2. At the risk of diverting this thread into a discussion on the shape of altars, received wisdom is that the rectangular sarcophagus shape of traditional preconciliar altars built into the reredos consisted, in effect, of three cubes in an unbroken line. The central cube was used for the principal parts of the liturgy, while the “east” and “west” cubes were used for the Epistle, Gospel, Lavabo, Last Gospel, etc.

      Once the practice of having an ambo for the Liturgy of the Word had taken root, there was no further need for the east and west cubes, so they were simply excised, leaving a single cube-shaped design for a free-standing altar.

      Priests and people have a different view of what a desirable altar shape should be. From the point of view of the people in the pews, the elongated rectangular shape looks like nothing so much as a sideboard, a place where things are “parked”. (I hesitate to raise once again the presentation of the gifts, where the bread and wine for the sacrifice are often parked on the sideboard until the priest is ready to deal with them, when in fact he should be “placing them on the altar [i.e. for the first time] to the accompaniment of the prescribed formulas”(see https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2014/02/16/more-on-offering-at-mass/).

      A long and substantial altar can also have the appearance of a breakwater, indeed a barrier between priest and people.

      From the point of view of the priest, the altar often appears to be a convenient resting-place for vessels, missal, other books and papers, spectacles (and spectacle case), even the cruets if a priest is celebrating without a server and does not want to use the credence table. I believe that all this detracts from the primary symbolism of the altar of sacrifice.

      As for a cube altar not being of sufficient size to accommodate vessels for large celebrations or concelebrations, I never noticed that the former cube-shaped altar in Notre-Dame de Paris was lacking in this respect. But in exceptional cases, it is always possible to “extend” an altar by adding a table covered with a white cloth immediately in front of it to accommodate extra vessels, similar in appearance to what happens in many places with multiple containers of oil at a Chrism Mass.

      1. Thanks Paul

        I like the “three cube” image, and I do admit that for special occasions a table may be added to the front or side of the altar to hold additional vessels. I share your concern about the altar doubling as a credence table. As I celebrate in many different churches as a supply priest, I often can’t control this as I can’t control what the altar servers will do when they are handed the bread and wine at the offertory procession. But I feel like an eejit (as we say in Ireland) any time I am obliged to lift a chalice or patten that someone has already placed on the altar, just so that I can say the prayer to place it there in the first place.

        This being said, I still think that many altars are too small. They are like a crowded stand that are barely big enough to hold what is laid on them.

        A seminary I used to serve in had a cuboid altar of almost identical proportions to the one in Gesù. It was a small chapel and was never used for more than a dozen people, and there I found it to be beautiful (also it was solid black marble, without the lightning bolt as in the Gesù example). But in Gesù I find that it is too small for a biggish church. I agree with a cuboid altar, but I would prefer a bigger cube, if necessary the length and breath of the mensa could be bigger than the height of the altar, but a bigger square would be better than what Gesù currently has.

        And, at the risk of another rant, I think the missal (and missal stand) are too dominant, the mensa needs space so that the Eucharistic Elements have the space to be central. Prior to Vatican II, the Elements were more or less covered by the priest and devotion was centered on the tabernacle or the back of the fiddleback chasuble. Now people should be able to see the Consecrated Bread and Wine, which, incidentally, I think constitute a much better focus of devotion and adoration than a crucifix, that today often blocks the assembly’s vision of them.

  4. What’s missing in the images are perspectives from the non-ministers, even the one from the central aisle. Nobody worships there. I think it’s an easy criticism to say the altar’s too small. But these images give one perspective, and a minority one at that. If the Jesuits here have a common practice of concelebration, then sure, the altar seems small. But for one priest, it looks right to me.

    The ambo has a ramp built into the steps, by the way. Hard to see, but there. I’d assume there’s on at the altar platform. They don’t usually construct these in the front, do they?

    1. Alas, the ambo in the pic reminds me of the statue of John Paul II in front of Termini that I’ve been passing every day this week. I’ll have to meander over to the Gesu to take a peek because I do like how the Italians manage to juxtapose the modern with the ancient.

      They have an interesting exhibition in the Cloisters of Bramante which includes a nice place to view the Ralphael in that jewel of a church, S. Maria della Pace.

    2. Todd, I didn’t see any ramp up to the ambo.

      Regarding the altar, I think that the question has to be, if every seat in the house is full and everyone were to receive under Both Species, can the altar elegantly hold enough vessels without having recourse to the Tabernacle? Obviously the church will not always be full, but most churches are full at least on some special occasions. So in these cases we cannot have the altar looking like a stand in a liturgical objects store. Or even, when matching chalices are not used, looking like a second hand chalice stall at the village fête.

      In this case, I think it is too small. See the picture here from an earlier Mass with Pope Francis presiding at the altar in question:

      https://www.amdgchinese.org/en/2014/01/06/pope-francis-celebrates-mass-at-jesuit-mother-church/

      1. The YouTube video at the bottom of the page is very helpful:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUuOT_rre0w
        (Not only the Eucharistic Prayer, also watch the end of the second reading and the gospel procession.)

        You can see the former placement of things and what they updated. And in that regard, it’s a great improvement.

        And you can see what they recycled, and in that regard, it’s a mixed bag.

      2. It’s rare that a Roman church is full. I’m not even sure they were ever “full with a congregation” in their heyday. Also, only a fraction receiving Holy Communion, maybe 50% at a Sunday Mass, and reception from the chalice is not a thing in the diocese. Reception on the tongue was practiced by 90% of communicants before Covid in the diocese of Rome, at my estimation.

    3. The problem is there are too many churches and too many priests in Rome.

      If every single baptized Catholic in Rome (about 3 million) attended mass this Sunday, at any of the 900+ Catholic Churches, and the roughly 6000 masses offered, the churches would still not be filled to capacity. The only way to see full churches would be to reduce the number of masses to something like one per church per Sunday, regardless of how many priests there are.

  5. Re. Fr. O’D’s comment about missal and missal stand.

    The vast size of contemporary missals inevitably makes them the dominant feature of altars, and if they are mounted on a huge stand this makes it worse. Why must every euchological text be crammed into a single volume?

    My Orthodox friends don’t put books on the altar at all (except for the Gospels) and their ‘euchologion’ is quite manageable.

    AG

  6. Yikes! Not a place I would willingly visit. This idea of moving the altar out of the sanctuary and into the nave mystifies me: what’s it all about? If the congregation are sitting around the altar on all sides then doesn’t that rather fragment their collective experience of the Mass?

    It’s this kind of needless changing of things that gives the liturgical reform a bad name, to my mind.

    1. From my experience sitting in a u-shape creates a greater sense of cohesion in a group than having all face in one direction. It creates a collective experience.

    2. Edward
      Just to clarify. The assembly is not gathered on 3 sides of the altar, everybody is in front.
      The attempt is to make the church better fitted for today’s liturgy and assembly. In my opinion, and this is only my opinion, it does work. I outlined both positive and negative opinions above. But overall I believe that it does work.
      The altar is more or less underneath the centre of the dome, still at the front of the church. It is a few meters in front of the altar rail. It might not be how I would build a new church, but here it is a case of improving on the set up in an old church for the celebration of the current edition of the Roman Missal. I think it succeeds inn this attempt. But as the Romans used to say de gustibus non disputandum est!

      1. Thanks for this. I suppose it’s just that I don’t see why moving the altar out from the sanctuary into the nave improves things, and if there’s no clear benefit I don’t really see the need to make significant changes to a nice old building.

        The churches in my area are typically laid out in the conventional way, with the altar in the sanctuary (though positioned to allow for versus populum), and that seems to work well for the current Novus Ordo missal. There’s one church hereabouts with the altar in the center of an oval building, so the congregation sit around it in a circle, and that seems very peculiar – who does the celebrant/reader address? Confusing.

      2. I think the model of a new altar area in front of the old sanctuary was very in vogue in the 1980s-1990s. On balance it seems to work. I remember two churches, that I had some connection with, adopting this approach at that time, one maybe more felicitously than the other. The advantage is that it avoids the trashing of the old sanctuary, which can be preserved in all (or most of) its beauty and as an altar of reservation still in its place of honor. The disadvantage is that removing several rows of pews to accommodate the new altar area highlights the sad fact that we unfortunately no longer ever expect our churches to be full again!

      3. I confess curiosity about the expression of “moving an altar into the nave.” It seems more accurate to say the so-called sanctuary is moved or extended. A church, be it U-shaped, or having placed the altar at the crossing of the transcepts, under the dome, or such, still has a singular orientation, though a radial one: everybody still faces the altar.

        Maybe traditional-leaning Catholics need a little catechesis on this: Christ is central, not peripheral; we don’t worship a geographical direction, rather, we focus on Christ.

  7. The altar, ambo, and presider’s chair have been around a while. But this new configuration does seem to have finally put them in their proper places.

    Agreed, however, they are a bit too small! The Gesu is the original Baroque church. Always too much going on. Probably the new pieces were designed small so as not to add to the overwhelming sensory input.

  8. Chuckling here. The Gesu is notoriously and gloriously “busy.” The style may be distracting for those of us who have spent most of our lives under the influence of the Bauhaus movement. In my youth, I found the Gesu bewildering and exhausting. But with study and patience, I have come to respect and to delight in the exuberance, boldness, and the abundance of symbols in the genre, which reaches the summit of expression in this magnificent building.

  9. Thank you for this (wonderful to see the changes). The only thing that strikes me as odd is that thr smbo is not up on the platform, but instead in front of it (accounting for the low reading desk implications). I wonder why?

    1. Thanks Lizette,

      I imagine that the arrangement has something to do with not being able to change the fabric of the building or wanting to retain the option of moving the sanctuary behind the altar rail for bigger events – concerns for churches in Rome are not always the same as for churches elsewhere.

      When I attended the liturgy there I thought it worked well and I don’t remember the lector as being at a reading desk. Again, as I was participating in the liturgy, I didn’t feel right taking photos of the various parts of the Eucharist. Hopefully the parish will publish their own photos of the church in use and release some reflections on why they made the liturgical decisions they did (which the sacristan promised me that they are working on).

  10. Not easy to see in the pictures but it looks like a reliquary (?) on a stand has been place in front of the older altar/reredos. If this is so it would mean that there is no option to use that altar.
    In looking up about the Gesu, I discovered that the original high altar tabernacle of the Gesu is in the cathedral of Thrules in Ireland. It is quite something.

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