St Ignatius and Companions

One artwork which strikes every visitor to Campion Hall is the dramatic polychrome high relief group of Ignatius and Companions: unmissable, since it is to the right of the door in the front hall. This was a gift from Maurice Wilkinson, a medieval historian at St John’s College, Oxford. Father D’Arcy tells the story of how it got here in his essay on art at the Hall, ‘Treasure Hunting’, ‘Among the lucky finds, I must count the large 17th century Spanish carving of St Ignatius and his first companions. I was to catch the after lunch from London to Southampton and then board a liner to New York [in 1937]. Sir Edwin Lutyens was at the time engaged on his plans for Campion Hall, and he lunched with me before setting out. While waiting for lunch he pulled a photograph out of his pocket and said that a friend of his (Mr Maurice Wilkinson), to whom the original of the photo belonged, felt it ought to be in a Catholic church or institution. Did I think it would suit Abp. Downey and the new Catholic cathedral in Liverpool for which he had prepared plans. To my astonishment I saw a carving of St Ignatius unusually beautiful and with his first companions so clearly delineated that the first two Jesuit cardinals were even visible. I immediately told Lutyens that the obvious place for it was Campion Hall, and he not only agreed but took care that it could be fitted into the wall in a suitable spot. (This is the first and major art work that greets visitors to the Hall)’.

The statue is datable to between 1609, when Ignatius was beatified, and 1622, when he was canonized. This kind of hyper-real polychrome statuary is distinctively a creation of Spanish baroque culture. Sculptures in the round were often processed through the streets on religious feast days, while high relief sculptures such as this were positioned on altars; for example, Francisco Ribalta’s Christ Embracing St Bernard of Clairvaux, made for the prior of a Carthusian monastery circa 1624-7. It is reasonable to conjecture that Ignatius and Companionswas made for the altar of a Jesuit church. Very few such pieces found their way to Britain, and we have no information about how or why Dr Wilkinson acquired it, though we have cause to be grateful that he did.  

The painting of such sculptures was a highly specialised craft. There were two methods of encarnación, painting flesh tones: the first was polimento, producing a glossy finish, the second, mate, or matt, which was pioneered by Francisco Pacheco in Seville, who worked with the sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés. Pacheco, who wrote a treatise on painting, advised that polimento‘is good to use over bad sculptures because the shininess and brightness of the encarnación diminishes defects.’ However, it tended to mask ‘the expressive carving of good sculpture’, for which mate was more suitable. With this technique, the wood was coated with glue-size and several layers of gesso and white lead, sanded down to smoothness, and then primed with a mixture of white and ochre.  Two of Pacheco’s painted statues, a St Francis Borgia (1624) and St Ignatius Loyola (1610), are good comparanda for Campion’s Ignatius and Companions since all three use mate:  he has applied darker shades of brown to the base coat on St Francis Borgia to emphasise the shape of the nose and thin cheeks, with a touch of warm carmine red on the upper cheekbones, eyesockets, lips and the tip of the nose; while a combination of relief and colouring define important details like the eyesockets. A minute fleck of white on each iris helps to bring the eyes to life, while he also applied eggwhite varnish to the eyeball area only; ‘if everything else is matt, the faces come alive and the eyes sparkle’. 

The face of Ignatius is of exceptionally high quality, though the Companions are more coarsely treated, suggesting that several sculptors and painters worked on the piece, with special care given to the head (it was perfectly normal for such sculptures to be made from several pieces of wood subsequently jointed together). Like Pacheco, the painter has used a little brown and carmine to model contours. But Ignatius’s eyes are emphasised using a slightly different approach to that of Pacheco; the lash line of the upper lid is painted dark brown, and the inside of the lower lid is carmined, which gives a very lively effect. But the eyeball is not varnished, and there is no white spot to give the iris a sparkle. The light beard and eyebrows are realized through skilful use of paint, whereas Pacheco’s St Ignatius’s facial hair is achieved by a combination of paintwork and relief carving.

The actual appearance of St Ignatius in our statue is based on his death mask, preserved in the Gesù in Rome, from which plaster casts were made: one such was owned by Pacheco.  Despite D’Arcy’s optimistic identification of (presumably) the two foremost, bearded, kneeling figures, the faces of the Companions show little individuation, and all have the same style of curly brown hair: Cardinals Francisco Toledo (created 1593), and St Robert Bellarmine (1599), both wore their beards in distinctive shapes and had straight facial hair, but the two bearded kneelers have identical short curly beards, and there is no attempt to individualise the faces. 

The figures’ robes are painted to imitate brocade, in a technique called estofado, which combined gilding, painting, and texturing the surface for very rich effectMontañés and Pacheco used estofado for a Virgin of the Immaculate Conception which they made for the parish church of Nuestra Señora de la Consolación in El Pedroso, which is draped in blue-and-gold brocade similar to the robes of Ignatius.  

The iconography of the image is interesting, and possibly unique. The medieval type of the Madonna della Misericordia, in which two angels hold up her voluminous cloak to form a protective mantle over a group of worshippers, was known in baroque Spain: for example, Francisco de Zurburán painted a Virgin of Mercy of Las Cuevas (1644/55), in which she stretches out her arms in benediction over two groups of kneeling Carthusians.  But the type was also generalised to other protective figures in the seventeenth century; for example, a Belgian engraver, Schelte Bolswert, for example, produced a Saint Augustine as Protector of the Clergy in 1924, just as the anonymous designer of our carving has done with Ignatius and his new Society. 

The statue provides an interesting moment of dialogue between Jesuit tradition and Oxford. Whereas a traditional college might display paintings of founders, Campion Hall greets its visitors with two images; an oval painting of St Edmund Campion of unknown date, possibly Italian, and this sculpture, an image of the first Jesuit society, and a masterpiece of Spanish baroque of a kind seldom found in England.  Foundational figures in quite another sense, balancing the Hall between Oxford, represented by Campion himself, who was not only a Jesuit but an alumnus and former fellow of St John’s, and the wider Jesuit world.

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