‘Exceptional’ show of Italian religious art opens at Fairfield University Feb. 2



FAIRFIELD — Linda Wolk-Simon uses words like “dazzling,” “stupendous” and “exceptional” when she talks about the objects in the exhibition just installed at Fairfield University Art Museum and running from Feb. 2 through mid-May.

And considering the breadth of the 56 elements, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bust/portrait box of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino directly from the Church of the Gesu in Rome, that’s not hyperbole.

“The Holy Name — Art of the Gesu: Bernini and his Age” is a major international loan exhibition for any gallery, much less the small and new Fairfield museum. It was organized to commemorate Fairfield University’s 75th anniversary.

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Fairfield University Art Museum, Bellarmine Hall Galleries, 200 Barlow Road, Fairfield. Exhibition Feb. 2-May 19. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 203-254-4046

Wolk-Simon, museum director and chief curator, used every bit of her lengthy experience, contacts, networking and persistence to turn a modest goal (of something from the resplendent Gesu) into this landmark exhibit. Bellarmino, by the way, was a renowned Jesuit theologian and eventual saint who is buried in the Gesu and is the patron saint of Jesuit Fairfield University.

A Fairfield colleague suggested they request a loan of the Bernini piece even though “that work had never before left Rome. And the chances of borrowing that for Fairfield seemed really, really remote,” said Wolk-Simon in a phone interview. “But I loved the idea, so I decided you kind of have to try to reach for the gold ring no matter how improbable a happy outcome is.”

She worked on putting together an exhibition relating to the Jesuit mother church, the foundation of the order of Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, who came to Rome and started the order in the charged religious and political climate of the Counter-Reformation.

“What a great story — this glorious church that’s one of the most beautiful and important churches in Rome. It’s full of extraordinary works of art. A number of hugely interesting and important historical personalities come on and off the stage in the long story about the eventual building and the decoration of the interior, not the least of which is Bernini himself.”

Wolk-Simon made her wish list, wrote letters and — on one of her many visits to Rome where she does research — went to the Gesu and met the rector, who noted that past requests for a loan have been turned down by the Italian ministry of culture, which has authority. It was suggested she at least get a recommendation letter from the newly elected head of the Jesuits’ Society of Jesus in Rome, to make her case. Which she did.

That basically set events in motion, leading to challenging negotiations, requests for four items from the Gesu (hoping to get at least one, said Wolk-Simon), persistent appeals to reluctant authorities and fundraising.

Fairfield not only secured all four of the items requested but a fifth, an altar furnishing that held the text of a Mass — the three-piece, jeweled cartegloria from the altar of St. Ignatius.

“The frames are spectacular they are dazzling!” said Wolk-Simon of the rare surviving cartegloria.

The Gesu works constituted a jackpot for the art curator at the Jesuit university, and the school quickly came together for funding and other support as Wolk-Simon built on that success by arranging other related pieces of art from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Princeton University Art Museum, which provided a key oil sketch of Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s entire fresco ceiling of the Gesu.

“It really is a miniature version of the ceiling. You cannot borrow a ceiling attached to a great late-Renaissance church but the fact that this monumental model for the entire thing exists” is the next best thing, she said. The model is about 5 feet tall.

Sketches and a painted wood model by Gaulli are also reunited in this show, which Wolk-Simon said is “a stupendous thing, and it’s never been seen with any of his other works of the Gesu. It’s an exceptional moment; it’s never happened before and it will never happen again.”

Wolk-Simon said the masterpieces tell intertwined stories of the church’s early history and foundational chapters of the Society of Jesus.

A striking gold-framed painting by Gaulli, “Vision of Saint Ignatius at La Storta,” shows Ignatius looking up at Christ with cross, surrounded by cherub angels.

“And Christ is as real as Ignatius,” Wolk-Simon said of the painting. “This idea that the worshiper through the process of the spiritual exercises could actually feel that these things were present and real and you could reach out and touch them. Also, the proximity of angels, that’s an interesting subtext. You’ll go through the show and you’ll see angels over and over again. Angels were such an important spiritual agent in Jesuit theology. They believe angels are a constant companion in human life.”