Who Painted Out the Pope?

How did a print become a painting, and in one deft stroke, turn a Jesuit allegory into an anti-Jesuit manifesto? In Religious Change and Print 1450-1700, the Newberry debuts a newly conserved artwork that is part print, part painting, and all mystery—for we can only speculate on the intent behind a brown smudge appearing in the scene’s lower right quadrant. Who committed this act of censorship? And what motivated them?

This little-known engraving, titled Typus Religionis, (or Model of Religion), seems to be unsigned and undated. Originally produced from two massive copperplates in black ink on white paper (together measuring some 2 by 3 feet), this impression was pasted onto a sheet of canvas, brightly colored, varnished, and mounted, making the final object look very much like an oil painting. While painted prints were commonly available in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the unusual use of varnish suggests the owner of the engraving wished to display the work as a painting on a wall, rather than store it as a print. Thus the print itself effectively became a painting.

This was intentional. Indeed, the print reproduces an allegorical painting made for the Jesuit College in Billom, France between its 1556 founding and the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in 1762.

On the massive central ship appear several Jesuit priests, including Saint Ignatius of Loyola (with a glowing Jesuit emblem in hand), overseeing other founders of Christian orders (Saint Francis, Dominic, etc.). These luminaries shepherd the Christian faithful across the stormy, satanic seas to the Port of Salvation on the left. People of all ranks and walks of life appear in the hapless rowboats below the main three-master, all patiently awaiting Jesuit assistance.

Both the painting and the Newberry's painted print suggested the benevolence of the Jesuits and their worldwide mission. So far, so good. But this positive interpretation would not last.

Confiscated in 1762 by French authorities when they closed the Jesuit College, the original painting is now in the Hôtel de Soubise, Paris. Another early reproduction (about 1.5 x 3 feet) based on the painting suddenly appeared in 1763 with a strong anti-Jesuit message across the bottom. It was commissioned as documentary evidence of Jesuit arrogance in the trial the French government waged that year against the Billom Jesuits to support their imminent expulsion from the country. It stands to reason that the Newberry’s painted print was made, mounted, and illuminated significantly earlier, well before this backlash.

Unlike the painting and 1763 print, the Newberry’s version has Ignatius facing a different way, and includes fewer figures. While the sky is less cloudy, the waves are much wilder and more dramatic. One particularly painterly addition isn’t a wave at all, but a brown circular mass oddly positioned inside a boat at the upper right (next to the angel steering the vessel).

We don’t know exactly when this censoring detail was added, but we can guess the identity of the figure lurking beneath the paint. Looking at later accounts of the trial of the Billon Jesuits, it seems that the French government’s biggest objection to the pro-Jesuit painting wasn’t so much its portrayal of the power of the Jesuits, but the helplessness of everyone else. Most notably, the trial commissioners were “scandalized” that the Pope wasn’t commanding the main ship of Christianity himself in the painting.

Rather, he was pictured nonchalantly paging through a book in the rightmost rowboat in the midst of the chaos. Indeed, in the Newberry’s painted print, this detail has completely disappeared under swirling brown paint. The Pope has been censored!

Further technical examination in the Newberry’s Conservation Lab may confirm if the obscuring patch was applied beneath or above the varnish layer, which would help determine a time frame and a motive for the alteration. It seems likely that the Newberry painted print started life as a colored version of the Billom painting with pro-Jesuit connotations. Perhaps it was even owned by a Billom graduate. Only later, once the painted print had changed hands, it may have received its papal makeover—an act of protest against the Jesuit visual mistreatment of Rome!

These thematically intertwined, hybrid paintings and prints are closely connected to the changing interpretations of the iconographies they presented. Even though it was once produced in multiple impressions (of which the Newberry’s may be the only survivor), the painted Typus Religionis has taken on a unique life of its own.

The Typus Religionis will be on view at the Newberry from September 14 - December 27, and then available for consultation in the library’s special collections reading room. Unless, of course, we’re looking at it under infrared lighting in our Conservation Lab!

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt, George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts