Unknown Artist, Saint Ignatius Loyola, 1609–22

Carved male bust with ornate gold clothing and pointing to an open, outward facing book

Unknown Artist

(Spanish, early 17th century)

Saint Ignatius Loyola


Polychromed and gilded wood

26 5/8 x 19 1/4 x 13 7/8 in. (67.6 x 48.9 x 35.2 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase, Meadows Museum Acquisition Fund, MM.87.15

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Hear a reading of the object label (1:14 minutes)

Object Label

Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) was the founder of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit Order, which became one of the foremost missionary orders of the Roman Catholic Church. The saint is depicted here holding a book containing the rules of the Jesuits, which emphasized strict personal discipline, missionary zeal, and active engagement in the outside world. The inscription on the base of the work adds a striking historical note: it reads “B. Ignatius,” or “Beatus (blessed) Ignatius,” suggesting that the sculpture was made after Ignatius’s beatification in the Catholic Church (1609), but before he was canonized (1622).

Most Renaissance and Baroque ecclesiastical sculptures in Spain were polychromed, or painted and gilded, to give the work a lifelike appearance and to evoke the presence of the saint. This sculpture, probably the work of several specialists, is an excellent example of this technique. The face and hands are covered in delicate matte tones, while the golden robes glitter with a variety of intricate patterns made by sgraffito, called estofado in Spanish, in which paint was overlaid on gilding, then scraped away to imitate a richly brocaded fabric.

Listen to Meadows Museum docent Howard Vestal discuss this work (2:45 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Unknown Artist

Saint Ignatius Loyola, 1609–22

by Howard Vestal, Meadows Museum docent

Today we’re looking at the work of an unknown artist. It’s a polychromed wood sculpture of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. It probably was made between 1609 and 1622—so it’s about 400-years old.

Polychromed sculptures were commissioned by the church. They’re painted and gilded wood or terracotta. Their purpose was to bring naturalism to the art of the Counter-Reformation. The idea was, common folks could relate better to devotional images that appeared to be lifelike.

Though we don’t know who the artist was, the work’s attribution is Castilian. It’s also the product of a workshop. In this setting, a master artist would guide artisans with specialized skills, such as gilding or painting skin tones.

The historical Ignatius was a Basque native. He served in the Spanish army of Navarre. He had a religious awakening after he was injured in combat. Later, as a scholar

he earned two master’s degrees—one from the University of Paris. There, with Peter Faber and Francis Xavier, Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus. Their foremost mission was Christian education. His enormous legacy is thus the network of Jesuit schools around the world.

As we look at the work we see a bearded and tonsured clerical figure dressed in a fancy, gilded frock. With no sign of emotion, the priest holds open a book with his left hand—we see the exposed dry wood where his abraded fingers grip the pages. We also notice that his right-hand index finger is missing. On the pedestal, we see the letter “B” followed by the name “Ignatius”—evidence that it commemorates his 1609 beatification. The figure’s elegant, gilded cassock thus probably reflects Ignatius’s role as the Jesuit’s first Superior General. Further, we’re intrigued by the book’s Latin text which we translate to read: “Laws of the Society of (the risen) Jesus.” On the opposite page the Jesuit motto, “For (God’s) greater glory,” precedes finis societatis est. Finally, we realize that the priest’s missing finger once pointed cryptically to these Latin words that solemnly proclaim, “(Until) the end of society.”