Architecture and art works

The church is built on an octagonal plan with a compact central body. Given that the pre-existent church of the Saints Michael and Giles was completely demolished, the planners were free from constrictions imposed by any existing building, and were able to conceive the new church with unfettered creative liberty. This accounts for the fact that the façade is situated at a 90 degree angle to the church axis, as the lack of space did not allow raising a proper façade.

Planimetria e opere della chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari

Here we have the first Sardinian building conceived along precise Baroque concepts. Should we wish to identify a prevalent area for the inspiration to the Baroque seen at San Michele, and taking into account the origin of the architects and master craftsmen who infused it with their artistic capabilities, we would have to recognize a strong Genoese and Lombard influence.

Around the central body, there opens a ring of smaller spaces: three communicating smaller chapels, and the two bigger middle chapels; which practically take the place of the transept, an element whose absence is characteristic of most of the Jesuit churches in Sardinia. This solution, typically baroque, made in possible to fuse Latin cross and Greek cross, creating space for a large central body, on which the majestic presbyterial chapel opens, slightly elevated.

Notwithstanding the long time required for the church building and finishing touches (almost eighty years), a unitary design is nonetheless noticeable in space planning, indicative of one homogenous project effort. One has to bear in mind that all Jesuit building projects were subject to the approval of the General See of the Order.

As much as the church was built following the dictates of the “modonostro gesuitico” [“our Jesuit way”], that did not mean that a specific architectural style had to be chosen, but the pursuit of a liturgical funcionality in a context of a spare decorative style.

Facciata della chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari

The façade

As already stated, the wonderful baroque façade facing the present via Azuni (originally named after St. Michael), which represents an unicum in the Cagliari cityscape, is not the façade of the church, but rather of the whole Jesuit complex, being parallel to the church axis. From the stylistic point of view it falls within the canon of Spanish Baroque, with Manneristic nuances.

We find here an echo of retable structure, in masonry, composed by three levels. The first (the bottom one) is made up by three arches opening into a portico [arcade] (protected by an iron railing made in 1893) divided into three spans with cross vaults. The second one is also divided into three parts by grooved Corinthian columns which create three panels, each containing a window, made particularly elegant through its framing by caryatids with draped skirts supporting an architrave with broken tympanum.

At the tympana vertices, three coat-of-arms stand out: on the sides those of the already mentioned benefactors, in the centre the emblem of the Society of Jesus. The acronym IHS appeared in ancient times as the Greek initials of the name of Jesus. Afterwards, during the Middle Ages, its original meaning was lost and the acronym was interpreted as Jesus Hominum Salvator [Jesus the Saviour of Men]. A characteristic specific to the Jesuit context was the introduction of the three nails from the Cross and, sometimes, of the “Heart of Jesus”.

Turning to the right we find the coat-of-arms of Monsignor Giovanni Sanna: a wildboar under an oak tree, and above the oak a bishop’s hat. The coat-of-arms to the left belongs to Dessì and it is divided into four quarters: a goose, a laurel crown, six hearts, a bird with a cartouche in its beak. These insignia are repeated over the big arches of the dome, while Dessì’s appears again over the door leading into the vestry.

Lastly, the top-level, surmounted by a triangular tympanum, offers to the view a niche harbouring the XVIII century marble statue of St Michael the Archangel. It was installed in 1707 by the same workers who made the altar. The statue seems to have come from Genoa (and therefore Spano’s notion that it was made from a marble block found in the area of Tigellio’s house is to be disproven).

Once under the portico, practically a hall, a flight of stairs rising to the right leads into the church through a marble portal (the last decorative element to be installed, in 1752); the architrave is topped by ornamental double-bending volutes, including once again the Jesuit trigramme, systematically repeated throughout the complex not less than 78 times. Obviously the presence of the IHS on the main entrance, besides being a reference to the Jesuits’ mother church, the ”Church of the Gesù” in Rome, is intended to symbolically remind the famous quotation from John, 10,9: ”I am the door, he who enters through me shall be saved; he will enter and exit and shall find pasture” to signify the fullness of life reserved to those who cross the sacred thresholds. To underline this meaning, the same theme is repeated over all of the eighteen communicating doors between the lateral chapels.
On the roof, not open to visitors, there are to bell gables: the smaller one facing the cloister of the ex-novitiate, the other one –recently restored in a perfect copy of the original- contains two precious XVIII century bells rich in Jesuit relief work other than the San Michele themes

Navata centrale della chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari, vista dall'altare

The main body

The central layout is based on an octagon extended to a cross shape, including two major central chapels with altar, opening themselves unto the church central vault, and six smaller radial chapels –three to each side- all communicating and barrel-vaulted. According to Jesuit principles, the main body costituites a whole within which nothing must distract the faithful’s attention from the “sacred mistery” taking place in the presbytery.

The walls are marked by Corinthian parastades, adorned with friezes representing leaves and human figures under an entablature running all around the whole perimetre of the main space.

On the left side, slightly before the main lateral chapel, a magnificent pulpit can be observed (a work by Pozzo) finely inlaid with the emblem of the Society of Jesus.

Just under the fanlights, four finely executed tribunes in golden wood stand out, of unknown authorship. Probably they provided the model for the choir, executed at the end of the XVIII century and located above the entry inner door, decorated in its top part with angels playing a viola and an organ. Here is an imposing organ, earlier deemed to be the work of the Neapolitan Antonio Cimini but recently re-evaluated by studies pointing out strong analogies with organs created in the first half of the XVIII century by members of the Mancini family, also from Naples.


Panoramica della navata centrale verso il presbiterio

Instead, regarding the stations of the via crucis we have no indication to their origin and epoch, while the two walnut wood confessionals came from Liguria.
In some ways, the whole space of our complex is rich in symbolical references, small in size and located high above, which run the risk of going unnoticed. Such is the case of the phytomorph faces and vine branches on the tribunes, sustained by twelve protomes, or the iconographic insertions of capitals and the underneath of arches (particularly elaborated is the intrados above Saint Ignatius’s chapel). All this leads us to believe that many of those decorations are not accidental but correspond to a precise hermetic plan.

Should we investigate the themes underlining the decorations, we would how some of them are repeatedly shown, such as the solar emblems (reproposing the Sol Invictus), the Church Triumphant, the Marian monogram. All these, coupled to the saints’ paintings, the Society’s emblems, the cherubs, suggest some theological principles (struggle between Good and Evil / Christ as light of the world dissipating the darkness of religious ignorance / Man’s final destiny / necessity of redemption and human collaboration). In other words, what emerges is that the iconographic apparatus of the church plays a supporting role to the Catholic arguments in an age in which great importance was given to confuting Protestant positions. Therefore in full accord with what the Jesuit were expressing through ecclesiastical architecture during that specific historical situation.

Presbiterio della chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari

The presbitery

The High Altar was executed in Genoa by Giuseppe Maria Massetti (died 1734) and then assembled and installed in loco by the artist and his help in 1707. It is composed by a marble front delimited by four Solomonic columns meant to evoke an ascensional movement (in total there are 24 Solomonic columns inside the church) and is raised from the floor, being visible from any point thanks to the fact that the open space of the central body does not contain obstacles likely to obstruct the view.
Above the altar we have Saint Michael’s statue (190×88 cm), made of gilted polychrome wood, of Neapolitan school. It is mentioned for the first time in the inventory of 1773 and it shows a late Mannerist character that fuse Spanish stylistical elements with the more popular ones of the artistic environment in Campania.

Michael is represented as a young man armed with a spear with which he stabs Lucifer, who lies defeated at his feet. The scales he is holding in his left hand remind us of another function ascribed to him by tradition: psychostasia.
Supposition holds that it is in fact the same statue made by the Neapolitan sculptor and gilder Giuseppe de Rosa in 1620 for “the church at Cagliari’s college”. Thanks to the prestige acquired by this statue, it was taken as a model for other statues dedicated to the archangel in several Sardinian churches.

The two marble statues set in two niches to the sides of the altar represent instead Saint Joseph with the Child and Saint Anne with the child Mary. Presumably they were installed on site immediately after the altar was finished, therefore in the first half of the XVIII century.
It is to be supposed that both the tabernacle and the steps and baluster leading to the presbytery are the work of Massetti, as well as the marble funerary monument of Francesco Angelo Dessì (1712) located in the presbytery left wall, full of symbolic elements allusive to death and the passing of time.

Tela della Pentecoste di Giuseppe Deris, Chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari

The Fore-Vestry

Past the last side chapel on the left, one enters a wide rectangular space acting as a fore vestry.
As soon as we enter, to the left we find a wash-basin in Manneristic style, with two angels to support a holy water stoup, all of which is surmounted by the emblem of the Society. Along the indications set by the Council of Trent, it should be intended for the priests’ ablutions.

This wide room is made precious by 10 great paintings of the end of XVII century by the Cagliari (maybe with French ancestors) Giuseppe Deris (died 1695) concerning the sorrowful and glorious rosary mysteries. In 1679 he Jesuits had commissioned to him a whole cycle of 15 paintings [one for each rosary mystery]. This is a classic case of didactic art: the images were not intended to appeal to the aesthetic taste of the spectator, but rather to offer him cues for personal meditation. There is no originality in the formulation of the scenes because Deris found inspiration in the tables commissioned by the Jesuit Geronimo Nadal to Flemish etchers (the 153 Evangelicae Historiae Imagines composed between 1570 and 1593, which thanks to the diffusion of printing were exported everywhere by the Jesuits).
Obviously we are dealing here with a form of art observant of the Tridentine principles: no space left to fantasy, catechetic usefulness, possibly in the service of some faith truth. For example, we observe that Deris depicted the Pentecost scene, accordingly to the original, representing the Father and Son while holding the dove wings, from which set forth flames of fire: almost an explicitation of the Filioque, in whose context the Son ( represented with a countenance similar to the Father’s, ie an old bearded man, except for the fact that he holds the standard of resurrection) fully participates in the Father’s prerogatives. In the Deposition from the Cross we find under the frame the author’s signature and the final year of the pictorial cycle: “Originales de Jusephe Deris anno 1681”. The five missing paintings –the Joyful Mysteries- are presently housed in the church of Santa Maria del Monte in the Castello neighborhood.

At the end of this room we find the six wooden statues (some of them only partial, ie with a “manikin” structure, the “dressed statues” of Spanish tradition), representing the Mysteries of the Passion of Jesus Christ”. Presumably, these are not the originary statues with which this procession was inaugurated in 1650; maybe those deteriorated with the passing of time, which would explain the decision of Dessì who, on July 8th 1670, arranged a bequest, destined to the rector of Santa Croce church, to fund some pious deeds over Lent, among which there was our procession. Our supposition holds that most of the first statues were later substituted by commissioning new copies to the most important Sardinian sculptor of the XVIII century, Giuseppe Antonio Lonis (1720-1805), who had his formation in Naples, and was active in Stampace since 1750. His paternity is proven only for two pieces. Nevertheless, with regard to the others without any documentary proof, it is possible that some were even earlier. The statues (used down to this day during the Processione dei Misteri on Lent Tuesday, reproduce the scenes of the Ecce Homo, Christ carrying the Cross (1799), Our Lady of Sorrows (1798), the Prayer in the Gethsemane, Christ derided (this one shows some physiognomic differences, which suggests authorship of Lonis’s disciples) and the wonderful Christ at the column.

Down to the right we find the door richly decorated opening unto the vestry. There we find the painted figures (by Segura) of Christ Resurrected and the Virgin, with the respective monograms. The representations are done according to the theme of the mystic font, very common within the Society of Jesus, and specifically Jesus “font of salvation” and Mary “font of life”.

Affresco del "Trionfo del nome del Gesù" - Sagrestia della Chiesa di san Michele a Cagliari

The Vestry

Since this wing, too, was built thanks to the Dessì donation, his coat-of-arms stands out over the door. The vestry vault was seriously damaged by the bombing raids of 1943, so that several decorations, among which all of the lunettes of the north side, were done again, with excellent results, by Professor Riccardo Bacci Venuti in 1946.
The vestry, built on a rectangular layout, was the last ambient to be built. Starting in 1710, in charge of the construction was the architect and stucco master from Lombardy, Giovan Battista Corbellini, who was active in Sardinia between 1710 and 1723. Among other cases, its work is documented in the construction of the basilica dedicated to the Marthyrs of Fonni. Presumably, he too belongs to the number of very capable stucco masters operating in Sardinia who were natives of the Como area, and more precisely from the Val d’Intelvi.

The vestry is covered by a barrel vault with lunettes measuring about 12 metres by 14. Fourteen stucco putti support, among fruit festoons and gilding, the three frescoed medallions.
This is the rococo masterpiece of Sardinia, most of all thanks to Altomonte’s Triumph in the name of Jesus. The timing of its realization coincides with the years of Habsburg rule in Sardinia. It is obvious how much this work owes to the similar fresco adorning the vault of the Church of the Gesù in Rome. Clearly, the fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli is much more elaborated than ours, which is only a pale and reduced imitation.

However, it still deserves our attention. We cannot avoid to underline that its spiritual centre lays in the trigram HIS, which sits at the summit. Underneath we have, below a layer of luminous clouds, the Church Glorious. In the physical centre of the fresco there appears Michael chasing the demons, disposed in an antithetical position to the Church Glorious. Interested spectators to the scene are some individuals represented on the right on top of a rock shelf. At the centre we recognize St Ignatius (clad in the customary sacerdotal vestment with his knight’s headpiece); to his left is Saverio; besides them we see three unidentified figures, two of which wearing crowns.
Actually, our fresco joins to different themes: the Triumph in the name of Jesus and The Chasing of the Rebel Angels by St Michael. The three medallions in the vault represent three openings in the sky and in the two smaller ones the theme of the cosmic struggle is taken up again. One represents the demons’ fall, the other one the angels’ triumph. It is worth noting –and it is a classic baroque artifice- that the demons being driven out -such is Michael’s force- continue their fall outside the medallion itself.

The vestry walls end in the top part with lunetted paintings (frescoes by Altomonte terminated by 1716) biblical scenes or episodes in which the Archangel Michael is the protagonist, explained by writing contained within golden friezes. On the left side, four Old Testament episodes are represented:

  2. Moses Receiving the Tables of the Law cfr Deut 5 / Ex 20 (S. MICHAEL VICE DEI DEDIT LEGEM HEBRAEIS IN MONTE SYNAI ALAP. IN DAN. 12);

On the two short sides, we find above the entrance (big western lunette) the biblical scene of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert (Gen 21), while on the opposite side a naturalistic landscape is painted, on the right of which there appears a waterfall fed by a small lake, so that the ultimate meaning should be sought in the simbology of gushing water.

On the right side four scenes are represented, mirror-like, of which only one is biblical and the others non-scriptural:

  1. St. Michael Defeats the Devil on Mount Olivet (S. MICHAEL SPU ORIS SUI INTERFICIET BESTIAM IN MONTE OLIVETI. D. THO. IN 2 AD THESAL. 2);
  4. Christ in the Garden of Olives from Lk 22, 43 (S. MICHAEL XPUM IN HORTO MAERENTEM CONFORTAVIT CARTHUSIAN IN LUC. 22).

It should be noted that the Scriptural references given by the author and written in the friezes do not correspond (except in the case of Luke, 22) to the correct biblical quotation. How to explain this obvious dicotomy? We must repeat that a hermetic intent is present in this church which forces us to seek the ultimate meaning of any representation not in the representation itself but in the references and analogies with what the representation is evoking. As indicated by Mrs. Pasolini, it is as if we were invited to read again the scene at hand connecting it with what is described in the biblical reference. The result is rather intriguing, for example in the case of Mary Magdalene doing penance in the desert (a non-scriptural episode described in the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine, a text dear to Ignatius of Loyola); the citation from Num 21 becomes comprehensible if read as an analogy between the Magdalene and the Jewish people in the desert: both had been fed with “manna from the sky” and protected from diabolical snares.

If the extension of Michael’s intervention in episodes where he should not be present can be surprising, so is his absence from the most appropriate scene in Ap 12, which in turn is only a reference back to the episode of the three youngmen saved from the furnace. The connection seems obvious: salvation from the flames by angelic intervention was only a figure of Michael’s victory over the dragon (which is itself represented next to the central fresco).

As for the other “obscure” terms found in the friezes, it should be observed that in the scene of the demon’s chaining in the first lunette on the right, it actually appears on the left side the profile of the Benedectine abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Siena). Here the reference is to a comment by Saint Thomas to the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. In the scene of the shepherd Gargano looking for the bull that escaped, the final citation is referring to the Roman Martirology by Cardinal Baronio who was mentioning this episode. Finally, the only New Testament episode presented is referring to the Carthusian world (and here we can guess a hint to the monk Dionisio Cartusiano, also known as Doctor Estaticus, reported to have been the object of diabolical persecutions).
Another scenografic element always present in the lunettes is the representation of some landscape detail, as in the case of the often used artifice of the two crossed trees, as if to form a natural Cross.

On the vestry’s two side-walls we find, framed within gilted lime wood (frames commissioned in Cagliari in 1713 to a Neapolitan artist, Alessio Truisi) eight paintings representing stories and miracles of Jesuit saints, all of them works by Giacomo Altomonte e Domenico Colombino. They represent: St Ignatius (depicted as a fiery dart gushing from Christ’s heart reaches his own); the helmet and cannon ball at his feet are to remind the siege of Pamplona in 1521, prodrome to his conversion; the dragon on the right hand represents the devil who is trying to prevent it with his underhand tricks (see Autobiography, no 31).

Next to him is St Francis Borgia (Duke of Gandia, portrayed as, already a widower, meditates about giving up all wordly honours); the scene shows him at the coffin of Empress Isabella, Charles V’s wife, a woman at his time famous for her beauty. There follow two more important saints for the Society of Jesus: St Luigi Gonzaga (on a background that reminds of his small rooms in Rome) intent in worshipping a portrait of the Salus Populi Romani, and St. Stanislao Kostka, patron of the Jesuit novices, mistakenly portrayed already in Jesuit attire, shortly before joining the Society while a student in Vienna and fallen ill, because the possibility of receiving the Holy Communion would have been denied to him; to his help, there discends an angelic intervention by intercession of Saint Barbara.

Opposite St Ignatius, we obviously find St Francis Xavier (in the famous and legendary episode of the crab bringing back to him the sacred crucifix lost during a tempest in the Moluccan Sea). Next to him, there appear three of the Martyrs of Nagasaki: Paul Miki, John Soan and James Kisai (who in 1597 suffered martyrdom in the Japanese city at the hands of Emperor Hideyoshi, along with six Franciscans, their fifteen lay help, and two other Japanese guilty of helping them).

Over the entrance we can admire The Massacre of the Innocents (the largest sacred painting in Cagliari). It was touched up after the return of the Jesuits in the XIX century, by order of Padre Pizzi, by one Arui who covered with white draping the nudities present both in this painting and in those of Adam and Eve. The canvas is signed by both authors. Worth of notice is the revendication of originality left by the two painters who claim to be “inventores”, ie. that what was painted was the fruit of their personal inventive power. Just like asserted by Altomonte in the fourth left lunette.

We know that the frame to this painting (the only one not made by Truisi) was commissioned in 1716, and the picture was finished in 1718. The vestry flooring and the marblework installed on the far wall where is located the statue of Mary Immaculate were both executed by Massetti between 1712 and 1715.

The vestry’s furnishing in walnut wood was completed between 1717 and 1720 by a Catalan inlay artist, a resident of Cagliari, Magin o Maxi Segura. The most striking element is the paratora, a piece of furniture on doubel order of shelves which takes up the whole wall. The top doors on the left side show burin-made engraving of episodes of St. Ignatius’s life. That is, from left to right:

  1. Ignatius donating his cloth to a poor man
  2. Pilgrim in the Holy Land being mistreated by a Muslim attendant at the small Ascension temple
  3. Approval of the Jesuit Order Rule by pope Paul III in 1540
  4. The saint’s death

Mirror-like, on the right side we see the raffigutarion of episodes in St. Francis Xavier’s life:

  1. Departure for the mission
  2. Self flagellation in front of the crucifix
  3. Clinging to the tail of a horse
  4. Solitary death on the island of Shangchuan

At the centre of this piece of furniture we find two more scenes representing the Ascension (to the left) and the Assumption (to the right). The other furniture, including two wardrobes, two small cupboards, four kneeling-stools, and two small lateral access doors, offer naturalistic images of vased flowers, alternating with ample decors made as vegetal swirls with fantasy terminations (lion heads, unicorns, cariatids, hermae). All this furnishing reflects the necessity to have furniture which was functional to the liturgical use of the time. As already mentioned, we do not have the original liturgical paraphernalia because of the spoliation which followed the suppression of the Order.

The vestry iconographic offer is finally completed with the Altomonte canvases representing Adam and Eve, situated next to the wooden statue (of Genoese origin) of the Immaculate Conception, symbol of the redemption of Humanity, where the spiritual course begun at the entrance of the church meets its end.

Sacrestia della Chiesa di San Michele a Cagliari