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  • Johannes Scott


Walking through the Church of the Gesù in Palermo feels like one has a bird’s eye view on the totality of the morbid drama of Baroque culture.

The interior presentation has a similar working to that of montage in film theory. It is as if scenes are lifted from both earthly and heavenly life and stitched together in episodic form. The effect is overwhelming and intended to entertain the public with popular revelations. Moreover, Baroque aesthetic has performative function that nurtures the subliminal inner voice of devotees.

Under Spanish rule, the church was built by the Jesuits in the late 16th century on the edge of Palermo’s Jewish Quarter. With the help of hundreds of artists and artisans, the significant construction began in 1590 and was completed in 1636. Also known as Casa Professa, the aesthetic representation of Chiesa del Gesù signifies as most important Baroque church in all of Sicily.

By patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, Baroque aesthetic was constructed with ideological intent to counter Protestant rivalry.

Protestant Reformation was a peasant orientated revolt against the opulence of the Pope and his flamboyantly decorated saints. During the militarised Reformation, Protestants occupied the churches of the Holy Roman Empire and stripped its interiors of artistic representation, which it saw as a false form of mediation to God. This revolt against surplus value compares to the fundamentalist ideology employed in 2001 when many historical artifacts were destroyed in Afghanistan.

To counter the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire invested in the construction of more impressive, more sophisticated Baroque churches – employing more artists and artisans and refining the performative intent of Baroque culture. These new, larger than life, ceremonial structures and temples compare to the ideological intent employed by Classical Greece – to consolidate centralised power and to invent new, imaginary forms of cultural mediation between bare life and mortality.

By contrast, the destructive force of fundamentalism aims at eliminating mediation; the fundamentalist always claims to have direct access to God and the supernatural.


Baroque culture is driven by an obsession with death. This morbid reality is mediated by the imaginary world of artistic representation and consolidated by the experience of ceremonial fantasy. For the devotee, this experience coordinates desire for a symbolic alternative to mortality.

Baroque culture indulges in an extravagant festive orientation, presenting its audience with psychic pleasure through ceremonial participation. One can see and experience this performative orientation in the organisational structure of the church interior.

At one’s feet, throughout, skulls are integrated into the beautifully designed marble floor. On the side, wall mounted marble relief scenes of horrific torture and suffering, seemingly every day social experiences, are juxtaposed by serene scenes of feminine beauty and innocence. Looking up, a sculpted cupid draped around the neck of a lion rips out the heart of a vicious demon character and holds the blood-dripping trophy up as sign of victory. Contrasting scenes of dream and reality interlock in startling detail and dramatic intensity. Imaginary depictions of beauty through ugliness and life through death exemplify fantasy as mediator to the unwarranted real.

The architectural layout of the church is in the shape of a Latin cross; the nave reserved for seating Mass. On the altar side of the nave and transept cross, flanked by the ambulatory, is the choir and within ancient wooden crates, the pipe organ.

Baroque music deviated from Renaissance form by establishing a strict limit to rhythm, dissonance, and polyphony. During Mass, the unified harmony of the Latin choral chant and organ music set a tone of serenity intended to arouse affection and veneration for the Baroque cause.

The nave is flanked on both sides by arcades and intersected with spaced columns and arches leading to chapels. The individual chapels are used for private functions such as weddings and baptism.

The chapels also hold tombs and relics such as fragments of bones and skull of interned saints. In one of the chapels, a funeral urn contains the heart of a Sicilian viceroy. In another chapel, displayed on a mantel, a silver reliquary with glass windows conserves the embalmed forearm of a venerated saint. Dismembered at the elbow, the fingers on the hand each have an ornate golden ring below the knuckles, some larger and more extravagant than others.

Notably, each Chapel is flanked by an ornate, timber confession booth where, behind a drawn curtain, one can make intimate confessions to a priest who is seated, unseen, in an adjacent compartment.


In its performative function, Baroque convention succeeded in redefining the aesthetic experience of its Catholic subjects by focussing on the eye as organ of pleasure.

Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments, already theorized more than a century earlier that matter itself has no allegorical meaning. What he meant is that the association between signifier and signified is arbitrary and conventional. This view radically opposes that of mysticism and metaphysics, where matter is seen as keeper of essence, and embedded with intrinsic, inherent value.

Aquinas’ theory implies Baroque aesthetic has dialectic function. While the Baroque devotee is captivated by the optic display in the church, the eye is guided by desire for explicit symbolic meaning. But desire is an ongoing movement, an impossible promise, and in the face of a lacking, receding symbolic order, the optic eye retreats to gazing. Looking awry at the totality of the optic display, the gaze is lured by the fantasy of subliminal participation. Subliminal fantasy mediates the devotee’s desire for Baroque symbolisation.

Walking through the Church of the Gesù is an overwhelming, optic onslaught; Baroque design is a restless, intense montage of dramatic complications.

The tense lines running through the design detail has no central point of rest, the eye is always lured outwards to some desirable beyond. It is as if something is always hidden, right in full view. One is not arrested by some established, signified totality. Instead, one is always drawn along by the desire to complete the lacking signifier.

Take for example the relic of the venerated saint’s embalmed arm. By convention, the embalmed body part is never observed as magical, or grotesque Thing. The relic is never observed directly, with the scrutiny of an objective eye. Looking too closely, at the Thing, in search of symbolic meaning is incomprehensible, and can only lead to pain, hurt, and horror. Instead, the relic can only be observed by subliminal mediation.

When I stood in front of the relic, and came too close, I felt myself compelled to take a step back and get a more safe, distant view. The reason for this retreat was that I saw my own reflection in the glass casing of the reliquary, looking back at me. I saw an indifferent tourist with a back-pack and camera in hand, looking too closely at the diamond studded, gold rings on the fingers. I negated the perversely vulgar idea of theft, the selfish gluttony of snapping away with my camera for shock value. But once I got some distance, my gaze of desire mediated for this performative task at hand, the promise to reply with writing this literary essay about Baroque.

For the Baroque devotee, there is certainly another image of reflection in the glass casing, one that answers to the inner voice of serenity or venerated sacred heart. Either way, it would be a subliminal reflection mediated by the context of the placement of the reliquary within the symbolic order of the Baroque church.

Sublimation is linked to the death obsession in Baroque culture. By convention, the death drive is not perceived as destructive, instead, its aesthetic representation is seen as performative will to create, and to reinvent from ground zero.

Johannes Scott – October 3, 2020.

* Below are pictures of other Baroque inspired churches visited in Palermo: Oratory of Santa Rosalia; Church of Santa Ninfa dei Crociferi; San Giuseppe dei Teatini.


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