St. Ignatius Loyola, from the Ratio Studiorum (1606)

Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus

Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"

Book 1

Ludolf von Sachsen, ca. 1300-1377 or 8
Vita Iesu Christi redemptoris nostri ...
(Lyon: Dionysius de Harly, 1530)

The Vita Christi is a devotional work composed by the German Carthusian Ludolf of Saxony in about 1340. It was an extremely popular work in the late Middle Ages, translated into many languages, and was the volume brought to Ignatius (who had actually asked for a work of chivalric fiction to read) while he made a slow recovery from grave injuries sustained at the siege of Pamplona against the French in the Upper Navarra in 1521. Reading Ludolf’s work, Ignatius began a process of religious conversion that led to the abandonment of his older way of life and eventually to the journey that culminated in the gathering of “companions” in Paris that became the Society of Jesus.

Ludolf’s style resembles that of an effective preacher: he creates vivid images of people and places, drawing upon sensory language and lovingly described detail to draw the reader (and listener) into the story in a way that the Spiritual Exercises would do two centuries later. Yet unlike Ignatius, Ludolf recounts his story in a leisurely discursive style characteristic of the time before the printing press when oral communication was one of the primary means by which the content of a text was shared. Ludolf’s Vita Christi was thus the ideal volume for a reader such as Ignatius faced with forced inactivity, yet it would contribute to the spirituality of the relentlessly active Society.

Ludolf’s monumental devotional work also contains the earliest known use of the word “Jesuita,” here signifying someone who has been redeemed by Jesus Christ ab ipso Jesu dicemur Jesuitae, id est, a Salvatore salvati.

The version of the Vita Christi read by Ignatius, who at this point in his career had received relatively little formal schooling, was in Castilian Spanish. The edition displayed here is in the original Latin, but in both format and illustrations is probably quite similar to the book Ignatius knew. The title page woodcuts utilize common details found in Renaissance decorative art, but the rest of the volume contains woodcuts that suggest the medieval origins of the text.

This presentation of the life of Christ, filled with references to Patristic and medieval theologians, reminds us that Ignatius himself was born a medieval aristocrat in a corner of Europe not yet touched by the innovations of the Renaissance, surrounded by the social mores, devotional practices, liturgy, and ecclesiastical symbolism of that earlier world. This world knew little or nothing of the Western Hemisphere or the Far East, and conceived of Biblical events in the context of everyday Western European life. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ignatius, one of the central figures of the era of European exploration and expansion, first experienced the Person for whom the Society he founded was named in this pre-modern context.

Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"Folio 57v of Part One offers the Temptation of Christ as a solitary dialogue in the desert, bereft of any props or scenery. Christ and the Tempter are presented simply and at first glance almost as equals standing side by side facing the viewer. The individual undertakings of Jesuits, scattered in the coming centuries across remote missionary locations, and often characterized by debates and dialogues, are perhaps foreshadowed in this illustration.

The woodcuts that appear throughout the volume illustrate events explicated in the Vita Christi and draw upon representational styles going back several centuries to the High Middle Ages. They frequently employ a kind of visual shorthand to communicate scenes and persons already well known to the reader, thereby allowing the text to communicate the richness of detail that is the trademark of this work.

Each chapter in the Vita Christi concludes with a prayer. In contrast to Ludolf’s discursive prose, filled with asides, quotations, interpretations, and tangents, his prayers are more succinct, rising eloquently to a crescendo. In Ludolf’s day both narrative and prayer would have been read aloud. The prayer following Part One, Chapter 66, reads in part:

O Blessed forerunner and loving Baptist, great friend of Jesus, brightly shining and warmly burning light, pray to God, the father of mercies, for me in my misery, that by imitating you for Christ, so that he may brighten and set aflame my dark and cold heart....

Centuries later, Jesuit schools would perpetuate the use of spoken Latin in dramas, debates, and other public performances. The immediacy of Ludolf’s prose and the grace of his poetry indirectly shaped elements of Jesuit Latinity for years to come. Yet, the spoken Latinity of Ludolf’s work stands in contrast to the models followed by Jesuit educators, not least because the Latin prose that Ignatius learned at the University of Paris drew from Cicero and other classical authors rather than from the Patristic sources and the Vulgate that were Ludolf’s inspiration. This difference is significant, since the Jesuit embrace of the reinvigorated Humanist Latin ideal of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries placed Jesuit schooling in the center of an educational program that rejected medieval scholastic models and sought to keep Latin a living mode of communication.

Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"Detail of fol. 65r of Part One, which illustrates the marriage feast at Cana where Christ turned water into wine. The ewer containing water that is about to be transformed is in the foreground of the woodcut, which typically lacks modern perspective. A single knife lies edgewise on the table to suggest that a feat is taking place, and the artist has arranged the guests so that Christ and several of his disciples are clearly visible.


Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"Detail of fol. 146v of Part One, which shows Christ seated in a small boat teaching the disciples who stand in a crowd on the seashore. Above, in a black night sky, a few stars shine, their rays stretching to create a net of light complementing the nets of the fishermen, a detail not related in the Gospels.


Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"Detail of fol. 1r of Part Two, which presents the most elaborate of the woodcuts with Biblical themes as well as another example of active Renaissance putti gracing a large initial P. The small panels above portray scenes from the life of Christ, from His birth to His deposition from the Cross.  

(Click on thumbnail for larger image.


Thumbnail image from Ludolph of Saxony's "Life of Christ"Detail of fol. 31r of Part Two, which illustrates a scene from the parable of the Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus (the beggar). Dives sits at table while nearby Lazarus seeks entry, and a dog licks one of his sores. What looks like crowding to modern eyes is in fact a typical use of space in a late medieval woodcut, which often had to communicate detailed information in a small space.


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