The Frescoed Ceiling by Andrea Pozzo

The frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo is the most famous and admired artwork in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, and it is particularly the reason why there is always a significant queue of tourists at the entrance: they are all waiting to take a selfie with the oblique mirror that reflects the masterpiece of the frescoed ceiling.

However, to better appreciate this work, it is necessary to know its history and understand its symbolism:


Let’s start with the artist who created these remarkable perspective illusions:


Andrea Pozzo

Andrea Pozzo was born in Trento in 1642, about a century after the death of St. Ignatius. He studied in Trento at the Jesuit school and then moved to Milan, where he became a lay member of the Society of Jesus: he took his vows at the age of 23, in 1665.

In Milan, he worked for 2 years on the completion of the Church of San Fedele, considered one of the reference models of sacred architecture of Counter-Reformation art. Then he moved to Genoa, where he encountered the works of Rubens (one of Rubens’ paintings in Genoa features another fake dome), and later he went to Mondovì in the province of Cuneo, where he created his first fake dome, actually a fake drum since the calotte was missing. This first experience led him to think about how to calculate and solve the perspective problem of creating a complete fake dome.

Andrea Pozzo created 8 fake domes in his lifetime, but the most famous one is in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome:

the fake dome by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome


For more information, see the article on the fake dome of St. Ignatius.


There are also various books dedicated to the artistic production of Andrea Pozzo:

books about Andrea Pozzo


But as mentioned earlier, the most admired and well-known work of Andrea Pozzo is the frescoed ceiling of the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome: an immense perspective fresco on which the Jesuit artist worked between 1685 and 1694.


the frescoed ceiling

As in all churches, when the visitor enters, their eye is naturally drawn to the back, to the apse, but as they look up, they are immediately captivated by the astonishment: the ceiling is not there, the vertical space opens towards an open sky filled with angels and allegorical figures:

the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

photocredit: LivioAndronico – CC 4.0 license

The ceiling is huge, and without understanding its key, it can be overwhelming: without a guide, one can get lost in this perspective.

The basic idea is that the ceiling represents the triumph of St. Ignatius, so to fully understand it, one must first know the life of the saint: see the in-depth article on the life and works of St. Ignatius of Loyola.


the triumph of St. Ignatius

The ceiling is (obviously) dedicated to the triumph of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, but at the center of the scene is the one who is at the center of the Christian message: the concentric clouds and the cone of light draw the observer’s eye to the center of the scene, where Jesus Christ the Savior carries the cross, symbolizing his salvific sacrifice for mankind. From the chest of the Redeemer emerges a ray of light that strikes the other protagonist of the painting, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the man whom Jesus has chosen to spread his message of love and salvation to the world.

center of the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome


In turn, from the heart of Ignatius, the ray of light, representing both God’s love and the Christian message of salvation for human souls, is reflected towards the allegorical figures of the 4 continents then known, the places where the missionary work of the Society of Jesus was directed.

The open sky scene also represents the concept of a connection between the earthly and the divine, a connection possible only with faith and prayer, characteristic of the saint, who is at the center of the interaction between God and men. There is no architectural closure for this church: the perspective illusion of an open sky symbolizes that there is no closure between God and men when the interaction is supported by faith.

The angelic figures frame this interaction between God and men. The allegorical figures of the 4 continents are female figures, because they represent fertile land, which is always a female figure; and these figures are in turn surrounded by male figures who ascend upwards or fall downwards, symbolizing the respective behaviors that lead to ascension to the Lord or perdition.


the allegories of the 4 continents

At the corners of the scene are the 4 allegorical representations of the 4 continents then known, the places where the missionary work of the Society of Jesus was directed, symbolically originating from the heart of St. Ignatius, who strongly wanted to direct his religious order towards evangelization and the salvation of souls.

The figures representing the continents are rich in symbolism:



The figure in the corner of the ceiling to the left of the entrance represents Africa: a richly draped black woman with a bright diamond on her headband, sitting on a crocodile whose front paw she holds with one arm.

allegorical representation of the African continent in the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

The diamond symbolizes the precious stone mines that Africa is rich in. And always referring to the wealth of resources is the elephant tusk that the woman holds in her right hand. The crocodile, besides referring to the wild nature of Africa, represents the forces of evil that always attack men from a Christian iconography point of view.
But the man being attacked by the crocodile looks up and resists with all his strength: by resisting, he shows that he is ready to receive the saving message from the Jesuit missionaries in Africa and, with his gaze towards Jesus Christ the Savior, reveals the desire to know God and receive his love (reflected from Ignatius’ heart).

In the African scene, it is also interesting to see the figure of the small angel with a torch, pushing down the man on the other side. This man’s skin is much lighter, similar to that of Europeans, symbolizing the heretics of the early centuries on the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa (like Arius and Nestorius), and the torch symbolizes the true faith preached by the apostles (and now by the Jesuits) that drives out heresy.



The American continent is represented by a robust semi-nude woman with one breast exposed (like an Amazon), adorned with a feathered headdress and sitting on a jaguar. She wields a spear, with which she has just pierced a man who is already falling down, and now threatens another, who seems to surrender.

allegorical representation of the American continent in the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

The jaguar and the parrot represent the wild nature of the Americas, of which the Amazon woman is the anthropomorphic representation. The scene of struggle with the men below her represents the struggle against idolatry of the natives. The mechanism of falling downwards or hoping upwards is the same as the previous scene: only the man who looks towards the Lord and accepts the conversion from idolatry to Christian faith can be saved. Faith, which in this case seems more imposed by violence than by persuasion. Which indeed happened during the conquest of the Americas.

The work of conversion is successful: looking closely near the figure representing America, we see four red-skinned men serenely seated on a cloud and looking upwards; they are serene because they have received baptism and are now aware of being children of God.



The woman representing Asia is dressed in fine fabrics, symbolizing the silks for which Asia has always been famous, and she is sitting on a camel (a symbol of the caravans that brought those silks to Europe). Below her are two men flanking the shield with the name of the continent.

allegorical representation of the Asian continent in the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

The dynamic with the two men is always the same: one has his head turned downwards, and one looks hopefully upwards, but both are still chained. The chains represent idolatry that imprisons man and prevents him from experiencing the freedom that God can give him. The man on the left bows his head, symbolizing the sad condition of pagans. The man on the right looks towards the woman, who in turn looks upwards and points to Ignatius with one arm: this composition signifies the request for Jesuit missionaries to announce the gospel and liberate the Asian populations from the sad condition of not yet knowing the saving message of the Christ Redeemer.

The request is about to be fulfilled: Francis Xavier sits on the clouds above Asia.

Francis Xavier missionary in Asia in the fresco of the ceiling of the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

Francis Xavier was the great Jesuit missionary in Asia.



Finally, the allegorical representation of the old continent: this time, the figure representing it is not just a woman, but a queen, perhaps an empress, wrapped in a precious golden mantle, with a crown on her head, and holding a scepter in one hand. The other hand rests on the globe, symbolizing Europe’s control over the known world at the time. She sits astride a spotted horse, which turns to her, ready to obey her orders. She looks towards the Americas. Below her is a cornucopia, and the usual two male figures.

allegorical representation of the European continent in the frescoed ceiling by Andrea Pozzo in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome

In this case, the symbolism of European power and dominance is evident and easy to interpret. The gaze towards the Americas, where the scepter also points, is interesting: that was where the maximum attention of the European powers was directed at the time. The peoples of the Americas were asking to be evangelized (or perhaps we Europeans have seriously misunderstood, and the indigenous Americans just wanted to be left in peace).

It is interesting that the two male figures below are one with their back turned but well lit, and the other with their head covered and in the shadow: the first has already accepted the gospel (which is why he is illuminated by the Lord’s light), the second still awaits the light of the Christian saving message (or perhaps in this case, too, we Europeans have misunderstood, and those populations were perfectly fine as they were). However, there is no doubt about the potential outcomes of evangelizing non-Christian European peoples: the cornucopia symbolizes that conversions will be plentiful (they were sure they had not misunderstood).

In the cloud above the European queen’s head are depicted St. Aloysius Gonzaga (buried in this church) and Peter Faber (the first of the Society of Jesus to be ordained a priest).


Et quid volo nisi ut accendatur

On the two short sides of the central ceiling are two cartouches with a phrase from the Gospel of Luke written in Latin:

Ignem veni mittere in terram

et quid volo nisi ut accendatur

Which translates to: “I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)

et quid volo nisi ut accendatur

This was a very dear passage of the Gospel to St. Ignatius, and it seems he repeated it to Francis Xavier when he was departing for Asia.

The fire is the fire of faith, and it is a highly symbolic message directed at the Jesuits: it is the spiritual fire of the evangelical spirit, which is the energy that drives the missionary on his difficult journey in often hostile foreign lands; it is the fire symbolizing love for God, a symbol of sacrifice and dedication to the evangelical work, a symbol of reform and spiritual rebirth.

All these messages were primarily directed at the Jesuits.


the message

After all these allegories about the 4 continents and the evangelization of populations that still await the good Christian news, it is quite clear that one of the main messages is the importance of the Jesuit missionary work: it is what comes out of Ignatius’ heart.

But it must also be remembered that this was originally the university chapel of the Roman College, the main cultural training center of the Society of Jesus, where young Jesuits were educated and trained, who would then be sent as missionaries to the four corners of the globe (represented right at the corners of this huge symbolic fresco). Therefore, since the main observers were the young Jesuit students, the fundamental message had to be a motivational and educational message directed at the young Jesuits. Andrea Pozzo painted for them, not to create a nice background for our selfies.

Ultimately, the pedagogical and motivational message was an invitation to study and training as necessary tools to then adequately serve God in the missionary work in all continents: to bring the light of the gospel to all these complex and diverse realities, as diverse and complex as human nature, it is necessary to be adequately prepared through study and supported by the fire of faith.


St. Ignatius Church

Other articles on the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome:



This site is managed independently and is not affiliated in any way with the Jesuit Order, the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the relevant parish, or the Diocese of Rome.
For official information, please consult directly the official sources of the Diocese of Rome or the Jesuit Order.