The impressive facade is clearly inspired by the 40 years older Jesuit mother church in Rome: The "Gesu" or Jesus' church, built by Giacomo della Porta. In fact, this then hyper-modern Antwerp church was a new version of the older model. In a Baroque building it is especially the façade that counts. It has to appeal to passers-by. Here, the effect is stronger and more grandiose than in numerous Baroque facades in Rome, since all means available were used.
Balance between vertical and horizontal movement
The warm feeling obtained from the facade is mostly due to the cream-coloured sandstone of the supporting stones and most of the sculptural ornaments. In contrast to the monochrome Baroque facades in Rome, contrast is obtained through the blue stone, used for the constructive, more line-minded elements like columns and pilasters, tympanum and the cornice, plinth and steps.
The strongly profiled architectural tone of form of the Baroque contributes towards the decoration: columns and pilasters, balusters as well as cartouches. Special decorative elements are scallops, festoons, horns of plenty, fruit baskets and masks. The figures of saints and angels also add to the relief. The whole is joyfully crowned by gilded objects like fire pots and candelabra on the covings which flank the cross on top of the central nave, plus there is the big pineapple on the arbour of the staircase towers.
Mary and Jesus
The Jesuit order has its shield at the centre of the façade, attracting even more attention by the contrast of the golden letters on black background. According to the original Greek reading they mean the first three letters of the name Jesus (IΗΣΟΣ), according to the Western Europe Latin version they represent the initials of the commitment to Jesus the savior of all mankind: Jesus Hominum Salvator. No one less than P. P. Rubens was asked to make the sketch. He drew attention to the coat of arms by surrounding it with triumphant playful gliding angels.
Ignatius of Loyola
For the bust of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, we must cast our eyes upwards again. In fact, the Jesuits wanted to dedicate this church to him as the first one worldwide. In the moment of the church consecration in 1621 Ignatius had not yet been canonized, so the Jesuits sought refuge in an official saint. The church was originally dedicated to the Blessed virgin who has a very important role in the spirituality of Ignatius. That is the reason why Mary is seated in the façade frontispiece while the bust of the - for the time being beatified - Ignatius, is underneath it. Nevertheless he was greatly honoured: two monumental angels crown him with a laurel wreath as was done in Roman time. Just one year later he was canonized and at which time the church was named as St. Ignatius' church, the first one worldwide.
The church was built, decorated and furnished over a period of only six years: started in 1615 and already consecrated in 1621.
It was very modern for its time. There are even plans to be seen of a more modern central building, very similar to the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel. Ultimately a long nave was chosen, so that it was possible to address a large public. The three-aisled church with a length of 60m is divided into 9 bays. Both side aisles are exactly half the size of the main nave. It is comparable to a basilica since this kind of style was specific to early Christian churches.
Functional: a didactic room
In order to dispose of a more spacious and beautiful church a timber vaulting was used, lighter in weight, permitting two arcades to be cut out of the walls of the main nave, the curved arches supported by decorative marble pillars, with its two orders, lower Doric, upper Ionic capitals. This construction technique will be much regretted by the Jesuits a century later. When lightning struck in 1718 the burning roof collapsed on the wooden vault. The reconstruction of the basilica of pillars was entrusted to Jan Pieter van Baurscheit de Oude. Three years later the church reopened its (new) doors. However, the old glory is no longer there. Cheap blocks of grey natural stone have replaced the marble monolithic pillars, which were quicker built and were left unpainted. During Restoration done in 1980-83 attempted to reproduce the original pre-1718 interior, by painting the columns white, but it is still a marble imitation.
Decorative: a liturgical Banqueting Hall
The side aisles were completed with a flat ceiling on both levels now decorated with stucco, but originally the ceiling held 39 paintings by P. P. Rubens. The vaulted ceiling with gilded caissons above the apsidal walls is the original one. The whole ceiling of the central nave was identical like that before 1718. J. P. Van Baurscheit de Oude replaced it with belted arches, a cheaper and faster solution of. A new wooden panelling covers the walls of the side aisles.