Contributed by Jo Groarke

St. Ignatius of Loyola tea bowl and saucer. 18th century ceramics. Photo courtesy: Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore)

One wonders if this porcelain tea bowl and saucer were ever meant to have been used at teatime. The monochrome image and gilt border decorated with a flowering vine suggest their function may have been for decorative purposes, or perhaps for use in a religious context rather than as tableware.

The Inspiration

The original source of this ceramic portrayal of Saint Ignatius of Loyola is an oil-on-canvas by the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). It was painted around 1616 for Il Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuit order in Rome, and is currently on display at the Norton Simon Museum in California.

As there were no portraits of Ignatius made during his lifetime (1491-1556), it is likely that Rubens based his masterpiece on either a portrait of Ignatius as he lay on his deathbed by Jacopino del Conte (Fig. 2), or a portrait made 17 years after his death by Alonso Sanchez Coello in 1573 (Fig. 3). Coello’s portrait relied on plaster and wax death mask casts taken from Ignatius’ face (Fig. 4), as well as personal recollections from people who had known him.*

*Von Henneberg, Josephine. An Unknown Portrait of St. Ignatius by Jacopino Del Conte. The Art Bulletin, vol. 49, no. 2, 1967, pp. 140–142. JSTOR, [Accessed 20 Feb. 2021].

Loyola, 1620-22, Oil on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of Norton Simon Museum

Rubens and printmaking

In addition to being a grand master of Flemish Baroque painting, Rubens also made a significant contribution to the art of engraving and printmaking. His motivations were two-fold: first, to control unauthorised reproductions of his early paintings; and second, to disseminate his work (through print production) to a wider audience. In 1619 Rubens was able to secure exclusive rights to his work, an early example of copyright in reproductions. Following this, he embarked on a largescale printmaking project which helped solidify his international reputation and influence. Rubens collaborated with many engravers and was actively involved in the creative process to produce sketches for engravings. According to Freedberg, “Rubens often made modelli, sketches, after his paintings to serve as the basis for engravings…sometimes the task of copying the original work was assigned to a pupil (or even to the engraver himself), and Rubens would then correct or alter the preliminary drawing by retouching it himself; sometimes the preliminary drawing would be entirely by his own hand”.[efn_note]Freedberg, David, Peter Paul Rubens: Oil Paintings and Oil Sketches [Catalogue with Essay of an Exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery], Gagosian Gallery, 1995, p.81. ResearchGate [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].[/efn_note] This is supported by the MET, “The working drawings for these prints were often carried out by the printmakers themselves. However, in some cases Rubens corrected or retouched them with pen and ink or gouache”.[efn_note]Plomp, M., 2003. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641): Works on Paper. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].[/efn_note] The Getty Museum elaborates further: “Rubens closely supervised the copying of his work, avoiding artists who tried to impose their own ideas and styles on the reproductions, and encouraging printmakers to imitate his painterly effects”[efn_note]Plomp, M., 2003. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641): Works on Paper. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].[/efn_note]

One renowned copperplate engraver engaged by Rubens to create prints was Schelte A Bolswert. Bolswert’s engraving of St. Ignatius (Fig. 5) was made in the decade following the completion of Ruben’s oil painting. It is Bolswert’s engraving that provides the iconographic source for our monochrome porcelain.

Life of St. Ignatius

Figure 5. Saint Ignatius Loyola, 1623-33. Engraving by Schelte Adams à Bolswert after Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, Siegen 1577-1640 Antwerp). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

St. Ignatius is an important figure in the world of Catholicism, he played a pivotal role in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and founded the Jesuit order. However, his life did not follow what one might consider the traditional path to sainthood to be. He was an accomplished sinner long before he became a saint.

Ignatius was born in Loyola in the Basque area of Spain in 1491, he was the youngest of 13 children and a member of the aristocracy. In his early life he was influenced by heroic tales of bravery in battle and romance. It was these stories he sought to emulate in his own life and, at the age of 18, he became a soldier. By all accounts, he was known to brawl, sword fight (usually after drinking), gamble and womanise. Indeed, Ignatius might be the only saint with a documented police record for ‘nocturnal misdemeanors’[efn_note]Parmach, R., n.d. A Very Brief Sketch of Ignatius of Loyola | About Our Ignatian Heritage. [Accessed 29 January 2021].[/efn_note], in today’s vernacular night-time brawling with intent to cause bodily harm. It was a criminal charge which ultimately led to his imprisonment at the age of 24, along with his brother Pedro.

In 1521, the 30-year-old Ignatius suffered serious injuries to his legs when he was struck by a cannonball at the Battle of Pamplona. One leg was so badly set it had to be re-broken and realigned. Doctors advised Ignatius to prepare for death as his condition deteriorated. Incredibly he recovered from his wounds but was left with a lifelong limp. While recuperating, he had access to only two books: the gospels of Christ and the lives of saints. These books had a profound impact on his thinking and mark the beginning of his spiritual conversion. He emerged from convalescence intent on dedicating his life to God.

So began a life of extreme asceticism and prayer. In 1522 he went to live in a cave near Manresa, northern Spain. Here he prayed, fasted, and wore the sackcloth of a pilgrim for approximately ten months. In Manresa, Ignatius experienced a spiritual enlightenment. His autobiography, narrated in the third person, describes what happened on the banks of the Cardoner River:

He did not have any special vision, but his mind was enlightened on many subjects, spiritual and intellectual. So clear was this knowledge that from that day everything appeared to him in a new light…From that day he seemed to be quite another man, and possessed of a new intellect.”[efn_note]Loyola, I., 1555. The Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola. p. 13 [online], [Accessed 3 Feb. 2021].[/efn_note]

Ignatius shared his experience with others through his autobiography and a collection of meditative practices known as ‘Spiritual Exercises’, considered a classic work of spiritual literature.

In the 16th century it was difficult for an unschooled layman to teach religion. Ignatius was called to present in front of the Spanish Inquisition three times and imprisoned for teaching religion before he had completed his studies. Later he was imprisoned by the Dominicans, who considered his methods to be unorthodox.

Determined to continue studying for the priesthood, Ignatius moved to Paris. Here he befriended the first companions, Francis Xavier, Peter Faber and others, who later helped cofound the Society of Jesus. Following his ordination in 1537, Ignatius and his companions travelled to Rome to place themselves at the personal disposal of the Pope. In 1540, and with the pope’s approval, Ignatius formed the Society of Jesus better known as the Jesuits.[efn_note]A name originally meant to mock Jesuits for their frequent use of the word Jesus but one which they happily adopted.[/efn_note]

Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation

Rubens depiction of St. Ignatius is a significant artwork. In addition to being visually commanding, it is a good example of the art produced to oppose the spread of Protestantism across Europe.

The Protestant Reformation is generally recognised to have started in the 16th century when Martin Luther revolted against Rome, papal abuses and the sale of indulgences[efn_note]Indulgences provided Christians a pardon for their sins for a fee.[/efn_note] by the Church. It was a movement that splintered Catholics across Europe. The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter Reformation, using various strategies to strengthen the belief of their faithful.

One strategy used the newly formed Society of Jesus, headed by Ignatius, to counter the Protestant movement. Another strategy encouraged artists to make the religious experience more accessible to the average churchgoer through paintings and sculptures. Art was to be easily understood and strongly felt by the common people, designed in such a way so as to strengthen worshippers in their belief.

Rubens artwork was fully adapted to the Counter-Reformation movement, he quickly became one of the most effective spokesmen for Roman Catholicism. Rubens excelled at creating theatrical art with a focus on the heroic and emotional aspects of the lives of saints. He presents St. Ignatius as a Christian hero, reaffirming Catholic teaching at a time when Protestants were rejecting all aspects of honouring saints.

Paradoxically, the ‘innocuous’ looking image on our tea bowl and saucer is a copy of 17th century Roman Catholic propaganda art.

‘Encre de chine’ or ‘en grisaille’?

Around 1740, monochrome enamels became fashionable. Sepia or black enamelled porcelain formed part of the specially commissioned or private export trade from China. It acquired a family name, ‘encre de chine’ or ‘en grisaille’, much in the same way polychrome porcelain decoration developed into families.

En grisaille’ is a French term: Gris means grey. It describes a monochromatic tone of grey-and-white or sepia. Similarly, the term ‘encre de chine’ describes how decoration is applied to Chinese export porcelain using black or coloured ink so the finished design imitates an engraving.

There are so few ceramic pieces bearing the portrait of St. Ignatius it is thought they may come from a single table service set. Other examples of this pattern can be found in the Museu de Sao Roque who describe the decoration as ‘grisaille (encre de chine)’.[efn_note] n.d. Museu do São Roque — Colonial Art. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 February 2021].[/efn_note] The Rijks Museum notes the decorative technique on the cup and saucer in its collection as ‘encre de chine’[efn_note]

Rijksmuseum. n.d. Bell-shaped cup and saucer with an image of Ignatius de Loyola, c.1740- 1760. [Accessed 4 Feb. 2021].[/efn_note], while Christies’ describes a similar bowl as ‘grisaille‘ and rather ingeniously ‘gilt Loyola‘.[efn_note] 2011. A rare grisaille and gilt ‘Loyola’ teabowl. [Accessed 4 Feb. 2021].[/efn_note]From this we can infer these terms are sometimes used interchangeably when describing porcelain decorated in this way.[efn_note]Rijksmuseum. n.d. Bell-shaped cup and saucer with an image of Ignatius de Loyola, c.1740- 1760. [Accessed 4 Feb. 2021].[/efn_note]

Religious devotional objects or commercial merchandise?

According to the National Heritage Board of Singapore’s database ROOTS, it was “European missionaries and patrons [who] commissioned” monochrome ceramics from Chinese potters. Romantic, mythological and religious black and white engravings were taken from European books brought to China by visiting Jesuits, ‘European missionaries’. As a result, this type of ceramic ware also became known as ‘Jesuit porcelain’ or ‘Jesuit china’. It was a fad that lasted over forty years from 1740-1780.

Beurdeley and Raindre question the label ‘Jesuit porcelain’ given the difficult political climate for foreigners in China during this period. They are of the opinion that commissions for en grisaille ‘came from shrewd European merchants who sent engravings to China through the great importing companies’.[efn_note]Beurdeley, J. and Raindre, G., 1987. Qing porcelain. London: Thames and Hudson, p. 208.[/efn_note] Jörg agrees that en grisaille with religious depictions was ‘commercially ordered’, noting “any connection with […] missionary activities in China is highly speculative and not supported by documentary evidence”.[efn_note]

Jörg, C., 1989. Chinese Export Porcelain: Chine de Commande from the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels (30.11.89-27.2.90). Hong Kong: Urban Council, p.160.[/efn_note]

Western portraits and scenes on Chinese ceramics required special care and were expensive. Dutch merchants operating in Canton advised the VOC that ‘European painting or figures cost twice as much as Chinese.'[efn_note]

Beurdeley and Raindre, p. 208.[/efn_note]

From the original to the copy…

The Asian Civilisation Museum’s ceramic tea bowl and saucer depict Ignatius wearing a chasuble and standing before an altar. He is identified by the opening words in the book he holds in his left hand: ‘To the Greater Glory of God’, the Latin motto of the Jesuits. His right hand is raised as he looks upward at an appearance of the letters ‘IHS’, a contraction of the Greek word for Jesus. Ignatius’ halo reminds us of his sainthood.

Neither Bolswert’s engraving nor the depiction on the tea bowl and saucer succeed in capturing the energy, drama and emotion of Rubens’ original painting. Fine detail, like the tears flowing from Ignatius’s eyes in a moment of religious trance, is missing.

Similarly, the page from the book Ignatius holds in his hand (The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus) is reduced to only the four opening words. There is an overall lack of finesse on the ceramic ware, the facial features are poorly-defined, even cartoonesque. This is supported by the Jesuit, Pere D’entrecolles, who remarked “Porcelain decorators [in 18th century Jingdezhen] depicted human figures feebly”.[efn_note]Finlay, R., 2010. The Pilgrim Art, The Porcelain City. [Accessed 10 Feb. 2021].[/efn_note] Beurdeley and Raindre agree that engravings ‘were mechanically copied without any preconceived idea of what they represented’.[efn_note]Beurdeley and Raindre, p. 208.[/efn_note]

The gilded vine border may be religious or simply decorative. Vines are frequently mentioned in the Christian bible and symbolise Jesus (in John 15:1, Jesus says, “I am the true grapevine”). Likewise, Rinceau, stylised vine with leaves as a border was a popular ornamental decoration during the 18th century. Its adaptability as a motif allowed artists the freedom to fill empty spaces. Up-close, the poor decoration brings to mind unsophisticated mug and plate memorabilia, the type of commemorative merchandise purchased before a royal wedding. The Museu de São Roque has a larger collection with the same Loyola pattern and notes they were probably made to commemorate the bicentenary of the foundation of the Jesuit Order in 1741 and sold as collectible curiosities. Ironically, Martin Luther is depicted on a teacup and saucer (also thought to have been produced for a bicentenary), strategically placed next to St. Ignatius in the ACM’s Christian Art Gallery. It is unlikely Chinese potters knew they were reproducing ceramic images of great figures at polar ends of the Christian theological spectrum. In summary, it would be difficult to describe the ACM’s Loyola tea bowl and saucer as ceramic fine art. However, it is a good example of chine de commande with a religious depiction, commissioned by European merchants and sold, at a profit, to European customers as commemorative memorabilia almost 300 years ago.

A pdf of this article can be downloaded here.