A 3D cinema in church

It must have been like walking straight into a scene from the Bible. That is how real the special carnival sets were that were set up in Catholic churches from the seventeenth century onwards. RUG art historian Hiske Lulofs researched the sets for her PhD. ‘People had to touch them to make sure they were really just paint and wood.’
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Carnival was the biggest, wildest party in seventeenth-century Rome. To try and distract people from the revelry, the religious order of the Jesuits came up with the Forty Hours’ Devotion.

Beautiful set pieces were designed just for this three-day prayer. They were supposed to lure the faithful to the church.

Art historian Hiske Lulofs researched sets in Rome, Vienna, and South Germany.

On the basis of illustrated and written sources, she deduced that the sets were truly spectacular.

In Vienna, the pieces were used at a different time: the week before Easter, rather than during the carnival.

Reading time: 7 minutes (1,255 words)

The seventeenth-century Roman carnival must have been a fabulous festival. It lasted for days, and everything – everything – was allowed. Drinking, dancing through the streets in masks, fighting; everyone joined in.

Apart from, of course, the clergy. They looked on in horror as people did everything that God had forbidden them. Until the religious order of the Jesuits came up with an idea. During the last three days of the carnival, the Jesuits opened up the church for forty consecutive hours. They figured that people who were praying did not have time give themselves over to abandon.

Of course, the fathers understood that no Roman would leave the best party of the year to go sit in a church pew, and so they had a special trump card during the annual Forty Hours’ Devotion: they decorated their church with complex, spectacular, expensive sets. These sets were meant to lure people inside. Apparently this worked, because the Forty Hours’ Devotion – including its magnificent sets – became a centuries-long tradition.


In Italy, but also in Vienna and Tirol, temporary sets were built to spice up church services until the nineteenth century. RUG researcher Hiske Lulofs researched the set pieces and received her PhD for this research. It is the first of its kind that compares the practices in Italy, Austria, and Germany to each other.

‘I remember thinking how silly it was that no one had done it before’, Lulofs says. For a long time, art historians just sort of lumped all the sets together. Lulofs decided it was time to remedy this. ‘I was mainly curious about two things: How do the Viennese set pieces compare to the Roman ones, and what did the sets truly look like at the time?’

If anyone was going to research these things, it was Hiske Lulofs. In her fourth year in grammar school she wrote an essay on theatre sets from ancient times, and ever since then, she has been fascinated by ephemeral art: pieces that exist for a fixed period of time and then disappear forever. Because that was the fate of most church sets, or at least the Roman ones.


The pieces the Jesuit fathers used to decorate their churches were difficult to make and very expensive – and they only lasted three days. After that, they were broken down and never used again. That is to say, almost never. ‘I found a report by cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, about the Easter celebration of 1700. He wrote that he also had a set in church during the Holy Week’, Lulofs says. ‘It’s very unusual, and he talks about it somewhat apologetically. About how he had the design adapted to make sure it was modest enough for Christ’s suffering.’

Lulofs:  ’If I could meet anyone from that time, it would have to be Ottoboni. He must have truly loved those sets.’ What she means is that he must have loved them as much as she does. Due to a missing vocal cord, Lulofs’ voice is soft. But that does not stop her from enthusiastically talking at length about wings and paintings, popes, perspective, and artists. In the meantime, she is flipping through a stack of illustrations. Blueprints and designs, dozens of them, with which she has attempted to reconstruct what these set pieces looked like (see box).

Catholic concepts

Forty Hours’ Devotion: a kind of marathon church service, during which the consecrated host is worshipped in a monstrance for forty consecutive hours.
Holy Week: the week before Easter. The Last Supper is commemorated on Maundy Thursday, the death of Jesus is commemorated on Good Friday, Black Saturday commemorates the watch over his grave, and Easter Sunday commemorates his rising from the dead.
Host: A host is a flat, round piece of bread offered to worshippers during a Catholic mass.
Monstrance: A holder containing the consecrated host, used to show the host to the people in church.
Holy Sepulchre: The grave Jesus was laid down in after his crucifixion.
Oratory: A religious piece of music for choir, soloists, and instrumental accompaniment.


Unfortunately, the designs pale in comparison to the spectacle the sets must have been. Each year, the Jesuits hired entire teams of craftspeople, with one artist leading them. ‘And they had some really big names’, says Lulofs. ‘Bernini, for example, and Cortona.’

Each year, the sets were made according to a different biblical theme, and Lulofs thinks that was one of the main reasons people came to see them. ‘Each year, people wanted to know what the church had managed to come up with this time.’

What is more, the biblical story was depicted in such a way that it looked like it was happening right in front of you. A 3D movie theatre in church, so to speak. ‘It must’ve felt as though you had walked straight into the Bible’, Lulofs knows from the reports written about the devotional services. ‘It’s said that people had to touch the pieces to make sure they were only made of paint and wood.’

The illustrations are all that is left of the Roman sets, but some of the Austrian and South German sets are still intact. ‘They are clearly similar to the Roman set pieces: pillars on the side, a depiction from the Bible, and above that, the heavenly glory featuring the monstrance and the host.’

Blown over

This similarity is not as strange as it might seem: Lulofs found out that the practice of set building blew over from Rome to Vienna, and from there over to Germany. This is mainly due to Andrea Pozzo, a Roman artist and Jesuit, who spent the last years of his life living and working in Vienna.

But Lulofs also discovered in important difference. ‘The Jesuits tried to instate the Forty Hours’ Devotion during carnival in Vienna, but they did not succeed.’ Even a light version, lasting a mere ten hours, was deemed too long by the Viennese worshippers.

The Jesuits (‘smart, practical men’, according to Lulofs) quickly figured out the problem. The Roman people had their biggest party during carnival, but the Viennese celebrated it much later, during the Holy Week. ‘That means that in Vienna, the Forty Hours’ Devotion takes place during the Easter celebration’, says Lulofs.

Holy Sepulchre

‘For this, they built sets that served a different function, although they looked the same. Viennese set pieces always depict the Holy Sepulchre. Plus, the Viennese set pieces were actually used for performances: they served as the background for oratories.’

The comments made by Pope Pius VI upon viewing the Viennese set pieces during the Holy Week of 1782 show that Rome did not approve of these pieces. ‘Romae non sic,’ he said, contemptuously: that’s not how it’s done in Rome.

There, they felt that the week of Easter should be modest and simple. After all, it was all about death and suffering. Lulofs used Pius’ comment for the title of her thesis. ‘Because in a way, I owe my thesis to him’, she says, laughing. ‘I would’ve had no reason to think that the sets in Rome differed from the ones in Vienna if he hadn’t said that.’

Background image: Johan Pfunner, Holy Sepulchre set in the church in Ettenheim, 1778.



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