15th-century Pietá from Ljubljana's original cathedral
The Cathedral or Church of St. Nicholas (Stolnica or Cerkev Svetega Nikolaja) was built at the beginning of the 18th century, following a decision to stop repairing its 600-year-old, tottering, earthquake-damaged Romanesque predecessor. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities probably collaborated in the decision, but the initiative came from a committee of 23 scholars formed in 1693, who called themselves the Academia Operosorum Labacum: ‘the Laibach Academy of Hard Workers’ (Laibach being the city’s name in the Imperial German language). These industrious intellectuals had big plans for their city, which they hoped to modernize and make as much like Rome as possible for a city so much smaller and poorer. They decided that the old cathedral should be demolished completely and a new one built from scratch. This 15th-century Pietá, set in the cathedral’s outside wall, is one of the few surviving relics of the original church.

Andrea Pozzo (1642–1709)
After considering and rejecting a number of plans, the authorities, in 1701, selected a plan drawn up by the Italian Jesuit Andrea Pozzo. He had done impressive work, mainly in Rome, and had a high reputation, primarily as a fresco painter. During the Catholic Counterreformation in which the Jesuits played a leading part, they not only built many new churches all over Catholic Europe, but designed them according to new ideas of how the Church should interact with its members. In earlier centuries, it had been able to maintain its role as spiritual guide and protector — a role that many of its leaders took on more sincerely than skeptical moderns are willing to give them credit for — simply by exercising its power. Those who challenged the Church’s doctrine or authority, or the political and economic power that supported both, were easily silenced. But the Reformation had made millions of converts, far too many to overpower. The Church came to understand that, even within the parts of Europe where the people were still Catholic (as often as not because their rulers — as in the Austrian Empire — had made that choice for them), hearts and minds needed to be won.

Jesuitenkirche, Vienna
The Jesuits, important agents of the Counterreformation, developed a school of architecture and church decoration based on the desire to use all available esthetic and emotional means to support the spiritual experience of worship. The Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, had decreed that religious paintings and sculptures should be used to bring the message of salvation to the illiterate. By the end of the same century, the Baroque style had come into existence. Art historians, comparing Baroque painting and sculpture with those of the Renaissance (out of which they developed), find the new style less complex and detached, more dramatic and emotional, more operatic. If it aimed at promoting intense spiritual feelings, however, there’s no question that the Baroque style also emphasized the power and majesty of the Church (and the many royal and noble courts, large and small, that adopted the style). The grandness and richness of Baroque art carried the Catholic Church even farther in what the original Protestants had considered the wrong direction. If the Counterreformation’s propaganda (‘that which needs to be spread,’ a term that had yet to acquire its sinister modern connotations) had any great effect, it was mainly within the fold. It’s hard to imagine that many rank-and-file 18th-century Protestants could have been won over by such a spectacle as Pozzo’s Jesuit Church (Jesuitenkirche) in Vienna, with its eye-deceiving dome. Despite the appearance of three dimensions, this dome doesn’t extend upward, but is painted on the ceiling.

Ceiling of Sant'Ignazio Church, Rome
Andrea Pozzo had become a Jesuit at the age of 24, having been trained as an artist since the age of 17. He became a lay brother, a term that usually suggests a man who is not ordained as a priest, but serves his religious community by performing menial work. However, the Jesuits also have a long tradition of unordained lay brothers whose role is to provide specialized expertise. (The present curator of the Vatican Observatory is an example.) In the course of his career, Brother Andrea Pozzo designed and painted church interiors, planned church structures, trained students in the arts, and published a highly regarded book on the rules and techniques of perspective that was translated into several languages. He is best known as a master of illusionist painting, a style that depends heavily on a mastery of perspective. Pozzo’s most famous work is this ceiling fresco in the Roman Jesuit Church of Sant’Ignazio, where the allegorical figures (representing Jesuit evangelical work on four continents) seem to float in a space that extends far upward, though everything — even the windows and the light that seems to come through them — is painted on a flat or only slightly curved surface.

South side of St. Nicholas Cathedral
Architecture was more of a sideline with Pozzo, taken up in his later years, and the Oxford Dictionary of Art describes it as “unexciting compared with his paintings and the engravings in his treatise [on perspective].” But although he may not have blazed any new trails, he worked within what was now a well established Jesuit tradition, and St. Nicholas Cathedral is a worthy example, even though its urban setting makes the outside of the building difficult to see as a whole.

Unfortunately, however, he didn’t paint any of his famous frescoes there. According to the tourist info pamphlet, “the press of business elsewhere” prevented him from undertaking this part of the job. Giulio Quaglio, a northern Italian artist who painted in the same illusionist style, was chosen to do it. (He was the son of a fresco painter also named Giulio Quaglio [“the elder”] and belonged to a large family of artists who lived and worked in northwestern Italy, not far from Slovenia, but I couldn’t find out much more about him.)

Quaglio's ceiling frescoes
The pamphlet says that Quaglio worked on the frescoes from 1703 to 1706 (in which year the cathedral was opened) and again, after a 15-year interval, from 1721 to 1723. They look quite lively today, largely because they were restored in 2006, and the Rough Guide is probably right to say that the cathedral really owes its reputation to Quaglio’s work, particularly the ceiling of the nave. The subject of the frescoes is the life and miracles of St. Nicholas, who is the patron of sailors and fishermen. (Ljubljana was once home to a good number of fishermen, a fact that looks odd when you consider that the only sea they could reach by boat was the Black Sea, via the Ljubljanica, the Sava, and then the Danube: a voyage of many days. But the tranquil Ljubljanica and the marshes it ran through must have been a rich source of fish in those days, rich enough to support a sturdy local industry that could influence the dedication of the cathedral.)

The pamphlet also says that “At the site of the present day cupola (from 1841) there used to be another, illusionist cupola based on the Pozzo model.” A different source says, in apparent contradiction, that the large 1841 dome replaced a smaller dome of wood. But perhaps this original dome was invisible from inside the church, hidden from view by the ceiling on which the illusionist dome was painted, presumably by Quaglio.

Statue of St. Florius, a bishop of ancient Emona
Several sculptors also worked on the furnishing of the new Baroque cathedral. One was Angelo Putti, who came to town in 1712–1713 and created large statues of the first four bishops of Emona (the Roman city that once occupied the site of Ljubljana). No one knows what they looked like, of course, but Putti rendered them as robust Baroque-era churchmen, confident in their power and authority. St. Florius looks ready to smack down anyone with the temerity to question either. (The picture is a little fuzzy because I refrained from using the flash in the cathedral, and as a result it had to be drastically Photoshopped.)

The other sculptors include the brothers Paolo and Giuseppe Groppelli, who in 1711 carved angels to adorn the side altars on the left of the main aisle, and Francesco Robba, who arrived much later, in 1745. He built one altar and added angels to the side altars to the right of the main aisle, but he is better known for the Fountain of the Three Carniolan rivers, and some of his many other sculptures in Ljubljana —where he fell in love, married, and resided until his death in 1757.

Corpus Christi altar and angels sculpted by Robba; Adoration of the Magi painted by Langus
The new, larger dome added to the cathedral in 1841 was the work of the local architect Gregor Maček; it was painted by Matevs Langus, who also contributed to the later renovation of the interior done in 1859–1860. This picture shows the “Corpus Christi side altar,” which was created (both the altar and the two angels on it) by Robba. The painting of the Adoration of the Magi was made by Langus a century later.

Main door sculpted by Mirsad Begić, 1996
In the late 20th century, new bronze doors were commissioned for the Cathedral’s two entrances in commemoration of a visit by Pope John Paul II. The main door, on the west side, symbolizes 1,250 years of Christian history in Slovenia in a swarm of images, including Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs, baptizing converts; combat between Christian and Turkish horsemen, and a throng of people being herded into a cave — the latter representing the Slovenes entering the troublesome 20th century. At the top, John Paul II, the first Slavic Pope, looks down on it all.

South door with bishops' portraits
The south door represents the recent history of the Ljubljana diocese (which in 1961 became the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Ljubljana, signifying that the Archbishop is the head of the ecclesiastical province of Slovenia as well as his own archdiocese). The two bishops and four archbishops who have been in charge of it during the 20th century stand or bend in concern over a supine figure that may represent the crucified Christ, or the suffering nation of Slovenia, or possibly both: I wasn’t able to find an explanation. The second bishop in the sequence is Gregorij Rožman, who collaborated with the Axis occupiers during World War II; although he escaped to the US after the war and ended his days in Cleveland (home of the largest Slovene-American community), he continued to be, officially, the Bishop of Ljubljana. Episcopal duties from 1946 to 1959 fell on the shoulders of an auxiliary bishop, Anton Vovk. In 1952 he was attacked, doused in gasoline, and set afire by a gang of what Communist governments liked to call “hooligans” when they were on someone else’s side. Though badly injured, Vovk recovered, at least partially; he never fully got his health back. After Bishop Rožman’s death, Vovk was Bishop for the four years that remained of his life, and during this period became Ljubljana’s first Archbishop when the Vatican promoted the diocese to an archdiocese.

Both doors are the work of Mirsad Begić, a Slovene sculptor whose background is Bosnian. (And presumably Muslim, since his surname indicates that one of his ancestors was the son of a bey — a Turkish title referring to a governor or minor noble. Beg is the usual form in the Slavic parts of the Balkans. )