Awakening Imagination: Glimpses of Ignatian Spirituality in Seventeeth-Century French Hagiographic Theatre


  • Ana Fonseca Conboy College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University


The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) propose an active method of exercising spirituality through meditation, prayer, and imaginative contemplation. Beyond mere spectators, Ignatian disciples are invited to become actors in the scene unfolding in their sensory imaginations, in what Barthes calls the “récit christique” (Barthes 1971, 10). In that sense, the Exercises possess a performative force. The implicit freedom inspired in the exercitant, the person who performs the Exercises, echoes the call to the imagination of the spectator of seventeenth-century French hagiographic drama. Exercises promulgated throughout the four weeks of the spiritual retreat are reflected in the development of the protagonists of some of these hagiographic plays. Our aim is to investigate how the spirit of the Exercises may be present in the conception of the hagiographic corpus. Specifically, we explore these plays for the presence of the suggestion of Ignatian spirituality and practices included in the Spiritual Exercises. Notably, we investigate the prevalence of repetition in Le Véritable Saint Genest (1647) by Jean Rotrou. We also draw attention to the ideas of spiritual and material detachment promulgated in the Exercises and address how they are expressed and lived out by hagiographic protagonists, specifically in Desfontaines’s Le Martyre de Saint Eustache (1643) and L’Illustre Olympie (1645). Finally, we address how a form analogous to imaginative contemplation may have inspired hagiographic spectators to supplement missing visual clues on stage and to become directors of their own internal and personal plays, much like the retreatant in the Exercises, with the ultimate purpose of transformation and a call to action in daily life.

Author Biography

Ana Fonseca Conboy, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University

Assistant Professor, French

Department of Languages and Cultures