Lorenzo Gatta

PhD student

Thesis: The carving of souls: Jesuit confessionals in the seventeenth-century Southern Netherlands.

Supervisors: Joanna Woodall and Christoph Frank (Academy of Architecture, Mendrisio, CH)

Advisor: Katie Scott

Funded by Swiss National Science Foundation (Doc.CH in the Humanities and Social Sciences)

My research explores the historical context of the introduction of confessionals in the Southern Netherlands after the Council of Trent (1545–1563). It specifically focuses on the large ensembles of confessionals commissioned by the Society of Jesus in Antwerp, Mechelen, and Leuven during the seventeenth century. Unlike the isolated box-like structures in other European countries, these monumental rows of wooden sculpture are arranged along the entire length of the church’s side walls. Each module has a tripartite structure defined by life-size sculptures of angels, which separate the priest’s seat in the middle from the kneeling stalls for the penitents. This lengthwise arrangement was conceived to accommodate the serial process of the sacrament of penance, in which several confessors would listen on each side to one penitent after the other. By examining theological tractates and historical records, the research will reconstruct the patterns of use of confessionals in their ritual context. My thesis aims to illustrate that these large ensembles were designed for a public performance, thereby revising the commonly held assumption that confessionals contributed to a privatisation of penance.

These newly invented sacramental objects posed a challenge to woodcarvers, who had to devise artistic solutions to comply with the restrictive conditions of the sacrament. Particular attention will be drawn to the transactions between the Jesuit Order, the architects, and the sculptors, in order to relate elements of design to specific liturgical requirements. The research will not only focus on patronage and iconography, but also intends to demonstrate that the technical processes involved in the production of the confessionals were intrinsic to their efficacy in the domain of ritual practice. In relation to this, the thesis will consider how the confessionals profoundly reshaped the performance of the sacrament of penance by virtue of their material properties, exploring their liturgical function through anthropological studies of ritual art.


  • PhD, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2019-Present
  • MA History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2018-2019 – Special option: “Bodies of Knowledge in the Early Modern Netherlands, 1540–1660” – Thesis: “Mimesis as a source of knowledge in seventeenth-century Dutch missionary accounts of South India.”
  • MSc Architecture, Accademia di Mendrisio (CH), 2016-2018
  • International Exchange, Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, Faculty of Architecture, Stockholm (SE), 2015-2016
  • Bsc Architecture, Accademia di Mendrisio (CH), 2013-2015.

Research interests

  • Post-Reformation art
  • Early Modern visual and material culture (especially in the Netherlands)
  • Anthropology of art


  • Doc.CH in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Swiss National Science Foundation, Bern (CH), 2019-2023
  • Stavros Niarchos Foundation Scholarship, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London (UK), 2018-2019
  • Swiss-European Mobility Programme Scholarship, USI, Lugano (CH), 2015-2016

Other professional activities

  • Associate editor, Immediations