Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is an important figure in world Catholicism, but appears little-known in Britain, probably due to the break of the English church from papal authority under Henry VIII. His life was not exactly a classic saint’s tale; he started out as a proud and vainglorious man but he later, when living in a cave, found God.
He was born in Loyola, Basque Country, and was the youngest of thirteen children. As a young man he adored the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, El Cid and Roland, who were all strong, secular, very Christian role models, and whose deeds in battle and romance he sought to emulate. Despite his high birth, he was allegedly raised by a local blacksmith’s wife, and was later sent to the court of Castile where he developed a love of swordplay, gambling and women.
It all changed for the tearaway Ignatius in 1521 when his leg was broken by a cannonball at the Battle of Pamplona. It looked as though he might die from his injuries, as the leg would not heal and had to be broken again in order to be properly set. He miraculously recovered on the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (29th July), but was left with a lifelong limp, which he considered to be shameful as it prevented him from wearing the fashionable tight-fitting hose to which he was accustomed.
During his convalescent period, an absence of romantic writings meant that he was forced to read the gospels and saints’ lives, which had a profound impact on his life. He decided to renounce his old life and instead emulate the deeds of the saints of old. With this plan in mind, he went in 1522 to live in a cave at Manresa to, I suppose, find God, which he did. He would remain there for ten months, praying, fasting and assisting patients at a nearby hospice. In his own Luke Skywalker moment (sort of), Ignatius claimed to have experienced a life-changing vision, though never revealed exactly what it was he had seen. After this period of asceticism and repeated attempts to find spiritual peace, he began to believe that his duty lay in the Holy Land, to which he departed as a missionary in 1523.
The Franciscans considered it to be too dangerous to have too many evangelical Catholics running about the Muslim-dominated Holy Land, and de was swiftly sent back to Europe after only twenty days in Jerusalem. Upon his return he feverishly studied Latin and theology in universities across Spain, and afterwards in Paris. He was actually imprisoned for a time by the Inquisition, and later by the Dominicans, who considered his methods overly-zealous and possibly heretical. Following his schooling, he and six companions travelled to Rome and placed themselves at the personal disposal of the pope. In 1540 they formed the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, of which Ignatius was their first Superior General. He died in 1556, probably from a stomach problem he had developed while fasting in his cave at Manresa. He was canonised in 1622. He is the patron saint of the Basque Country, Catholic soldiers, educators and education. His feast day is 2nd August.
St. Ignatius is depicted on a number of V&A objects, of which I’ve shown a couple below.