Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus,” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, 1601
When Stendhal, the 19th century French author, visited Florence in 1817 he became so overwhelmed by the city’s glorious art that, overcome by a surfeit of visual splendor, he had a temporary psychological breakdown. He’s not the only one to react to extreme beauty in this way. Art lovers have found being in the presence of tremendous beauty so moving and emotionally taxing that they’ve suffered confusion, tachycardia, dizziness and hallucinations in art museums frequently enough for psychiatrists to give a name to this cluster of responses: Stendhal Syndrome.
Tourists occasionally experience breakdowns while overcome by the beauty of Botticelli‘s paintings in the Galleria degli Uffizi or at the foot of Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Some are sent to Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital‘s psychiatric ward for evaluation. The syndrome was named in 1979 after an Italian psychiatrist observed more than 100 cases among tourists in Florence. Apparently American tourists are not known to suffer the syndrome as Europeans do; some say that perhaps this is because as a culture, we don’t experience the same immersion and attachment to masterworks of art as Europeans. As a rule, Europeans believe we derive neither the ecstatic joy in being surrounded by profoundly beautiful and important masterworks, nor the psychological trauma of being overwhelmed by it. When they find an American who is deeply touched by their heritage and art, most Europeans are surprised and delighted. I have found that many will go out of their way to help a visitor enjoy immersion in their glory.
Most U.S. tourists visiting Europe simply lack the frame of reference and familiarity with European art and history that Europeans have, and without such a frame of reference there is less build up of anticipation or depth of understanding, and these are the underpinnings of emotional reaction. Faced with the exhaustion of travel, the unforgiving pace and the breadth of new experiences that most packaged tours provide to Americans overseas, the majority of my compatriots can be forgiven for being too numbed and overwhelmed by the fatigue and novelty of European tourism for great meaning to sink in. It’s not that emotional reactions to beauty and meaning are lacking in our makeup, but that most of us have simply not been exposed to either the depth or breadth of art historical experience and understanding that many Europeans enjoy. This is, of course, partly because of our physical distance from the majority of masterpieces of Western art, and also because of the relative novelty of our national history and treasures.
While the U.S. has many European masterworks in museums, one must make an effort to visit them. We are not surrounded with them as most urban Europeans are. Turn a corner in any major European metropolis and you may find that treasure troves of art and architecture await you. In Italy especially, the sheer volume of exquisite historically and artistically important works is staggering. In Rome or Florence, it seems as if nearly any random block offers a world-class repository of culture to rival anything Americans could muster. One city after another (not to mention little villages and gorgeous hill towns) boasts ancient treasures, Roman monuments, priceless works of every kind. So it is no wonder that people steeped in stories and photos of such masterworks who enjoy and remember their history should be overwhelmed when immersed in the glories of Europe’s cultural centers.
I have never had a nervous breakdown in a museum (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I have several times been moved to tears and wonderment before a work of art which I have studied and loved from afar. Here is my favorite example.
When I was 21, my mother and I spent several hectic weeks traveling through the art centers of Italy together in honor of my having completed college. For both my senior theses (I wrote one for my history major and my art history minor) I wrote on art historical subjects. One essay was on 15th century Florentine architecture; the other compared the impact of different sources of patronage (e.g., Italian popes, Spanish monarchs, Flemish churches, Dutch merchants) on the styles and subject matter found in works painted or sculpted by major 17th century Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish artists.
I took night school classes in Italian, since Mills College didn’t offer that language, to enrich my art historical studies. When I went to Italy with my mother two months after graduation, all my art historical research and Italian language studies were still fresh in my head, and I was aching to see all the pieces whose photographic representations I’d spent four years swooning over. I had been to Italy on multi-country package tours of Europe in my teens, but this time we were focusing on one country alone and spending days on end in magical cities where we had enough time to seek out the tinier churches that tours usually missed. We were women on a mission.
My mother was as crazy for 16th and 17th century art and architecture as I, and as determined to cram as many masterpieces into our free days as I was. On one swelteringly humid July day in Rome, she and I visited so many churches we lost count. We crisscrossed the city on swollen legs and blistered feet, determined to get one more painting in, view one more astonishing Bernini sculpture, admire another set of volutes or one more baldachin or another monument or reliquary or crumbling edifice. At last, dehydrated and aching, we dragged ourselves into Santa Maria del Popolo in search of a painting neither of us wanted to leave Rome without seeing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.
We hobbled all around the church looking for the chapel we sought, so overwhelmed by pain and fatigue that we had to poke each other to make sure we admired and appreciated the other masterworks all around us. Then we walked around a corner and into the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo only to find St. Paul lying on the road to Damascus before us. The painting was darkened by time, covered in dust and obscured around the edges by layers of cobwebs. With one of the greatest paintings anyone will ever paint before us, enormous, filthy and exquisite, we simultaneously burst into tears and hugged each other in relief and delight. This painting alone was worth every blister, every step, every night of study, every set of endless marble steps we had climbed throughout the city for six long, hot days.
Finding my way to this painting distilled all I love about art into one perfect moment, just as Caravaggio distilled all that was important about Paul’s conversion into one perfect image. For Caravaggio, the moments of most pathos and meaning come when holy figures are brought down to their most elemental humanity and humility. He humbles Christ, the Virgin Mary (whom he painted as bare- and dirty-footed and swollen in death) and St. Paul in his paintings to bring their essential humanity closer to us, so we see that as we are now, so once were they. Unlike someone like Rubens, who elevates powerful human beings to lofty heights, Caravaggio brings holy personages down to the human level so we can empathize with them and love them in a more completely human and heartfelt way.
As painted by Caravaggio, Saul becomes Paul while lying in the dirty, dark road, nearly trampled by his oblivious horse. He is literally knocked off his high horse and blinded so he can be humbled enough that his soul might be exalted in times to come. My experience in making my way to the piece was similar on a small but meaningful scale; my little pilgrimage exhausted and humbled me so that in the midst of all the glories around me after days of being bombarded by the endless masterworks of Rome, I could still be touched profoundly by one old, dusty and perfect painting.
Other works of art have moved me to tears, but I think no first moment with any work of art can surpass the joy I felt in the perfection and purity of that moment with that work of art. Unlike Stendahl in the Uffizi Gallery, I did not need to fall to the floor with arms outstretched in my ecstatic moment. Paul did that for me in his eternal ecstatic moment on the wall of a dark Roman chapel.
[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]