Since first seeing photos of Antonio Gaudi’s fantastical Park Guell and convention-shattering Sagrada Familia Church as a college student, I vowed to one day see them in person. Decades later, we visited Barcelona and I burst into tears at the sheer joy of seeing Gaudi’s wild sculptures in Guell Park and the spectacular exterior of the yet unfinished Sagrada Familia. It was a shockingly visceral, emotional response to art that I had never before felt. Since then, I have been chasing art and architecture on all my travels, seeking those moments of sublime response and awe triggered by staggeringly beautiful works of art.
Maybe the traumatic news events of the last few weeks inspired this blog post. Maybe it was the wonderful article in today’s Washington Post by Sebastian Smee who wrote about how he simply “came undone” when he entered the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France. Now, I know I must go there, too. But the best gift of his story was his citing this spontaneous emotional reaction as “Stendahl Syndrome.”
I had to research this and here’s what I learned (thank you Wikipedia). The great writer Marie-Henri Stendahl was so rendered overwrought by his visit to Santa Croce Cathedral in Florence that he nearly had a breakdown. He wrote:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Dizziness, weakness, rapid heartbeat, confusion, hallucinations after exposure to objects or images of great beauty have come to be known in psychological circles as Stendahl Syndrome. And yes, I know it well!
On my second trip to Barcelona a few years ago, I finally saw the finished Sagrada Familia Church’s interior. Inside, columns of light filtered through stained glass windows and scattered shafts of liminal color across concrete pillars and floors that shook me to my core. Wherever I looked, dancing light and bio-mimicking shapes stopped me in my tracks. The crowds of tourists disappeared into a mystical hush of intense reverie.
In Texas, I was floored by the ascetic white building “Austin” on the University of Texas campus that was designed by artist Ellsworth Kelly. The simplicity of his austere barrel-vaulted chamber was broken only by colorful geometric windows strategically placed to inspire contemplation through reflected light that scored the walls with shocks of brilliance.
In Madrid, I devolved into heaving tears at the sight of Picasso’s “Guernica” on the walls of the Reina Sofía Museum. No art history slide show can express the violence and horror of war evoked by this monumental, powerful painting. Seeing it at full scale left me speechless and emotionally plundered.
Nature can also provoke this powerful emotional response. I have suffered–and suffered gladly– Stendahl’s Syndrome staring up at a star-studded night sky on a camping trip; at a drop dead spectacular, blazing orange sunset over the Pacific; and at the endless red torii gates glittering their way through the rain–soaked, bamboo forest of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
There is awesome beauty in this world that cannot be denied or silenced. There are spectacular artworks, sacred places and serendipitous moments that fill us with wonder, make our hearts beat faster or our breaths come slower. Daily, the news reminds us of the ugliness of hate, the despair of poverty and powerlessness, the chill of anger and the horror of violence. Sometimes, it’s hard to get up and face the day.
Maybe we need more Stendahl Syndrome in the world. Maybe we need to “walk in beauty like the night” (Byron) whenever we can. If not for our humanity, then surely for our sanity.