A Painting of Heaven

I’ve been reading The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, by James Elkins. It’s worth a read — he covers a lot of phenomenological territory, in pursuit of what seems a very personal understanding of what seeing (as contrasted with vision or sight) is about. Seeing, as he sees it, is a complex ‘metamorphosis, not mechanism’. Unexpected insights in familiar places (he is an art historian by trade, and much of the book deals with how we exploit seeing in our representations of its effects). This from a riff on Picasso’s Women of Avignon:

When a whole crowd turns to see us, we are rooted in place. (Imagine a painting of heaven with everyone, from Jesus to the smallest soul, staring right at you).

I’m trying hard to imagine that, and it terrifies me. There’s a long middle section dealing with Bataille’s assertions about things which &#8216can’t be seen, even though they may be right in front of our eyes: the sun, genitals, and death’, which I’ll come back to later…


  1. from wordspy:


    In 1817, a young Frenchman named Marie-Henri Beyle — better known to us as the French novelist Stendhal — visited Florence and soon found himself overwhelmed by the city’s intensely rich legacy of art and history. When he visited Santa Croce (the cathedral where the likes of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo are buried) and saw Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes for the first time, he was overcome with emotion:

    “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.”

    160 years later, in the late 1970s, Dr. Graziella Magherini, at the time the chief of psychiatry at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, noticed that many of the tourists who visited Florence were overcome with anything from temporary panic attacks to bouts of outright madness that lasted several days. She remembered that Stendhal had had similar symptoms, so she named the condition Stendhal’s syndrome. (When she first applied this name isn’t clear, but it may have been as early as 1979.)

    Note, too, that a similar affliction is the Jerusalem syndrome (1987), which hits tourists who visit the holy city of Jerusalem and are overcome by the mental weight of its history and significance.

  2. note to self: Bataille’s comments vs brakhage’s films — someone much have written about that somewhere…

  3. The prolific Mr Elkins has written Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. There’s a review here

  4. I would really like to know what did Stendhal say when he went to Florence, and saw the Caravaggio for the first time?

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