Unusual experiences in art galleries

Jeanette Winterson was walking through Amsterdam ‘one snowy Christmas, when the weather had turned the canals into oblongs of ice’. She says: ‘I was wandering happily, alone, playing the flaneur, when I passed a little gallery and in the moment passing saw a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on…What was I to do, standing hesitant, my heart flooded away?…I fled down the road and into a bookshop.’

Winterson was, in a way, possessed by that painting (she doesn’t tell us what painting it was). She received a shock, a jolt, and her inner turmoil was such ‘that I could only find a kind of peace by attempting to determine the size of the problem…I had fallen in love, and had no language.’

Many people have, like Winterson, felt a powerful, even ecstatic response to works of art (Winterson recounts her experience in an interesting little book called Art Objects: Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery). Someone’s even done a survey on it – in 1961, the BBC broadcaster Marghanita Laski asked various people whether they’d ever felt ecstasy, when, and how often. Most replied that they had, not very often, most frequently during sex, walking in nature, or when listening to music, but several ecstatic experiences had also been ‘triggered’ by works of art – one mentioned Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden (pictured below), another, Giorgioni’s Tempest.

Art as ecstatic gateway

The idea that art could be an ecstatic gateway to an altered state of consciousness (divine or otherwise) probably goes back all the way back to the cave paintings found in France and Spain, made some 40,000 years ago – although as there weren’t art historians back then we can’t be sure how our ancestors reacted. Art as divine portal was a deeply controversial idea in early Christianity. The Byzantine church in the 7th to 9th centuries swung from seeing icon-worship as a crucial part of liturgy, to seeing it as heathen or even demonic – didn’t the Bible warn repeatedly not to worship graven images? This dispute was one of the reasons the Roman papacy broke free from Byzantine influence.

Ultimately, both the Byzantine and Roman churches decided that images of God were not always heathen – after all, Christ himself is described as an ‘Imago Dei’. And so, based on the interpretation of one phrase in the Bible, Christian culture took a different route to Jewish and Islamic culture and the way was open for the flowering of western art.

In the modern era, when religious faith started to fade in the light of the scientific revolution, people still looked to art to lift them out of the mundane. The idea of art as ecstatic gateway was particularly popular with a group of artists and thinkers in New York in the 1960s, called the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture. Their members included the mythologist James Campbell; Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art; the art historian Jane Dillenberger; and Paul Tillich, the theologian and art critic.

Tillich served as a chaplain in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the war, he went to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, and saw Botticelli’s Madonna with Singing Angels. He said:

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself. It shone through the colors of the paint as the light of day shines through the stained glass windows of a medieval church. As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken.

Tillich and other members of the ARC hoped modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko could give contemporary viewers portals out of the mundane and into the heart of things – although sometimes, as in the works of Rothko, people felt like a portal was opened only to show there is nothing there.

Art as transporter

What do I mean by saying works of art can be ecstatic gateways? It can easily get slightly wafty when one talks about ecstasy, one’s meaning gets obscured in clouds of incense – but then, if you could describe it exactly, it’s probably not a very ecstatic experience. Let me try to paint some broad strokes of explanation.

There’s an idea in folk myths, which reappears in modern romances by people like CS Lewis, Philip Pullman and JK Rowling, that certain objects have magical properties – they can transport you out of one place or reality and into another. According to one way of thinking, works of art can sometimes do that too. They can suddenly zap you into an alternate reality, without you necessarily consenting.

The ecstatic place that people reach – the clearing, the Zone, the Black Lodge – is described in quite similar ways. Binary opposites are no longer felt as opposite. People feel a sense of eternity and transience at the same time – like when you look on a sunset, and feel it’s an eternal moment, but also ephemeral. People feel a sense of the particular and also the universal, like Walt Whitman seeing the cosmos in a leaf of grass. People feel a sense of the perfection of the cosmos, and also its imperfection and suffering.They feel both taken out of their body, and also somehow more deeply in it than ever. Binary opposites, normally held in tension, briefly collapse into one another, and this collapse feels like grace.

But if the place people go is the same (and it may not be, it’s hard to tell), the gateways by which they get there are different. There is no predictable algorithm of ecstasy, no sure-fire mechanical formula. Colour and light are obviously important, and paintings that are radical in their depiction of light (by Renoir, Monet, Turner or Bellini) are often mentioned as ecstatic triggers. But it’s not predictable.

The reason it’s not predictable is that such moments are encounters between two people – the artist and the viewer – in a particular time and place. The viewer comes to the moment with their history, their cultural expectations, their emotions, and wherever they happen to be that day. And they encounter the artist, their history, their emotions and cultural expectations. Sometimes there will be no spark, and the object is merely an inanimate object on the wall. But sometimes, very rarely, the object shimmers with immanence and a gateway opens. There is a moment of communication, of telepathy – which literally means feeling at a distance. You look into the artist’s mind, and something there also looks into you.

Art as transformer

Such moments can change your life. Art is a transformer. Think of Rilke, in the Louvre, looking on a sculpture of Apollo and seeming to hear a voice saying ‘You must change your life’. My favourite example of this is David Esterly, who I met last year. He was an young academic studying Plotinus at Cambridge, when he happened to walk down Piccadilly with his girlfriend. On a whim, she took him into St James’ Church, to see the altar reredos by the 18th century wood-carver Grinling Gibbons. Esterly stood in front of it, feeling a tingling in the palms and a sense like he is absorbing the work with mind and body, even that he is making it himself.


He comes away thinking perhaps he will write an academic book on Gibbons, but then decides the best way to understand the master is to imitate him, so he teaches himself wood carving, and eventually becomes one of the greatest wood-carvers working today. When there is a fire at Hampton Court and some of Gibbons’ work is damaged (a fire that Esterly saw in nightmares weeks before the event), he is brought over to restore the work. He tells this story, by the way, in his beautiful book, The Lost Carving, which came out this year.

Let The Right One In

Art can possess you, transport you, transform you. Our selves are more porous than the Enlightenment would like to imagine. So you’d better be careful that you that you don’t become possessed by an image that leads you to death (this is basically the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

Today, in the age of mechanical reproduction, we are bombarded by images, invaded by them, every moment of the day, and we often have very little psychic protection against them. Karl Marx spoke of the fetishism of the commodity in capitalism – a commodity is ‘transcendent’, ‘mystical’, ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’. In our economy, a million commodities seeks to possess us with their glamour, often by aping the religious iconography of the past.

Andy Warhol recognised this early on, having grown up going to a Byzantine Catholic church every weekend in Pittsburgh. He recognized that capitalist icons like Marilyn Monroe played a role in our culture once played by icons of Jesus and the Madonna. But do modern icons lead us outside of ourselves, to a richer and more expanded life, or do they close us in on ourselves and lead us to spiritual death?

Modern urban life is such a hypnotic spectacle. To walk through London is to have one’s attention pulled in a million different directions at once. Bus stops wink, shop signs follow us with their eyes. On Facebook, the ads look into you and know your secret desires and habits. After a few minutes online or walking down Oxford Street, I feel have squandered all attention and agency, and my brain lies fizzing like an overwrought computer. I begin to see the point of the monastic cowl, or the modern hoodie – to restrict the inflow of imagery, so that you are not entirely benumbed and can preserve your attention for those images that really matter.


Here’s some further reading / listening on this topic:

Here’s a piece on ‘Stendhal Syndrome‘, or the condition of being emotionally and physically overwhelmed by too much / too beautiful art.

The art historian James Elkins wrote a whole book on people being reduced to tears by art-works, called Pictures and Tears. Here’s a chapter of it, where he talks about his own powerful reaction to Bellini’s Ecstasy of St Francis, and how he feels becoming an academic divorced him from his emotions.

Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions, did a radio programme a while back about crying, which included a visit to see Rothko’s paintings, which often reduce people to tears.

And here’s a rare occurrence – a viewer actually making an art-work cry.

Here’s Jane Dillenberger, one of the key members of the ARC, talking about Andy Warhol’s work.

And here is a fine lecture that Rowan Williams gave on icons and theology, at the Royal Academy.

Have any of you had ecstatic / knee-trembling / eye-watering experiences in front of a work of art? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Unusual experiences in art galleries

  1. The idea of collapse of boundaries seems to me a very accurate description of ecstacy. It is not so much escaping ourselves, as it is often portrayed, but marrying our sense of self with the great vastness of the universe. I have never been great at connecting with the visual arts, but great literature and music have always been able to stop my busy mind and carry me out of myself. Modern icons, or just mediocre art, appeal too much to our ego and superficial thoughts, lacking that connection with what lies below ourselves. Great art seems to be something that is bigger than the individual creator ( for a long time it was done for God) or is produced by that self below (Robertson Davies mentions in one of his books that Picasso could not be said to be responsible for the works of art he produced, that they belong to something outside of his self). If it’s just for money it seems most likely be fashionable, but ultimately forgettable.

  2. Pingback: Ann Taves on religious / ecstatic / special experiences | The History of Emotions Blog

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