Great art can move us to tears, inspire us, and its beauty can take our breath away.
For some people though, a trip to the art gallery is like experiencing a physical attack. This condition even has a name: Stendhal Syndrome.
Sufferers cannot view art they perceive as beautiful without falling ill. Exposure to art they enjoy triggers a rapid heartbeat and overwhelming dizziness. This often leads to panic attacks and fainting.
Confusion, temporary amnesia, and paranoia are also common in Stendhal Syndrome sufferers. In rare cases, the sufferer experiences hallucinations and temporary madness.
It does not seem to be limited to art. A setting sun, waves crashing in on the shore, or a high and lonely mountain range can all induce the condition.
Thankfully the effects are short-lived and sufferers do not need medical help.
The condition was named after 19th-century French author Henri-Marie Beyl. His pen name was ‘Stendhal’.
At the age of 34, in 1817, Stendhal visited Florence’s Santa Croce Cathedral. It was the first time he had seen Giotto’s famous ceiling frescoes.
He recalled, “Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. I had palpitations of the heart. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
After Stendhal went public with his experiences other cases were reported. People used to call the condition ‘Art Disease’ or ‘Tourist’s Disease.’
In 1979 Dr. Graziella Magherini coined the term ‘Stendhal Syndrome’. She used it to describe the symptoms of many visitors to Florence. These tourists would suffer panic attacks and bouts of madness after viewing famous paintings or sculptures.
Neurosurgeons have argued that novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Marcel Proust also suffered from Stendhal Syndrome.
During a visit to Basel Museum, Dostoevsky suffered textbook Stendhal Syndrome symptoms. His second wife, Anna, explained her husband seemed out of sorts when looking at the painting by Hans Holbein called Dead Christ. The image portrayed Christ after he had been taken down from the cross. Like a deer caught in the headlights, Dostoevsky was overwhelmed by it.
He stood in front of the great work of art, ‘nailed to the spot’, for over 20 minutes. His wife described a look of great agitation and fear upon his face. Eventually, she took the disorientated Dostoevsky by the arm and led him away. He slowly calmed down, but insisted upon seeing the painting one last time before he left.
Great works of art affect us profoundly. Some, it would seem, more than others.
Einstein once said, “Art is standing with one hand extended into the universe and one hand extended into the world and letting ourselves be a conduit for passing energy.”