Standing in front of the Rembrandt’s Night Watch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum was beyond stunning. He was a true master of so many things – If I were a painter I would be mesmerized by the variety of his brushstrokes. Often he will use what can only be imaged as a tiny, miniscule brush to get the splendid detail so characteristic of his paintings, while at other times he seems to use a pallet knife in a sweeping gesture ala the 20th century British painter, Francis Bacon.
Nothing, however, captivates a photographer like light. And Rembrandt’s light is nothing short of brilliant. A basic photography class, or any photography class, should be required to study this painting to understand how light defines form and creates a sense of dimension, as well as defining space and depth in an environment. In addition, Rembrandt uses light to draw our attention to different parts of the canvas as well to tell us the level of importance of the figures. The most important figures are lit the brightest to show us their glowing significance. As the intensity of the light fades, we realize, so do the status of the figures. As they become darker and darker the figures become less prominent in the painting until they are barely distinguishable from the shadows. The light itself tells a story, as it highlights “moments”, a discussion between two aristocrats, a little girl watching them with a distressed look and the men in background loading rifles, beating drums. It is the light that creates this electric atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery.
After a while, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I turned from the painting, the only Rembrandt in the room, and was struck by the dullness of every other painting. As if they were all painted in mud. And flat – no depth at all. Just as suddenly I felt a gripping need to breathe fresh air. I had to get outside. I craved a Coke. It was as if I had a sudden heaviness in my head that felt a little like having a cold and fever. Once Patricia and I were sitting outside, I was gulping a Coke, sucking sugar and caffeine as fast as possible while she poured cold water just as quickly down her throat, and we talked about the experience. She had felt it too. Immediately overwhelmed and immediately exhausted.
We had become afflicted by the Stendhal Syndrome – also known as the art disease, the Florence Syndrome or the “hyperkulturemia.” The cause is exposure to a concentration of overwhelming beauty – such as is found in a museum. It is a documented disease with a wide range of symptoms including anxiety, confusion, and disorientation. The effects don’t last long and don’t require medical attention. They are clearly real, however, and can’t be ignored.
This syndrome was named after Stendhal, the pen name for the 19th century French author, Henri-Marie Beyle during a visit to Florence. In his book titled Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817) he described his experience:
“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.”
Being overwhelmed by emotion is more commonly recognized in other areas, such as sports. I admit, I was an Olympic addict this summer, watching as often as possible. Indulging in women’s wrestling, dressage, mountain biking, archery, field hockey, fencing as well as the traditional swimming, diving, track and gymnastics. Many times, as an athlete won an event he or she was so overwhelmed (with joy? excitement? relief? the undefinable?), they would break down sobbing. Is it that the emotions at that moment are too intense or poignant to actually experience?
When my nephew and his fiancé asked if Patricia and I would officiate their wedding I burst into tears. I had no choice. It was immediate. I was thrilled beyond what I could feel at the moment. What all these situations have in common is the ineffable quality of being emotionally overwhelmed.
During my time with the Night Watch I was held captive, engaged with the mastery of Rembrandt’s technique on one level, but clearly, on another level, I was experiencing the profound and acute power of true beauty. The Stendhal Syndrome does not come on slowly, giving hints as to what is about to happen. It comes on immediately and takes control.
I now understand what Thomas Mann meant when he said “Beauty can pierce one like a pain.” (published by Buddenbrooks, 1900, by Thomas Mann).