September 7, 2021

When Art Could Literally Kill You

The Basilica Di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

I have been reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Dreamer Trilogy, a real fun fantasy series about Dreamers, people who can bring anything they make up in their dreams into the real world, and the Moderators who want to wipe them out to prevent the end of the world. In the trilogy's second installment, Mister Impossible, there is mention of the Stendhal Syndrome, which totally peaked my interest. Hence this post.

It's amazing how many new syndromes I learn about reading fantasy fiction (the last one being the Marie Antoinette Syndrome which I discovered while reading House of Hollow), eh?

Anyway, the Stendhal Syndrome is named after the French author who described his intense reaction to the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817, whose beauty nearly gave him a heart attack:


"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." (1)

Symptoms include dizziness, tachycardia, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, ... visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid persecutory delusion, and depersonalization disorders. Basically, the person finds him/herself so overwhelmed by the beauty of the art, that their brain's completely overwhelmed and short circuits.

Quite intense, huh? 

Three hundred years prior, Florence had hosted three great artists at the same time: Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli, and their fingerprints have been left all over the city. But it is not the only place that has similar effects. Dr. Hiroaki Ota noticed similar reactions to Paris, while Dr. Bar-El coined the term Jerusalem Syndrome for the same symptoms experienced by people in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Freud himself "wrote about severe feelings of alienation and depersonalization upon visiting the Acropolis of Athens, and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced severe paralysis, and absence when faced with Hans Holbein's Le Christ mort au tombeau in Basel, Switzerland." (2)

Arias, MD, draws is even further, stating that "[e]cstatic epilepsy shares symptoms and mechanisms

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

with orgasmic epilepsy (spontaneous orgasms in the course of epileptic seizures), musicogenic epilepsy (epileptic seizures triggered by listening to a certain musical piece), and also with Stendhal syndrome (neuropsychiatric disturbances caused when an individual is exposed to large amounts of art) and some autoscopic phenomena (out-of-body experiences that occasionally take place in imminent death situations). In all these events, there are pleasant and affective symptoms which have a great impact on patients." (3)

Curioser, and curioser. And also a little scary... don't you think?

PS: I am really enjoying Mister Impossible (in fact, the whole trilogy, though only the first 2 books are available as of the date of this post), for those of you who are into YA urban fantasy stories--it's got great characters, lots of actions, and really great descriptions (and for one who's not that much into descriptions of places in general, that's saying a lot)!


(1) Wikipedia article on the syndrome

(2) Stendhal Syndrome: a clinical and historical overview 

(3) Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena.

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