Finding Truth in Spiritual Space: A Comparison of Andrea Pozzo’s Counter-Reformation Church and James Turrell’s Quaker Meeting House

by Kathryn Bowne, Independent Scholar

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. —Plato, “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic

Conceived through an investigation of the 2011 Venice Biennale, titled ‘Illuminations’ and coupled with an analysis of the expanding curatorial interest in creating thematic dialogues between works spanning centuries, this article explores the juxtapositions curator Bice Curiger set between the works of the Renaissance master, Tintoretto, and the contemporary Light and Space artist, James Turrell. Focusing on the analogous use of light, perspective, and illusion, Curiger equates Tintoretto’s three works The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, the Creation of Animals, and the Last Supper, to the same level of modernity as Turrell’s The Ganzfeld Piece.

The comparison of works, which Curiger displays together in the exhibition, demonstrates the ability the artists have in granting the viewer access through the act of distinguishing a truth or reality; through the guise of simulacrum the viewer’s optical perception is tricked resulting in journey to the realm of spiritual meditation.[i]

This article seeks to explore and understand such use of artifice to lead to a spiritual enlightenment for the viewer by comparing spaces of similar objectives—churches. Grounded in a similar cosmological vernacular, a comparison between Andrea Pozzo’s seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation church and James Turrell’s contemporary Quaker Meeting House offers a study of works by artists’ intent on creating a constructed realm of spirituality through illusion and the interplay of light through natural phenomena versus artistic skill.


Both works are representative of the artists’ respective zeitgeist, allowing them to serve as clear determinants of skill and intent based on the viewers’ ability to comprehend the appropriate meaning. Constructed as an access point through the liminal experience provided by crossing the threshold or physical transition into a spiritual institution, the architecture in each work functions as intermediate realities between the viewer and their religious beliefs. The familiar iconography is therefore activated by the cunning skill of the artists replicating or framing nature in using the tools of trompe l’oeil and quadratura to awaken the perceptive participation of the viewer.

In critical theory, the act of placing importance on perception and awareness of one’s senses to create an experience is considered phenomenology. Focusing on the optic or cognitive senses, this article explores aesthetic and perceptual modes of the philosophy, and closely follows philosopher Edmund Husserl’s thought that ‘ “fiction” makes up the vital element of phenomenology,’ which is based upon the apprehension of what is understood.[ii] One must also consider Richard Wolheim’s analysis in stating, ‘if a picture represents something, then there will be a visual experience of the picture that determines that it does so. This experience I call the ‘appropriate experience’ of the picture.’[iii] In extending this concept, scholar Susan L. Feagin explains, ‘the appropriate experience is defined both in terms of its phenomenology and in terms of artists’ intentions. Phenomenologically, the experience has two aspects, the configurational and recognitional. Through separable logically for the purpose of analysis, they are fused phenomenologically in an experience that has, as it were, its own gestalt.’[iv] Both artists implement different uses of trompe l’oeil to establish an ‘appropriate experience’ for the viewer, as they come to question the reality of what they are seeing, in which forces the act of examining the art for a truth in the image opposed to the artists’ illusion.

In order to aptly build a comparison between the phenomenological experience of works by Pozzo and Turrell, which span centuries and artistic movements, one must define the modes of spiritual thought respective to dates of the buildings’ executions. In Fra Andrea Pozzo’s Jesuit Church of St Ignatius in Rome, (1691-1694) the viewer is absorbed by the visual propaganda of the Counter-Reformation. Following the Council of Trent and acting on thought from the Medieval period as a foundation in the religious movement, the Counter-Reformation sought to reform and systemize the meditative form of mental prayer.[v] Artists were tasked with depicting the stories of the theologian and founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius of Loyola, and how the order’s mission spread God’s glory through the world while cleansing the church of idolatry.[vi] These painted allegories acted as invitation or direction to a spiritual transcendence.

Using the image of St Ignatius, author of the Spiritual Exercises, soaring upwards to the heavens, the Counter-Reformation viewer would have been made aware of the concentration on senses in perceiving spirituality. His words in ‘On the Bodily Senses’ state:

About the five bodily senses the same order will be kept, but changing their matter.            Whoever wants to imitate Christ our Lord in the use of his senses, let him in the            Preparatory Prayer recommend himself to His Divine Majesty, and after considering on each sense, say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. And whoever wants to imitate Our Lady in the use of the senses, let him in the Preparatory Payer recommend himself to her, that she may get him grace from Her Son and Lord for it; and after considering on each sense, say a Hail Mary.[vii]

Guiding meditation through asking the reader to be aware of their senses, St Ignatius attempts to build the experience of transcendence. Responding to this, Pozzo tries to accomplish the same mission by providing clear instruction through the senses in a full assimilation of the optical phenomena.

With a deep understanding of the Jesuit mission, Pozzo codified the “Jesuit style” through his depiction of the Glorification of St Ignatius (1685), which decorates the long single nave of the church. Flanking the illusion of Heaven in the barrel-vaulted nave are the personifications of the four corners of the known world to which the legions of missionaries were sent. The tumbling figures reach out to the viewer, creating a vertiginous effect of the vault lifting from the architecture and into the heavens while also including the audience in the missionary journey depicted. In the center, the saint is welcomed into paradise by Christ and the Virgin Mary. Describing his work, Pozzo states, ‘In the middle of the vault I have painted the figure of Jesus, who sends forth a ray of light to the heart of Ignatius, which is then transmitted by him to the most distant hearts of the four parts of the world.’[viii]

The Glorification of St Ignatius
The Glorification of St Ignatius

Concurrent to the execution of the Church of St Ignatius, the Religious Society of Friends was founded in England as an alternative practice of Christianity. Varying in aesthetic language and rejecting iconography or depiction of imagery in its environments, Quaker meeting houses offer spaces of light and nature to guide personal meditation. Raised as a Quaker, or ‘child of light,’ James Turrell equates light to religion. ‘This is going into meditation and waiting for the light to come…It had to do with spirit, spirituality, thought…’[ix]  Rejecting the dramatic style of the Baroque, but intrigued by the all-encompassing luminosity of Gothic Cathedrals, Turrell focused on the metaphor of light in spiritual spaces. Thus, the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston, Texas, completed in 2000, offers a transport to spiritual guidance though the flooding of light in the space which is familiar from the liminal experience of the cathedrals.

Comparative to St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, also wrote about the task of personal meditation to find the ‘Inner Light.’ He believed that the meeting houses offered an ‘opening’ of the mind to lead one to God, thus the space should be void of distraction, giving the ability to locate oneself in space.[x] Also, comparing to the allegory of St Ignatius spreading the word of God, the Quakers similarly believed that there was a light in God, that was then brought to his followers as the soul takes flight in meditation.[xi]

‘It is what the eye of the soul seeks as it looks upward towards the truth. In our world truth is impossible, and what we experience as light is something different, the transitory and imperfect copy of the light that never goes out. In the ideal world God, truth, and light are the same.’[xii]

Significantly smaller than the scale of the Church of St Ignatius, the Friends Meeting House is one cubic room lined with oak pews and a slight semi-cylindrical ceiling vault with a large square opening to the actual sky. The continuum of space offered by the raw sky furthers the metaphysical association with the cosmos as the natural light floods the single room, bringing the viewer into the same realm. The use of light and illusion as an aesthetic language in the realm of the spiritual offers the same instruction to the Quaker viewer as did the iconography of St Ignatius to the Counter-Reformation viewer.

Both artists not only utilized the iconography of their respective religions but treated perspective as a medium in their practice. Since the development of systematic perspective in the Renaissance, artists have been able to create volume on two-dimensional planes. In the seventeenth-century artists began to incorporate the built architecture of the building into the picture. Disrupting the personal boundaries of the viewer, Pozzo designed a scheme in which the figures amongst the built architecture are proportionate to the viewer. Floating between the realms of physical and liminal dimensions, the figures invite the viewer to be part of the continuum of space.[xiii] The geometry in the perspective attempt to place the viewer within the environment is called quadratura.[xiv]

In deluding one’s senses through the geometric trickery of creating a dome on a flat surface, Pozzo successfully fools the viewer through the use of quadratura. Originally planned to have a massive dome, the architectural plan was changed after the neighboring Dominican monks complained the structure would block the natural light in their library, Pozzo was thus commissioned with the challenge of creating a dome on a two-dimensional plane. To the seventeenth-century Christian viewer, the dome was considered an aiding device in establishing the liminal space of a church, allowing Pozzo the ability to use a depicted architectural language already familiar to the viewer. The false windows shed a volume of light through the painted pilasters supporting the dome’s coffered ceiling. Depicting the saint’s accession, the painted figures are aided by the words ‘ite, omina incendite et inflmmate,’ or ‘Go, set the whole world on fire and in flame.’[xv] The combined elements resulted in fooling the viewer’s ocular perception.

Copula of St. Ignatius
Copula of St. Ignatius

A pioneer in this illusionary use of perspective, Pozzo was aware of the psychology of experience through creating a dimension between the aesthetic and religious boundaries of self, and the “subservience of self,” and offers the question in the study of where ‘you’ end and something else begins.[xvi] To accomplish this, Pozzo created an optimal vantage point marked by a yellow marble circle on the side of the nave. From that point, the viewer turns into a participant through a forced comprehension of the dome. In his writings, he states ‘All that is unpleasing now will become pleasing, and where there is now a flat ceiling, I will make a cupola.’[xvii]  Confirming the role of illusion as a vehicle of a perceptive experience, Pozzo also states, ‘no viewer leaves this church without having become aware that the covering over the crossing is two-dimensional painting. The effect of discovery is thus the inevitable second part of perception, virtually an ironic response and repudiation of one’s first impression.’[xviii]

Trained as a perceptual psychologist, Turrell focused on the ‘perceptual concepts of space,’ in creating his light filled environments void of a concrete sensory reality.[xix] Similar to the effects of Pozzo’s use of quadratura, Turrell explores the semiotics of the Quaker faith in constructing an illusionary and intermediary atmosphere where one is forced to focus on the self.   Turrell states, ‘My work is about how we construct reality. The real illusion is that we aren’t aware of how we give reality to things. We have awarded them concreteness of reality and are unaware of how we have done that.’[xx]

The perspective which Turrell creates in establishing a minimal horizon line between the architecture of the ceiling cut and the sky produces an atmospheric phenomena in which the natural sky appears to become two-dimensional.  He states:

What happened then is that I got more interested in the plumbing of hypothetical space and the idea of presence or quality of light. Afrum…was more of a painting in the sense that you have painting on a two-dimensional surface that alludes to perhaps three          dimensions or unsolvable three-dimensional things. This work was about taking three-dimensional space and making the same kind of allusions to the space beyond that—you don’t need to all it fourth dimension but just one that does not solve up in three.[xxi]

Analogous to Pozzo’s program in marking the ideal vantage point to disorient dimensional comprehension, Turrell’s work also focuses on the optic gravitational pull towards the sky or light.

Live Oak Quaker Meeting House
Live Oak Quaker Meeting House

The act of gazing upwards towards the sky results in the participatory perception of the viewer trying to place themselves in a specific time, place, and reality. Using the changing color of the sky as an indicator of time, the viewer can no longer rely on their other senses to establish what is reality and what is illusion. Depriving the viewers of their reliance on their senses allows them to focus on the individual remaining sense and allows for a pure and more concentrated perceptive experience. Psychologist Heinz Werner states, ‘If a subject attempts to experience a determinate color, such as blue, while seeking to adopt with his body an attitude that works for red, an inner battle ensues, a sort of spasm, which ceases as soon as he adopts the bodily attitude that corresponds to blue.’[xxii] Thus, the viewer becomes the catalyst in the perceptive notion of illusion, and activates the architecture.

The experiment in coupling the natural phenomenon of the lit sky with the artifices of art is accomplished by both artists through the depiction of light in trompe l’oeil. Through the activity of gazing towards the vaults of heaven in Pozzo’s ceiling frescos, one is confronted with the status of simulacrum. With natural light from windows above the balustrade in the central nave, the vaulted ceiling takes on a volume opposite to the window-less and dim realm of the viewer. The painted sky offers a continuum of cosmological space, via thought from Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise Della Pittura (1436) on offering a ‘window’ to an alternate reality, resulting in an undistinguishable sense of depth.[xxiii]

Conversely, Turrell’s sky appears as a negative sense of depth in flooding the room with the ethereal cosmos, offering an illusion of trompe l’oeil, when the viewer is, in fact, actually experiencing the natural sky. In evoking the metaphysical element of the soul taking flight in discovering the light within, Turrell states, ‘The sky would no longer be out there, away from us, but in close contact. This plumbing of visual space through the conscious act of moving feeling out through the eyes, became analogous to a physical journey of self as a flight of the soul through the planes.’[xxiv] To expand the illusion, with a multi-colored lighting system synchronized to the sunrise and sunset, the colored light refracts the light altering the natural hues to bright neon colors, and resulting in the perception of seeing a painted canvas.

Expanding on the artists’ intent in using one’s distinction of perspective and depth as a catalyst in participatory and active viewership, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty states,

‘Above all, the illusions of touching upon depth have accustomed us to considering depth as a construction of the understanding. They can be induced by forcing the eyes into a certain degree of convergence…by presenting a perspectival drawing to the subject. Since here I believe I see depth where there is none, is it not because false signs have brought about an hypothesis, and because in general the alleged vision of distance is always in fact an interpretation of signs’[xxv]

In recounting the previously mentioned study of finding truth in natural versus artistic beauty, one must consider the writings of Plato. Philosophizing that beauty can lead the soul to a higher vocation, Plato believed this was only found true in gazing upon natural beauty, as the soul is in a constant search for truth, a thought that would have been recognized by the seventeenth-century viewer. Similar to this reasoning, Hegel states:

Without entering now into the disputed question how far the quality of beauty can justly    be predicated of such objects, and consequently the beauty of Nature comes generally into competition with that of art, we are justified in maintaining categorically that the beauty of art stands higher than Nature. For the beauty of art is a beauty begotten, a new birth of mind; and to the extent that Spirit and its creations stand higher than Nature and its phenomena, to that extent the beauty of art is more exalted than the beauty of Nature.[xxvi]

Thus, the search for truth between the depiction of beauty and nature is the stimulus of activation in the viewers’ evolution into a participant in the art. Purely experiential, the viewers enter both spaces tasked with the challenge to decode the spiritual iconography depicted by the artists. Drawing on external systems of thought, the viewer utilizes the liminal threshold of the institution as an intermediary space between the ‘space of meditation’ and the realm of the ‘quotidian experience.’[xxvii] The perspectival tool of quadratura allows the viewer to be succumbed to the space and utilize the space as a type of optical lens to connect you to the heavenly realms to reach the divine. The celestial depths created by the use of trompe l’oeil offers a vocation in seeking truth in what one sees, activating a phenomenological experience through a spiritual viewership. Ultimately, though Bice Curiger’s comparison between the work of Tintoretto and Turrell was appropriate to the theme of the Biennale, the linking element of liminal experience in the churches gains a more apt comparison in the spanning centuries use of artiface to give the works some verisimilitude and create illusions to result in the viewers’ spiritual transcendence.


[i] Jonathan Jones, “What Light Can Tintoretto Shed on Modern Art at the Venice Biennale?” The Guardian, May 6, 2011, accessed November 10, 2016,

[ii] Quote by Husserl. Steven Crowell, “Phenomenology and Aesthetics; or Why Art Matters,” in Art + Phenomenology, ed. Joseph D. Parry, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 35.

[iii] Feagin, “Presentation and Representation,”  234.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Dale A. Johnson, “The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1968).

[vi] R. Po-chia Hsia,The World of Catholic Renewal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 170.

[vii] “St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises- Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed November 4, 2016,

[viii] Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, “East and West: Jesuit Art and Art in Central Europe, and Central European Art in the Americas,” in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540-1773, (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2016).

[ix] Lynn M. Herbert, “Spirit and Light and the Immensity Within,” in Spirit and Light, (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1998), 15.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ciaran Benson, “Points of View and Non: Visual Art and Location of Self,” in The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds, (London: Rutledge, 2001), 198.

[xiv] Susan L. Feagin, “Presentation and Representation,” The American Society of Aesthetics, 56 (Summer 1998): 235.

[xv] Mark Bosco, “Ite Inflammate Omnia: Setting the World on Fire with Learning,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education: Vol. 49, Article 3 (2016), 3.  

[xvi] Benson, “Points of View and None: Visual Art and Location of Self,” 193.

[xvii] Victoria Hammond, “The Dome in European Architecture,” in Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture, ed. by David Stephenson, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 59.

[xviii] Hammond, “The Dome in European Architecture,” 59.

[xix] Turrell interview with Julia Brown in Occluded Front, James Turrell, quoted in Adcock, 13. In Merideth Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and Unveiling Truth,” last modified on October 24, 2016,

[xx] Benson, “Points of View and None: Visual Art and Location of Self,” 199.

[xxi] Jan Butterfield, Light + Space, (New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1993), 72.

[xxii] Quote by Heinz Werner, “Untersuchungen über Empfindung und Empfinden,” in Maurice Merleau- Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Rutledge, 2013), 22.

[xxiii] Joaö Cabeleira, “Experiencing Architecture through Baroque Image: Gonçalves Sena, Painted Architecture as Architectural Space,” 123.

[xxiv] Herbert, “Spirit and Light and the Immensity Within,” 16.

[xxv] Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception,” 273.

[xxvi] G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, (Clarendon Press, 1998). Pp?

[xxvii] John Macarthur, “The Image as an Architectural Material,” The South Atlantic Quarterly (2002): 681.

No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down. Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay.[ii] The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.


In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.


This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.


If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.


The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.


[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.

‘Des Esseintes’ of Brussels: Artifice of the Villa Khnopff

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff erected his extravagant villa in Brussels at number 41, Avenue des Courses in Brussels, at its intersection with Avenue Jeanne, on the edge of the greenery of the Bois de la Cambre. It was a result of collaboration with Belgian architect Edouard Pelseneer. The first steps to create the house were most likely taken in October 1899; the plans were drawn in March 1900, and the residence was finished in 1902.[i] The villa is now only known from eyewitness accounts and photographs published in contemporary periodicals, as it was demolished in 1938 – 1940 to build a block of flats.[ii] It is still to be determined who took the photographs depicting empty rooms and corridors of the Villa Khnopff and one view of the dwelling from the outside, but their reproductions first appeared as illustrations in the article ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’ by writer and journalist Wolfram Waldschmidt in the Dekorative Kunst in 1906.

Facade of the Villa Khnopff
Facade of the Villa Khnopff. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Some of these photographic evocations were reproduced in the artist’s first biography published by his friend Louis Dumont-Wilden in 1907, which provides an insight into the Villa Khnopff too.[iii] Several reproductions also appeared in Hélène Laillet’s 1912 article ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’ for The Studio. Contemporaries that were invited to visit the magnificent building, designed in the Secessionist style that highlighted eccentric designs and superficial atmosphere, called it ‘la chapelle votive d’une esthétique personnelle et compliquée’ or ‘le Castel du rêve.’[iv] Dumont-Wilden, who visited the villa numerous times, recalls des Esseintes, the main character of Huysmans’ novel A Rebours, who decorated his house with rare, strange and beautiful things to establish an artificial environment to correspond with his overly sophisticated idiosyncratic personality. Indeed, artificiality was one of the main characteristics of the Villa Khnopff.

Just like the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’ at Auteuil, which its owners transformed into a proto-Symbolist work of art, the image of the Villa Khnopff was circulated in textual and photographic reproductions.[v] Photographic evocations of the house are of particular interest, as they provide visual depictions of the dwelling and perhaps less subjective descriptions than written testimonials. They characterise the self-documenting ability of the photography that gave the artist an opportunity to construct, preserve and project not only his vision of his house, but also of his artistic identity. At the same time, these photographs demonstrate the documentary capacity of the medium, which Khnopff considered to be one of its most important and valuable qualities. This creates an interesting reciprocity between his life and photographs and a certain ambiguity of these photographic representations. On the one hand, they provide a supposedly objective view of the villa; on the other, they exude an air of constructed reality and carefully controlled affectation. For instance, the photographs do not document the villa entirely: they depict only several areas probably chosen by the artist excluding the sleeping quarters of the dwelling. Khnopff’s avoidance of showing more utilitarian spaces in his house, whether it was common for that time or not, represents his meticulous control over his art as well as his personal image. This contributes to Khnopff’s intention to design an artificial aura of an intellectual and dandy around himself and mythologise his œuvre. Thus, the artificiality of the Villa Khnopff, which was also an continuation of the artist’s eccentric personality, extended even in its photographic depictions, which as a result of a technical process represent an opposition to everything natural.

Dumont-Wilden’s comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes is even more detailed: he dubs the artist “un des Esseintes qui n’a pas subi l’éducation romantique, et n’a jamais fréquenté le grenier d’Auteuil.”[vi] The biographer thus contrasts the Villa Khnopff not only with des Esseintes’ residence, but also with the Goncourt’s aestheticised house. Dumont-Wilden most likely implies the stylistic differences between two dwellings, as in other aspects they shared certain similarities. The villa in Brussels represented a projection of the life of the artist into a living environment and explored the potential of interior rearrangements of art objects and artificial settings that would transform a domestic home into ‘an “artistic” retreat just like the house at Auteuil.[vii] However, while the Goncourts decorated their residence according to their main ‘collecting, literary, and aesthetic interests … in French eighteenth-century art, Gavarni and Romantic literature, near and far-eastern “objets d’art” ‘, Khnopff fashioned his villa in a completely different manner.[viii] He combined his preference for the laconic Secessionist architecture with his fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite art and the classical past.

Khnopff praised the Secessionist style and Viennese architects deriving inspiration for his residence from their works. He was impressed with Josef Hoffmann’s buildings and galleries already in 1898 while he was exhibiting in Vienna.[ix] This was visible in the white facades of the villa (see above) dominated by rigorous straight lines. Such architectural preference was not coincidental on Khnopff’s part: the concepts of straight and curved lines had certain aesthetic and philosophical meaning to the intellectuals of that time. Unsurprisingly, in the manner of his idealistic and spiritual art Khnopff predominantly preferred the supposed intellectualism and morality of straight lines to the sensuality and materiality of curved lines, as well as unelaborate ornamentation to heavy embellishment, both in the exterior and interior of the villa. Indeed, the facades were decorated only with black lines, golden circles, and black monograms on a golden background with Khnopff’s typical “cold yet noble aestheticism”. [x] The building exuded such an “air of reserve, almost of disdain” that passers-by sometimes mistook the austere exterior of the villa for one of a chapel or a vault.[xi] Khnopff used the colour black only for the exteriors together with gold, blue, and white, which he employed for decoration throughout his villa.[xii]

Even after such a laconic exterior, visitors were still struck by austerity of the interior. Khnopff emphasises in his 1904 article ‘Mein Haus’ for Die Zeit that from the beginning the dwelling was as uninviting as possible.[xiii] This statement borders on self-criticism, but not for Khnopff: for him as for an aesthete, the comfort and coziness of his residence is not of a high priority. What was more significant for him is projecting his desire to gather precious collectables and create a specific decadent and artistic setting, which was evident in the first room of the house – a small antechamber with white walls of polished stucco.

The Antechamber
The Antechambre. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Already this little room showed the touch of the artist, as it was inhabited by several emblems of Khnopff’s private symbolism. Those were symbols important for Khnopff and his art: a small laurel tree in the corner, a stuffed Indian peacock, a small Greek statue on a blue column and his work Blanc, Noir et Or (1901) with the word “Soi” (self) inscribed above it.[xiv]

Blanc, Noir et Or
Fernand Khnopff, Blanc, Noir et Or, 1901. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The antechamber was followed by a long white corridor that ran through the villa.

The Corridor
The Corridor. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

Like the antechamber, it was decorated with works of art. Among other paintings hanging on its walls was Khnopff’s work Arum Lily (1895)  that depicted his sister Marguerite with the strong features of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty and the portrait of Elisabeth of Austria  executed by Khnopff.[xv]

Arum Lily
Fernand Khnopff, Arum Lily, 1895. Photographic reproduction executed by Alexandre and reworked by Khnopff. © Le Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Elisabeth d’Autriche
Fernand Khnopff, Elisabeth d’Autriche.

A copy of a Greek sculpture of Hope from the Munich Glyptothek was placed on a windowsill. The latter corresponded with the motto written on the walls: ‘Everything comes to him who waits’. The corridor continued the idea of the immersion into the personality of the artist and his private symbols, his art and sources of his inspiration introduced in the antechamber. In fact, Khnopff’s collection of his own works and of the works of others constituted an important part of his villa.

The space was lit with high windows glazed with Tiffany glass to control the light and reduce the distractions of the nature just as many windows around the house were heavily draped to minimise outside noise and reduce the distractions of the city. The confrontation between the carefully constructed artificial atmosphere of the villa and the outside world was noticed by the visitors: Dumont-Wilden called the house ‘le temple du Moi, … la forteresse d’une individualité en perpétuelle défense contre le Monde et la Vie.’ Hélène Laillet  described it as ‘the expression of his [Khnopff’s] own personality which he [Khnopff] has built for his own satisfaction; it is his immutable ‘Self’ which he has raised in defiance of a troubled and changing world.’[xvi] Khnopff’s dwelling conveyed an impression that the artist fenced himself, his artistic self, from the world in this perpetual defense. Thus, like des Esseintes, Khnopff strived to maintain an artificial environment in his dwelling. After all, he shared with the fictional aesthete from Huysmans’ novel his reclusiveness and eccentricity. At the same time, Dumont-Wilden characterises Khnopff as ‘un des Esseintes méthodique, épris, d’ordonnance harmonieuse beaucoup plus que de singularité.’[xvii] Indeed, Khnopff’s residence, in its austerity, did not share the opulence of des Esseintes’ house.

The austerity of the interiors was specifically evident in the White room on the ground floor, which almost no one could recognise as a dining room, as the space always struck guests with its severity and coldness.[xviii]

The White Room (Dining Room)
The White Room (Dining Room). © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

According to Laillet’s description, the doorway was curtained with pale blue satin, the windows were glazed with blue and gold glass forming in combination ‘flames and fantastic figures’, which demonstrates the artist’s intention to create an artificial interior.[xix] The walls were decorated with Khnopff’s most known works and a reproduction of Edward Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune. The overall impression of the room was ‘vague and uneasy’, chairs did not ‘invite repose’, and a small table was ‘just big enough to hold a vase’.[xx] The miniature dining table would be brought in for every meal and quickly taken away afterwards. This again represents how the functionality and comfort of the living space was sacrificed for the sake of decadent perfectionism and aesthetic unity, the tension between the real and the ideal, the material and the immaterial, or as contemporaries put it, ‘the struggle between the ideal and the material’.[xxi] At the same, by sacrificing the domestic the artist reaches his main goal – to bedazzle the public, as pointed out by French journalist, critic and novelist Albert Flament, who wrote under a pseudonym Sparklet for L’écho de Paris: ‘Ah! l’intérieur de M. Khnopff, son vestibule aux dalles blanches, aux murs blanches, sa galerie blanche, sa sale à manger pareille, avec sa table pour deux, et son petit canapé pour unique siege, triomphe du ripolin, couloirs de sucre vernissé où s’ébaubissent les snobs de la Cambre!’.[xxii]

The artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly related to the cult of the artist as a thinker and a priest of art in the nineteenth century. The sacred nature of artists’ work was foremost promoted by the poet and novelist Joséphine Péladan, who addressed artists with the following call: ‘Artiste, tu es prêtre: l’Art est le grand mystère, et lorsque ton effort about it au chef-d’œuvre, un rayon du divin descend comme sur un autel.’[xxiii] In 1892 he founded an artistic group dedicated to spirituality and the aesthetics of mystery – the Salon de la Rose+Croix. Khnopff not only exhibited at the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, but also to a certain extent followed Péladan’a dogmas. Indeed, Khnopff turned his living and working space into a temple of art by creating a religious, almost supernatural atmosphere in his villa and elevating his art and artistic process almost to the status of a cult, which he attempted to transmit in the photographs of the villa.

Several altars dedicated to the most important emblems in Khnopff’s art and scattered around the house contributed to this atmosphere of the artistic cult. On the ground floor, opposite the staircase leading to the upper floors, was a blue niche containing the first altar of the house.

The Altar
The altar to Imagination in the blue niche. © Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It was a shrine to Imagination and comprised Khnopff’s sculpture of a winged mask executed in ivory, enamel and bronze on a thin blue column.[xxiv] The installation was placed against a Japanese embroidery with a crane on a blue background. The winged mask was a recurrent emblem of the artist’s private symbolism: it existed in several versions, including a sculpture in a polychrome plaster and appeared in Secret-Reflet (1902).


Another altar, dedicated to Hypnos, was placed in the most important part of the house – the artist’s studio upstairs. It comprised a copy of the bronze head of Hypnos from the British Museum, which dates back to the fourth century B.C., a Byzantine medallion, a case of clear glass, gilded bronze sphinxes and a base of Tiffany glass.[xxv] The motto ‘On n’a que soi’ inscribed behind the altar again invited to the exploration of the inner world of the self.


There were in fact two studios separated by draperies, and the second, smaller, altar to Hypnos. One was for completed works, and the other one held works in progress and numerous costume and set designs for the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Only the main studio, with finished works, was ever photographed. First Maria Biermé and later Laillet provided the evocations of the second studio in contemporary periodicals.[xxvi] And the idea of the artist as a Symbolist priest creating art effortlessly is evident in the photograph of Khnopff in his studio.

Fernand Khnopff in his studio.
Fernand Khnopff in his studio.

The artist is posing in front of a painting on the easel as if working on it, but the painting is already framed, which indicates that it is a finished work. The relaxed pose of Khnopff wearing fashionable suit instead of working clothes suggests the staged composition and addresses an image of the artist as a dandy. The similar artificial image is created in the photograph of Khnopff in front of the altar to Hypnos in the main studio, which Günter Metken characterises in the 1980 exhibition catalogue as following: ‘[i]l [Khnopff] se faisait photographier en dandy ou en prêtre symboliste, devant son autel à Hypnos.’ [xxvii]

Thus, following the contemporary fashion, Khnopff created a cult of his own enigmatic artistic personality reflected in the artificial and thoroughly constructed environment of the villa. This was supported by mysterious rituals that the artist was believed to perform in his dwelling. For instance, Khnopff was thought to stand in a golden circle inscribed on the mosaic floor of his studio underneath another circle on the ceiling with the constellation of Libra in the middle to find his inspiration.[xxviii] The effect of such meditation was enhanced by a whisper of a shallow fountain (see above image of main studio) with rose petals floating on its surface placed in the studio.[xxix] And during the guest visits to his house, Khnopff supported and developed the idea of himself as a mysterious artistic genius in his temple of art whose inspiration comes straight from above. As the Viennese painter Josef Engelhart reported, to enter the main studio, the visitors had to participate in a special ritual. The artist would rush into his working space, while a butler would lower a thick bar in front of guests preventing them from entering the studio.[xxx] It would be lifted up after some time, and the visitors would proceed inside greeted by the artist, his works resting on easels and the altar to Hypnos placed exactly opposite the entrance. According to Khnopff, this ritual was necessary for the guests to collect themselves before meeting with his art. Therefore, like the Goncourt house the Villa Khnopff received an aesthetic extension in performances interacting with the interior spaces of the dwelling. Moreover, this demonstrates that the concept of artificiality dominated not only the interiors of the villa and the artist’s establishment of his artistic image, but also the extensions of the dwelling in photography and performance.

Artificiality of the Villa Khnopff was partly linked to a unified aesthetic experience, which was promoted by Wagnerian ideas. Indeed, the artist’s residence brought together architecture, interior designs, sculpture, painting, and even music, which all worked collectively. This was most evident in the Blue Room located above the studio.

The Blue Room
The Blue Room.© Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles/ AACB.

It contained works by other artists, including a drawing by Burne-Jones of a woman’s head personally inscribed to Khnopff and an engraving made after Gustave Moreau’s David.[xxxi] The names of these two artists, who influenced Khnopff’s art and whom he held in a very high regard, were set in two gold rings on the wall separated by a small cast of Lord Leighton’s sculpture The Sluggard (1886).[xxxii] Moreau was one of the artists collected by des Esseintes. Khnopff’s portrait of his sister Marguerite (1887), who was his favourite model and his muse, crowned an altar dedicated to her. This familial shrine included a vase with flowers and a tennis racquet that referenced Khnopff’s first widely acknowledged work Memories (1889), which featured Marguerite in seven different poses. Khnopff would retire to this blue sanctuary at the end of the day to dream, contemplate and plan new works, surrounded by paintings and sculptures, while listening to the music coming through a large window from the studio downstairs.[xxxiii]

Fernand Khnopff, Memories (Du lawn tennis), 1889. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

This granted him a full aesthetic experience of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Like in other rooms of the house, the furnishing was rather scarce, represented only by a blue divan and a table in this case.[xxxiv] This signifies that Khnopff preferred the theatricality and realisation of his artistic vision to his own comfort. Again, in this respect his villa resembles the artificiality of des Esseintes’ dwelling, but distinguishes from it with its austerity of interiors.

Thus, every room of the villa was defined by Khnopff’s collection of art, the emblems of his private symbolism, his celebration of everything unnatural and his pursuit of aesthetic pleasures even in small everyday domestic things. So much so that Waldschmidt noticed than even the flowers in the garden behind the villa looked like the background of a Quattrocento painting.[xxxv] And Khnopff emphasised this link between art and life in his photographic portraits taken in his residence. The artist occupies a rather insignificant place in these depictions as if he wants to hide among his artworks, to immerse and dissolve in his œuvre. He wants to be identified with his works or maybe even become a work of art in the spirit of the Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), who stated that she would want to be a living work of art.[xxxvi] At the same time, Khnopff elegantly poses in his dwelling harmoniously blending in with the interiors. It was probably his requirement as a sitter to be portrayed either contemplating in front of the altar to Hypnos and surrounded by his art or as if working in his studio. In the Symbolist world of Fernand Khnopff life and art were closely entwined.

Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.
Fernand Khnopff in front of his works.

As can be seen, the comparison of Khnopff to des Esseintes was very appropriate, as they both represented aesthetes withdrawn into their private artificial world. And the photographs of the Villa Khnopff closely reflect the artist’s celebration of everything that is unnatural as well as his carefully constructed artistic image. However, as Jeffery Howe points out in his book on Fernand Khnopff, this praise of artificiality and emulation of the main character of Huysmans’s novel sometimes bordered on self-parody.[xxxvii] A vivid example of that was a tortoise that des Esseintes decorated with precious stones and it eventually died. Khnopff had a living tortoise, which he considered too noisy and put it in the garden, and when he found it dead, he had it bronzed and kept it in his studio calling ‘My remorse’ (fig. 6: bottom right, next to Des Caresses).[xxxviii] Thus, artificiality in the artist’s life and perhaps art, though signified intellectualism and decadence, bore a mark of sadness and regret.


[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

[iii] Louis Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: G. van Oest & Cie, 1907).

[iv] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 97.

[v] For more information on the Goncourt’s ‘maison d’art’, see Juliet Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors – Towards the Symbolist Maison d’art’, Romance Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2011, pp. 1-18.

[vi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[vii] Simpson, ‘Edmond de Goncourt’s Décors’, p. 2.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), pp. 339-341.

[x] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 102.

[xiii] Fernand Khnopff, ‘Mein Haus’, Die Zeit, 37-38, 2 Dezember 1904, No. 483, p. 9.

[xiv] Jeffery W. Howe, The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1979, 1982), p. 147. Though most of these details could be found in contemporary descriptions of the villa, according to Howe, he has enriched his overview of the house with the information obtained during his conversations with Khnopff’s former pupil in 1918-1920 M. Marcel Baugniet.

[xv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 147.

[xvi] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 26; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 201.

[xvii] Dumont-Wilden, Fernand Khnopff, p. 30.

[xviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 204.

[xxii] Sparklet [Albert Flament], ‘Le Trottoir roulant. Mardi 1er décembre’, L’écho de Paris, 6 December 1903, p. 1.

[xxiii] Sâr Péladan, “Préface au catalogue du pemier Salon de la Rose+Croix”, in Le Salon de la Rose+Croix: 1892-1897, Jean da Silva (Paris: Syros-Alternatives, 1991), p. 117.

[xxiv] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 202.

[xxv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.


[xxvi] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, pp. 103-104; Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 205.

[xxvii] Günter Metken, “Fernand Khnopff et la modernité”, in Fernand Khnopff 1858-1921, Frans Boenders et al., (Brussels: Ministère de la communauté française de Belgique, Service de la diffusion des arts, 1980), p. 44.

[xxviii] Josef Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt… Mein Leben und meine Modelle (Vienna, 1943), p. 89.

[xxix] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 148.

[xxx] Engelhart, Ein Wiener Maler erzählt…, p. 88.

[xxxi] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, p. 112: “… sur l’atelier, de larges baies vitrées, car c’est dans cette chambre bleue que Fernand Khnopff se retire pour venir écouter religieusement la musique que des artistes exécutent dans son atelier”.

[xxxiv] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 149.

[xxxv] Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, p. 166.

[xxxvi] Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati (New York: Viridian Books, 1999), p. 1.

[xxxvii] Howe, The symbolist art, p. 145.

[xxxviii] Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist’, p. 204.

[i] Michel Draguet, Khnopff ou l’ambigu poétique (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1995), p. 337.

[ii] Wolfram Waldschmidt, ‘Das Heim eines Symbolisten’, Dekorative Kunst, Vol. XIV, 1906, pp. 158-166; Maria Biermé, ‘Fernand Khnopff’, La Belgique Artistique et Littéraire, July-September 1907, pp. 96 – 113; Louis Dumont-Wilden, George Garnir, Léon Souguenet, ‘L’Atelier de Fernand Khnopff, avenue des Courses’, Pourquoi pas?, December 15, 1910; Hélène Laillet, ‘The Home of an artist: M. Fernand Khnopff’s Villa at Brussels’, The Studio, Vol. LVII, No. 237, December 1912, pp. 201-207.

From Collective of Action toward Collective Behavior: The Human Condition 1958 and The Human Habitat 1959

by Andjelka Badnjar Gojnić, RWTH Aachen University


‘Durability, which alone determinates if a thing can exist as a thing and endure in the world as a distinct entity, remains the supreme criterion’ [i]

  1. The Collective, the Wall and the Law

In 1958, in her major philosophical work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to the term object in its Latin origin obicere as ‘something thrown’ or ‘put against.’[ii] This opposition serves as the basis upon which all further distinctions such as private and public, necessity and freedom, shame and honor, labor and action and man and the world are drawn. The human is finally positioned as a condition emerging between nature and the world. Once the world has been made up, the human can appear though activities of labor, work and action, each positioned differently between the poles of nature and the world. The appearance of the world built by ‘the work of our hands’[iii] serves as the ‘objective’ background that ‘stand against’ and ‘stabilize human life’ otherwise essentially subjective one. Being related to the ‘same chair and the same table…a man can retrieve their sameness’[iv], reconstruct their identity and overcome being part of a species no different than animal ones within elementary force and the eternal movement of indifferent nature. The sum of the things constituting human artifice stand as the world in its objective sense of being thrown in between man and nature. Such a world can be opposed to life, it is outside of life and unrelated to any of the bodily matters of reproduction, be they mental or physiological. It is the ‘worldly character of produced thing – its location, function and length of stay in the world’ which makes the distinction between ‘bread’ and ‘table’ and finally demonstrates the difference between a baker and a carpenter.[v] The criterion of the world understood as tangible, durable, permanent, and above all outside of the natural is an evaluative one. Contrary to the labor subjected to the necessity of the reproduction of life and thus the most natural of the three human activities, fabrication as a result of work produces an end beyond doubt: ‘an internally new thing with enough durability to remain in the world as independent entity added to the human artifice.’[vi] To have both a definitive beginning and a predicable end is a mark of fabrication, whose object further can be only multiplied instead of subjected to the repetition of the urged biological cycle of consumption. Although eventually subjected to dissolution, use objects – contrary to consumer goods and products of action – are present in the world long enough to stabilize nature and enable humans to appear through ‘products of action and speech…which lack tangibility of other things and are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption.’[vii] Products of the action, words and deeds of the actor finally depend only upon ‘human plurality, upon the constant presence of other who can see and hear’[viii] by ‘living as a distinct and unique being among equals.’[ix]

The collective, in its notion of being done by man acting as a group, is a temporary state that falls into a web of human affairs. It is a status that has been agreed upon through men speaking and acting together. As such it is closest to Arendt’s concept of togetherness in the sense of being ‘with others neither for nor against them’[x] and having ‘inter-est which lies between people and can relate and bind them together.’[xi] Inter-est such as in-between varies depending on the group of people and constantly discloses itself by the agents of action and speech. As such speech and action are essential conditions for the collective and this is distinctive from collective action, as it would be rather ambiguous to address such a concept within Arendt’s argument. Namely, action is a highly individual condition by which man insert himself to the human plurality where in order to appear, one needs to disclose and to expose himself within the brightness of glory. Men thus seek to ‘reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.’[xii] This appearance is very distinct from the exposure of ‘physical identities…without any activity…in the unique shape of body and sound of the voice.’[xiii] Contrary to the labor, action is as far as possible from the realm of the natural and the actor might be the only one being freed from bodily necessities and emotional constraints who discloses himself in front of others, seeking pride and excellence. Thus, it is not the virtue of negotiation but of competitiveness in excellence that channels the final result of men acting together. The collective, rather than being a collective action, is an event that emerges out of the situation in which each man acts uniquely, exposes and competes. Essentially based on the individual, such collective shifts extensively as regards the words and deeds of the doers, not having any divine aura of its own. Though Arendt gives primacy to the individual as the man qua man situation, the unpredictable, irreversible and fragile character of action and speech are in constant danger of being absorbed by the nature of man with his necessities and emotional constraints. Thus, it is for the sake of the futility of action and speech that Arendt keeps the independency and background character of the object of the world as a guardian for their appearance. It is in the same way that object in all its tangibility, relates to the collective: ‘as a table located between those who sit around it’, ‘a world of things in between those who have it in common…that like every in-between relates and separates men at the same time.’[xiv]

Such an object is not human, let alone natural: it is the outer device with which the man of action relates and identifies in order to appear. Referring to the Greek polis, Arendt states that ‘before men begging to act, a definitive space had to be secured and a structure built where all actions could take place’[xv], the space being the public realm of the polis, while the law acts as its structure. The wall and the law are made by the architect and the legislator as the builder of a city and a lawmaker. These could be commissioned from abroad and need to be finished before any political activity begins. ‘These tangible entities’ – the wall and the law – ‘were not the content of politics themselves’[xvi] but the space of appearance, where less tangible products such as action and speech can gain the reality of being seen and heard before an audience of their fellow man acting together. As such no architect or lawmaker is an actor but rather they are fabricators, providing the infrastructure for the gathering of the men sharing words and deeds. They are not even personalized as ‘public space in the image of the fabricated object…carried only the implication of ordinary mastership where the compelling factor lies not in the person of craftsman but in impersonal object of his art or craft.’[xvii] This assured neutrality of the object is a condition sin qua non, as without the stabilizing boundaries of wall and law, the public could not survive the moment of action and speech. Furthermore, without the independence of the object and homo faber to make it, acting and speaking together could not be remembered. It is homo faber that is a guardian of the man of action, just as the ‘sharing of words and deeds’[xviii] is guarded by the object. As a background, the object is not end itself as it cannot create nor action or form a collective. It can only serve as a neutralized precondition in advance and as a guarantee of the eventual appearance as ‘for what appears to all, this we call Being’ and ‘whatever lacks appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.’[xix]


  1. The Collective and the Dissolution of an Object

Without the object thrown against nature no action, speech or state of the collective exists as there is no background for plurality. Although essential in deriving the human, the object of the world is the ultimate aim itself only in the case of homo faber. In the cases of two other heroes of Arendt – the man of action and the animal laborans– the object and the world are an assumed precondition sin qua non in the case of the former, while they are disguised forever in the case of the latter.

Contrary to our introduction of the collective as done by people acting as a group, Arendt refers to the collective always using the same connotation of mass society which enlarged the realm of the domestic household over the public one, until the final destruction of the latter. We can trace the ‘substitution of society of a collective man-kind for individual man as its subject’ [xx] or the ‘collective nature of labor’ with its ‘loss of all awareness of individuality’ whose ‘values are no different from pleasure derived from eating and drinking in company’ and thus rest on the ‘human’s body metabolism with nature.’[xxi] The collective is related to bodily performance such taking food and belonging to the same biological species and ultimately rests on sameness instead of equality. These connotations of the collective are followed by the impossibility of ‘collective ownership (as) a contradiction in terms’[xxii] as property and the possession of an object is an essentially individual characteristic. The loss of property appears as a direct consequence of the initial loss of a place to hide and to labor within: a man’s household. By keeping the realm of nature away from the public realm, equality in antiquity meant having to exit the household and enter public life: ‘where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds…that he was best of all.’[xxiii] With the substitution of private property – as an individually possessed tangible object – by the intangible common wealth of the enormous ‘family’ of society, the boundaries withdrew leaving man to float within modes of behaviorism that replaced action. With lost distinction, the sameness of society emerges: a large number of people, ‘crowded together’ with their ‘almost irrespirable inclination toward despotism…of a person or of majority rule.’[xxiv] Arendt points to great numbers which account for conformism, behaviorism and automatism in human affairs with their statistical uniformity and scientific outlook as the main traits for human action. ‘The more people there are the most likely they are to behave and less likely to tolerate non-behavior.’[xxv] In relation to the large number, there is no crucial difference between totalitarian or liberal constitutions apart from the fact that the former took the reality of conflict and the latter the ‘natural harmony of interests’ as their starting points. Both are rooted in the ‘communistic fiction’ that society has one interest as a whole, which derives itself primarily from the household realm rather from any class interest, as advocated by Marx. Large numbers give rise to the social sciences as ‘behavioral sciences’ that ‘aim to reduce man as a whole until the level of a conditioned and behaving animal’ until ‘social behavior has become the standard for all regions of life.’[xxvi]

The issue of great number followed by behaviorism apparently excludes any chance of action as a possibility to begin anew, rather than to behave as predicted and as statistically covered. The collective understood as oneness – a sum of parts constituting a whole – replaces the collective as a shifting state of men gathering and acting together. Within the realm of society, the latter collective apparently is not possible at all and this is most explicitly manifested in the loss of the object of the world.

It is the world alienation rather than Marx’s self-alienation that is the ‘hallmark of the modern age’ as ‘enormous mundane activity is possible without any consideration for the world but only worry and care about the self.’[xxvii] Transmitting to the artifact natural role of consuming, monuments become not outer any more but rather an extension of biological life itself. Although a fence, a table, a chair or house, remain present, these are not worldly but ‘natural’ and nondurable. By losing the outer quality of the object, the difference between the tangible and intangible is blurred, shifting things from the world toward an ever-circulating natural swing. Instead of serving as a background for the human, the object is moved to the enlarged natural environment of man serving as an extension of his body from its primordial origin toward industrial equipment.


  1. Human / Non-human: In Search of an Environment / Object

One year after first publication of The Human Condition, familiar values related to habitat and the issue of large numbers based upon sociological analysis and the study of man’s behavior were the main preoccupations of the third generation of modern architects at the Otterlo Meeting in 1959.

Oskar Newman’s report book CIAM ’59 in Otterlo begins with the Adalbert Ames’s quote: ‘the processes that underlie our perception of our immediate internal world and those that underlie our perception of social relationships are fundamentally the same.’ Participants met ‘in the peace and quiet’ of the Kröller-Müller Foundation under the working title ‘The Group for the Research of Social and Visual Inter-relationships’. The meeting was organised by the coordinating group established at La Sarraz 1957 comprised of Bakema, Rogers, Roth, Voelcker and Wogenscky and counted 43 international participants invited according to the list made by the coordinating group. The event was funded by the government of the Netherlands, whose representative pointed out the difficult task of contemporary architects in order to fulfill ‘the happy feeling of social prosperity in which there is no longer a place for slum-dwellings’ and to search for a design based on the ‘life scheme and the shape of present and future society.’[xxviii] Bakema, in his introductory talk, called for the emergence of establishing architecture as ‘three-dimensional expression of human behavior’ in order to operate the ‘function of human identification with the ever extending universal space.’[xxix] After eight days of panels presenting individual work followed by discussions, the official conclusion rested upon the distinction of participants into two groups: a neutral and an aggressive one. The latter – that would go on – showed an attempt to understand architecture as a language ‘communicating directly about human behavior.’[xxx]

Rather than the official division, the meeting was actually characterized by another split. The most prominent advocates of a new language for modern architecture came into debate with Italian participation lead by Ernesto Rogers. The heated discussion following Rogers’ presentation of the Torre Velasca in Milan was charged with a critique led by Peter Smithson and Jaap Bakema and followed by Kenzō Tange. Their accusations relied on a historic understanding of architecture, describing the Torre Velasca in terms of its closed form, formalistic realism and as a quick solution to the problem of identity finally declaring the work done as unacceptable. The distinction was historically recognized as an origin of two approaches toward the roles of nature and history in modern architecture.[xxxi] From this point on, the distinction can be further traced toward two broader thoughts behind: reaction on establishment of the field of ethology with domain of anthropology on one hand and constant reversal to the antique on another. Following the first, Team 10 concept for the human habitat rested upon influence of anthropological sources.[xxxii] In contrast, the autonomy of the human condition in regard to the nature perhaps is most accurately present in Italian participation. As such, the origin of the conflict could be seen as a spot to unite different constellations on relation of the ethos of collective and the object within postwar modernism. Under conditions in which architects ‘will be asked to build billions of dwellings’, this being not a numerical problem alone but one also limited by sociological, economical, geographical, political and plastic conditions, [xxxiii] the attempt to translate this collective into materiality  resulted in urged search for its object.

Aldo van Eyck 'Eyes'
‘Eyes’, Children’s Home, Amsterdam, Aldo van Eyck; from CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Oscar Newman, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, 1961

Par Nous pour Nous was the slogan of Aldo van Eyck’s introductory panel for presentation of his Children Home in Amsterdam and Congress building project in Jerusalem. According to van Eyck, after leaving the Euclidian groove, art and science have expanded the universe – ‘the outside and inside universe.’[xxxiv] With this awareness, this period of ours requires a new language, one at the same time old and new. The language is old as ‘man is always and essentially the same’ and this is most explicit in the constant human proportions that architecture is constantly rediscovering. ‘Archaic principles of human nature’ and a reconciliation of basic values need to be taken into account as an absolute condition of one. This is drawn into a status quo in the same way as biological necessity: ‘Man breathes both in and out; when is architecture going to do the same?’[xxxv] Accordingly to Bakema’s ‘architecture as a three dimensional extension of human behavior’, the object is equalized with bodily functions. The language is new as society is new. By contrast with the individual, who is old, primordial and constant with his physiological and cognitive processes, society shifts and is another polarity of the ‘dual phenomenon’, the two of which are supposed to reconcile through the issue of the ‘in-between’ nature of the object. Van Eyck concludes his theoretical introduction with the example of the house: ‘me inside and you outside or vice versa…with you inside, me outside, two worlds clashing no transition, individual on one side, the collective on another’, a lots of barriers of society ‘with architect so poor in spirit to provide a door…, hair-raising, brutal, like a guillotine…Each time we pass through such door we are split into two.’[xxxvi]

An attempt to provide an object with a blurred distinction between outside and inside in high interaction with the body was made through the Children’s Home of Amsterdam. ‘The whole thing is both outside and inside whether you are inside or outside.’[xxxvii] Sometimes there are cupolas above, sometimes there is sky, interior street walls are like exterior walls, ‘lots of tiny mirrors embedded in the concrete’, ‘the electric lighting is like street lighting’, ‘illuminating spaces are shifting with darkness’, ‘child’s movement (is) as violent as outside. ‘[xxxviii] In the search for the ‘dual phenomena of the individual and the collective without wrapping the meaning of either’[xxxix] the object becomes convertor of human behavior between the two. By withdrawing any difference between inside and outside, private and public, the object gains the role of a somatic extension of the biological human, always converting him from one to the number and vice versa. Appropriated by man, the object becomes natural itself and upgrades the collective body made from the human and the industrial, while placing it within the abstract context of sun, wind, rain, earth, highway and airplane. With the loss of its background character, this ‘behavioral’ object offers ultimate certainty to the ‘just beginning humanism’[xl] and the ultimate intimacy of a man walking through his surrounding environment in the manner of a savage walking through the forest.

This is certainly not in accordance with Arendt’s reliance on Greek materialism, which argues for the object serving as a neutral background for action governed by expertise – instead, the house in stake actually expresses all the inhabitability of modern age. [xli] With the language unable to correspond to any historical period, even the contemporary, van Eyck’s work constantly shows an attempt to reduce the house to its constituent universal elements of wall, roof, celling as a system of signifiers. This new environment seeks both universal and primordial expression in last consequences of the ethnological discourse on humanism.

Against this ‘behavioral’ aspect of the object maybe mostly explicit in van Eyck’s studies on the performances of the child and its surroundings, but actually present to the majority of ‘right side’ participants, stands the most discussed case of the Otterlo event: Ernesto Rogers’s panel with The Torre Velasca.

At the very beginning of his talk, Rogers immediately sets up limit by addressing the height of the Madellina at the top of Milan Duomo as the paramount criterion with no building allowed to be any higher. Although there was no deliberate reference to regional medieval towers as historical quotation per se, the similarities of form occur due to similar conditions, such as insufficient land area and the search for light and ideal views.[xlii] In contrast to the constancy of always-universal man in van Eyck case, here the fabrication condition is relevant and the artifact stays out of the human realm. The object is a result of a technique and of a set of pragmatic decisions while the rhetoric is apparently totally reduced. ‘It is important to speak technically, because technique requires precise decisions.’[xliii] This is quite clear in the way the architect presented the work by stressing pure facts and providing short conclusions such as: ‘steel in Italy would be too expensive so the concrete is used’, ‘windows are standard production’, ‘panels between columns are prefabricated elements’, ‘the construction is a very simple one’, ‘it would be impossible to know who the occupants will be’, ‘two main colours were used’ – a brick one from the Middle Ages and the colour of stone from the neo-classical period, yet none of these were chosen due to sentimental reason, but as ‘a technical approach to the vision.’[xliv]

‘We put the apartments above the offices so that might have better access to the sky, the cleaner air and in particular splendid view.’[xlv] While the first two reasons recall typically modernist concepts, it is particularly the splendid view that is main cause for elevating apartments. Yet, the view is not toward any of the traditional modernist symbols such as greenery, traffic or exposure to the airplanes passing over the heads of The Children’s Home in Amsterdam. Instead it is a view toward the fabric of the historical city that serves as the main reason for elevating apartments as well as for increasing the height of offices in a way to correspond to classical proportions of interior rooms instead of to modernist ones. ‘It was necessary to provide space for offices of a big surface area and this allowed us to give them a corresponding increase in height.’[xlvi] The view perceived from the interior constitutes the sum of the human artifact in the same way as the view toward the tower intensifies the recognizable image of a familiar object. Additionally, the corners of the tower are chamfered with the windows placed in, thus dissolving the cubical volume of the building into the mere plane picture. In the tower, almost seen as a two-dimensional image of a city organized with the articulation of windows, the structural components of modern architecture actually serve to intensify the type components of classicism. For this reason Rogers identifies Mies as the only modern architect from whom one could learn: as the language of Mies implies, gentrification in the constitution of an object in a tradition of commonly recognizable codes serves as the background to the human. ‘He is the only architect modern in the sense that Palladio was in his time’, for whom ‘the idea of plans and schemes was the idea of giving a model.’[xlvii] The quality of the permanence of a model is at the core of Arendt’s reference to Plato’s interpretation of the word idea or ‘shape’.[xlviii] This is what guides the craftsman who makes beds and tables in accordance with an idea, with his inner eye looking on the shape of the bed as envisioned instead of the real one. As such, the idea is more durable than the concrete thing as it derives from the ‘oneness of the model’, according to which a multitude of perishable things will appear, as the model exists before fabrication starts and remains after it has come to an end.

The persistence of the model annihilates novelty throughout all speech such as ‘I don’t see our work as sort of revolution at all’[xlix] and constantly positions the object within a limit. Thus, the limits being the constraints of industry, the acceptance of the language of modern architecture where it fits well such as ‘the structure is expressed as …we think that articulation of the structure is one of good qualities of modern architecture’[l] or simply the apparently indifferent acceptance of the impossibility of acknowledging the user. Yet, by this, Rogers and his followers do not abandon interfering in the relationship of the individual and the collective. They instead give up rhetoric on holistic collectivity relevant to the rest of the attempts to structure the environment according to the levels of neighborhood gatherings within a society of a large number. Rogers seeks the fabrication of an object as a counterpoint to man instead of an environment being an alter ego of men’s behaviorism. Such an object is not biological, but instead it is completely alien to nature and alien to the human as well. Bearing in mind Arendt distinction between the nature of man and human, where human is possible only when man is freed from the natural and the natural is no different than animal, Rogers attempt could be addressed as a search for an object as non-natural and non-human. This position runs contrary to the general attitude of the meeting, which was to make the object both human and natural, without actually pointing out much difference between the two, as the nature of a man is equalized with that of a human. As it is alien to nature, Rogers’ object is fabricated from the material of the outer world, seeking a durable and tangible enough state in stable continuity in order to become the thing of the world. As it is alien to the human, the architect should leave all rhetorical attempts toward the object being able to affect the human apart from serving as its background. The only morality should come from consistency of the object,[li] which is the only means of addressing the human by actually leaving the attempt to affect the human. As soon as we succeed in fabricating a durable, recognizable object other to both the natural and to the human, as manufacturers rather than creators, we actually strengthen the image of the world and thus serve the opportunity for the individual to be able to identify himself within a delirious collective. It is the reduction of the collective toward the individual that is the main attempt of Rogers’ object rather than its historical relevance per se. It is not the love for historical language that is in the origin of his attempt but rather the consistency of the object as device for the distinction of man: as an object being thrown against man. The language of modern architecture is fit as well as historical language with no crucial difference as long as they create a recognizable pattern. This may be most explicit in the plan of the tower where apartments are not much different from any of European modern movement references within welfare hosing development. This plan could actually be whatever is most affordable and pragmatic while there is certainty that whoever user is will perceive the totalized image of the object of the city and whoever looks upon a tower will perceive the same as well.

Trying to address his critique of the Torre Velasca with a bit more sympathy than Peter Smithson, Bakema pointed out that seeing from ‘a certain distance there is something in the building’s silhouette which suggest that it could have been there for fifty years.’[lii] One could assume that only by hearing this Rogers would be satisfied that his attempt had been completed as much as if it had remained unspoken. As the chain of reasons, though technically and pragmatically rooted, seemed deliberately guided toward what remained inexplicit, making Rogers one of the pioneers of the attempt to overcome the role of the avant-garde intellectual and reduce the architect to the level of the wall-maker in antiquity.

On one hand, the dominant attempt of the Otterlo meeting saw the dissolution of the object toward environment as an adequate response for new vision of holistic collectivity. This vision was based on the ethnological discourse of the primordial and universal man at the same time by taking its biological premises into account. On the other hand, Italian participation saw the object in its antique role, as the outer model that retrieve the sameness of a man and constructs the identity of the individual within retreat from the collective. In the first case, the aura of holistic collectivity failed to distinct between the biological nature of man and its human capacities. In the second, the attempt to distinguish two failed to acknowledge the defeat of homo faber within the automation process. The stage of technological development and electricity cannot fit the categories of homo faber ‘in terms of a gigantic enlargement and continuation of old arts and crafts.’[liii] What substitutes instruments as a means to achieve the prescribed end in killing, interrupting and imitating natural processes is an ‘unchain (of ) natural processes of our own’, and channeling ‘these natural forces into the world itself.’[liv] Finally, nature and the world leave no opposition but merge together into the ‘natural word’ with the final dissolution of the object toward Adorno’s anthropomorphized one.[lv] With the defeat of homo faber as the main hero of Arendt ‘indeed a lord and a master of himself and his doings’, ‘maker and the fabricator and the erector of the world’[lvi] and Tafuri’s dissolution of type within the process of prefabrication seemed that holistic collective of ethnological discourse gain dominance over the polis’ one. It is in this sense that, for the moment, van Eyck’s child took primacy over history and the collective over the individual.

[i] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 163.

[ii] Id., p. 137.

[iii] Arendt referencing to Lock, Id., p. 79.

[iv] Id., p. 137.

[v] Id., p. 94.

[vi] Id., p. 143.

[vii] Id., p. 95.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Id., p. 178.

[x] Id., p. 180.

[xi] Id., p. 182.

[xii] Id., p. 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Id., pp. 52, 53.

[xv] Id., p. 194,195.

[xvi] Id., p. 195.

[xvii] Id., p. 227.

[xviii] Id., p. 198.

[xix] Id., p. 199.

[xx] Id., p. 117.

[xxi] Id., p. 213.

[xxii] Id., p. 256.

[xxiii] Id., p. 41.

[xxiv] Id., p. 43.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Id., p. 45.

[xxvii] Id., p. 254.

[xxviii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 20, 21

[xxix] Id., p. 10.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Pedret, A., ‘CIAM ’59: the end of CIAM’, in Team 10 1953-1981 in search of a Utopia of the present, ed. by Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam 2005

[xxxii] For a reading of critical themes of postwar modernism see introduction in Anxious Modernisms, ed. by Goldhagen, S. W., and Legault, R., Canadian Centre for Architecture and The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2000; for discourse on anthropology see Conklin, A., In the Museum of Man, Cornell University Press, 2013

[xxxiii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 13

[xxxiv] Id., p. 26.

[xxxv] Id., pp. 26, 27.

[xxxvi] Id., p. 28.

[xxxvii] Id., p. 32.

[xxxviii] Id., pp. 31, 32.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ockman, J., ‘Venice and New York’, reference to van Eyck’s attack on Manfredo Tafuri arguing that: ‘The path of language as the communication of messages, which is the discourse of humanism does not exist and henceforth is completely closed’, from Europa/America Architetture urbane, alternative suburbane, ed. Franco Raggi (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1978), pp. 174-82.

[xli] On overview to the notion of inhabitability of modernity see eg. Heynen, H., Architecture and Modernity. A Critique, MIT Press, 1999

[xlii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 92.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Id., pp. 92, 93.

[xlvii] Id., p. 96.

[xlviii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 142.

[xlix] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 219.

[l] Id., p. 92.

[li] Id., p. 95., Rogers responding to P. Smithson on issue of morality brought about by the latter

[lii] Id., p. 97.

[liii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 148.

[liv] Id., p. 149.

[lv] Adorno, T., ‘Functionalism Today’, Oppositions, no. 17, 1979

[lvi] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 144.