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.

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