There have been recorded cases of people gazing upon a beautiful panorama of Florence or an exquisite painting and suddenly collapsing. The condition is known as Stendhal syndrome, alternatively called Florence syndrome or hyperkulturaemia (excess culture in blood). It has been described as causing tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), dizziness, confusion and fainting after being exposed to a particularly beautiful piece of art or scenery. It is named after French author Stendhal (penname of Henri-Marie Beyle), who upon visiting Florence in 1817 experienced the very condition.
Stendhal syndrome is most likely related to a very common phenomenon known as vasovagal syncope, where extreme emotions overwhelm the brain, induce a massive parasympathetic nervous response, causing the person to faint. There are two major nervous systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response and essentially prepares the body for physical activity. The parasympathetic nervous system does the complete opposite and is activated when you are resting or digesting food. Thus, a burst of parasympathetic nervous activity causes a sudden fall in heart rate and blood pressure, causing the brain to lose the oxygen supply needed to maintain consciousness. When the person faints, they collapse and blood flow is restored to the brain. Vasovagal syncope can be caused by anything from standing up very quickly, extreme emotions (e.g. stress, seeing blood or needles) and fatigue. It is the most common cause of collapse and is (usually) completely harmless.
When a person looks at a breathtaking view or a stunning work of art, their brain is overwhelmed by intense emotions of excitement and joy. In the case of Stendhal syndrome, this effect is so great the person is literally blown away by the sight.
The people of Florence have noted that this phenomenon is rather common in tourists visiting the beautiful city.
There once lived a Buddhist monk by the name of Great Master Wonhyo(원효대사) in the kingdom of Silla (during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea). At the age of 45, he set out to the country of Tang (modern day China) to further his understanding of Buddhism. During his travel, he decided to rest in front of a grave when night fell. In the middle of the night, he woke up feeling thirsty and searched for a drink. He found a bowl full of water in the complete darkness and drank it quickly to quench his thirst. He thought to himself “How lucky I am, to find a bowl of such sweet water.” and went back to sleep.
When morning came, he checked to see if there was still water in the bowl. He then realised that the bowl was actually a skull, and that the water was stagnant, putrid water that had collected in it. Realising that he drank the vile liquid from the skull, the monk started throwing up. But then, he realised that in the darkness, he drank from the skull with no problem, and even thought that the drink was sweet and refreshing. To quote:
Objects and rules are only born from the mind; a dead mind is no better than a skull. Buddha’s Three Commandments originate from the mind, everything is born from knowledge. What could I ask for more when I have a mind?
Thus, the Great Master Wonhyo understood the way of Ilche Yushimjo (일체유심조/一切唯心造/“The mind is the origin of everything” – the key principle of Hwaumgyung, an important Buddhist text). He turned back and returned to Silla, where he devoted his life to spreading Buddhism to the people.
Any sadness or frustration can be dissipated if you look back on it. Depending on how you see the world, it can be either beautiful or tragic.
A gaze is defined as “to look fixedly, intently, or deliberately at something”, but its true meaning is far deeper than that. In art and psychology, the “gaze” is described as a complex medium of communication between the subject and the object being gazed at. There are many theories as to what the gaze signifies.
A popular explanation is the exertion of dominance by the subject by gazing at an object. In essence, this act objectifies something, such as a painting or a person, placing it on an inferior level relative to the observer. This applies to the concept of the “medical gaze” – where the doctor can see the patient as just an anatomical body, or a holistic being with a soul – or the “male gaze”, which feminists claim to be the tendency for films to objectify women and play to the male audience, providing them with the power and dominance. In this case, the gaze acts as a projection of the viewer, placing himself as a dominant figure indirectly interacting with the female being gazed at in the movie. Although the male gaze itself is questionable, there is no doubt that people tend to project themselves into the characters in a movie through gaze.
This theory explains the uncanny feeling brought on by a gaze, as it gives the impression that you are being defined by someone’s gaze, whilst becoming dominated.
The gaze plays a vital role in the development of babies as they pass through what is called the “mirror stage”. This is when babies first conceive the idea of self, as they see an external image of themselves in the mirror. At this point, the baby’s gaze defines the external image (reflection) while the reflection’s gaze gives the baby an uncanny feeling of “self”.
The concept of the gaze has been well-known throughout history, and is reflected in myths such as the evil eye (that brings bad fortune to those being gazed at) or Medusa (the gorgon who petrifies those who make eye contact with her). Interestingly, the story of Narcissus shows the danger of gaze by misidentifying “self”.
Artists use this concept of gaze effectively by either letting the audience simply gaze at the picture, essentially letting it be defined only when being looked at, or invite the audience in a “conversation” with the painting. This can be achieved when characters in the painting are gazing at the audience, giving the illusion that they can actually see past the two-dimensional plane, gazing into the viewer’s eyes. This produces a strange feeling, while also giving the viewer a heightened appreciation for the painting as he/she feels at level with the painting.
Furthermore, as the gaze is a two-way conversation, there are also examples of “setting oneself at gaze”. This means that they are exposing themselves to be gazed at, a common example being nude art. Of course, this ties into voyeurism and scopophilia, showing just how complex the meaning behind the word “gaze” can be.