persimmon03 In the first post in this series, I discussed ways in which the space around a single figural sculpture becomes a tacit part of the artwork by virtue of the moving viewer's interpretive act. In the second post, I considered how the spatial relationships among multiple figures in a more complex figural sculpture can provide interpretive clues and cues that lead to a rich understanding not only of the fiction's virtual space, but also of its mental, social, and emotional spaces.

Now I would like to consider immersion, which I will treat as a set of visual, spatial, and kinetic opportunities afforded the viewer of an artwork by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. I will offer two examples, one which invites the interpreter to go around and upon and another which invites the interpreter to go within and beneath.

The first of these is the Great Stupa of Borobudur. The 9th-century Buddhist worshiper approaching a typical stupa might expect from experience to find a large hemispherical or bell-shaped burial mound decorated with a modest array of symbols– abstract, floral, or figural– that stimulate and reinforce his worship by evoking key precepts. What the reverent seeker would find instead, here in the hills northwest of Yogyakarta, is a semi-structured adventure in which the visitor selects his own path, undertakes various physical and mental challenges, and works his self-tailored way upward toward the climactic encounter where ascent gives way to transcendence.

Great Stupa of Borobodur
Great Stupa of Borobodur (Wikimedia Commons)
Borobudur, aerial
Borobudur, aerial (Wikimedia Commons)

This man-made mountain (actually an augmented natural hill) consists of concentric rectilinear or circular terraces. The lowest tier, three platforms making up a base, symbolizes the world of desires, that earthly and immanent realm through which the pilgrim has traveled to arrive at this destination. The next five tiers represent the world of forms, an abstract and heady domain where concept and percept unite in art and action to induce the purposive wanderer to ponder. Finally, the top three tiers– scarcely visible from the ground– introduce the worshiper into the world of formlessness, a cityscape of smaller stupas, each inhabited by a statue of the teaching Buddha. Here, exploration inculcates the worshiper in the way of transcendence.

Borobudur, plan
Borobudur, plan (Wikimedia Commons)

Seen from above, the structure is a tantric mandala where these tiers and their symbolism take graphical, schematic form. Every detail of the stupa conforms to, and confirms, the meaning of the monument as a mediating abstraction where immanence and transcendence converge.

Borobodur, face
Borobodur, face

Of course, the visitor does not see the Great Stupa from above. The visitor is on foot, and the approach conceals the complexity of the mountain's terraced form. Instead, the approach makes conspicuous only the simplest path upward: a direct ascent up any of the four stairways centered on the stupa's sides.

Following this one evident path, the visitor quickly discovers many additional paths that extend laterally at intervals from each main stairway. As a cross-section of the stupa shows, every squarish terrace is actually a sunken walkway flanked by high walls.

Borobudur, half section
Borobudur, half section (Wikimedia Commons)

Lining those walls, some 2,670 bas-relief sculptural panels (about 55% of them pictorial) communicate episodes, scenes, and symbols from the legendary lives of the Buddha. The panels in the lowest walkway above the base present the Jataka Tales, which place a folkloric emphasis on the animal world and interactions with nature. In higher tiers, more thematically elevated topics about the Buddha or Bodhisattvas prevail. The life and enlightenment of the Buddha set the stage for the remainder of the ascent. So the worshiper faces a choice: whether to ascend as a spectator on the direct and easy path toward the top, or to turn from the easy path and circumambulate as an exploratory pilgrim on one or more of the many walkways. Each digression, each turn along a longer, meandering path, finds its reward in the narration, education, and illumination that the encountered panels provide.

Borobodur, a meandering path
Borobodur, a meandering path (Photo by gssq)
Borobudur, looking back
Borobudur, a winding way (
Borobudur, sculptural panels
Borobudur, sculptural panels
Queen Maya, mother of Siddhartha Gautama
Queen Maya, mother of Siddhartha Gautama (Wikimedia Commons)

Along the way, one bend in the path recalls another, providing rhythm and rhyme to the discerning of stories. Here and there, for those inclined to look up, a whisper of the Buddha peeks out from one or another of many niches.

Borobudur, niche
Borobudur, niche

In counterpoint to the gradual revelation of content, 160 pictorial panels lie hidden behind or beneath the stupa's base. These represent worldly virtues and vices that illustrate the law of karma. The one who takes a path cannot see these karma panels, but they lay a conceptual foundation for evaluating the tales told above.

Conventions govern the wandering. The devout pilgrim will circumambulate in a clockwise sense. But the choice of which tier to explore, where and when to pause, which tale to read, how long to take, which connections to discern, and finally when and how to ascend to the next set of choices falls to the wanderer. In this manner, the visitor's physical act of ascent and mental act of episodic interpretation become metaphors for the journey of life and enlightenment of the mind elaborated in a densely semiotic microcosm. The Great Stupa is an analog, a Buddhist cosmology of the changing and the unchanging.

Above the five storied pathways, the visitor will find three circular tiers. Unlike those below, these allow the viewing and the viewer to flow unimpeded among the paths. Where closure and opacity mark the middle part of the journey, openness and permeability mark the end.

Borobudur, upper tier
Borobudur, upper tier

On these concentric tiers, 72 stupas surround the final, greatest stupa di tutte le stupe. Each of these six dozen consists of a latticework of stones and gaps, and within each perforated, bell-like structure sits a statue of the Buddha executing one of five enlightening mudras. Well above the earth that brought him here, the worshiper can refine his understanding of the tales he chose to encounter below, contemplate the spectacular view, discern the meaning of these final, semi-cloaked gestures, and meditate on the austere abstraction of the final undecorated stupa that stands at the head and heart of the mandala.

Stupa di tutte le stupe (Photo by gssq,
Stupa di tutte le stupe (Photo by gssq)

Like life in general, the artwork provides an occasion for self-directed adventure by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. The Great Stupa provides immersion.

My first example demonstrates some of the power of going around and upon the artwork. Five hundred years later and seven thousand miles away from Java, my second example demonstrates some of the power of going within and beneath the artwork.

The 14th-century Christian worshiper approaching a grand Gothic cathedral might expect from experience to find an enormous, engulfing world of glow, color, sound, and form catering to large crowds of pilgrims who perambulate in a clockwise sense from chapel to chapel along a walkway consecrated to this purpose, and who then return to the bright light and heavy weather of the world without. But the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is no grand cathedral. So the same worshiper approaching this small, free-standing, semi-public family chapel, mostly masonry with minimal window work and modest external decor, would perhaps temper his expectations if indeed he had any at all.

Scrovegni Chapel Exterior
Scrovegni Chapel, exterior (Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing would have prepared such a visitor for the transition awaiting him as he left behind the bright, busy plaza– once a Roman arena– and entered this wholly unprepossessing structure through its simple double door. For what the reverent seeker would find inside is a semi-structured adventure in which he selects his own path, undertakes various physical and mental challenges, and works his self-tailored way toward the climactic encounter where reflexivity gives way to transcendence!

The interior of the chapel is a simple rectangle, narrow and tall, capped by a barrel vault and illuminated by six narrow windows only on the southern side.

Scrovegni Chapel, aerial
Scrovegni Chapel, windows and situation

But simplicity ends with its shape, for Giotto di Bondone painted every inch of that interior in lavish pictorial fresco. The predominant color is a dark, rich blue– in that day an extraordinarily costly pigment made from lapiz lazuli, which had to be imported from as far away as Afghanistan– and the illusion Giotto renders is that the viewer has entered a realm of sky and night. Up above, all along the semi-cylindrical ceiling, Giotto provides the twinkling stars of a night sky. Here and there, holy figures break through the firmament and gaze down on the visitor's activities.

Scrovegni Chapel, ceiling
Scrovegni Chapel, ceiling

Along both walls as well as the wall opposite the entrance, Giotto painted thirty-nine scenes from the New Testament and from Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, a contemporary "best seller" that aggregated legends and lore about the lives of saints. The scenes, each about six by six-and-a-half feet, seem to be separated into rows and columns by an elaborate architectural grid in variegated, intricately inlaid marble. But the marble framing is an illusion made in paint. It serves to organize the stories and thereby to suggest a pattern of interaction.

Scrovegni Chapel, interior
Scrovegni Chapel, interior
Scrovengi Chapel, sequence
Scrovengi Chapel, sequence

The chapel presents three familiar, related biographies in chronological order. Along the top of the southern wall, six scenes from the life of Joachim and Anna, parents of the Virgin Mary, recount the saga of their infertility and the immaculate conception of Mary. Opposite these, along the top of the other long wall and over the arch at the end, another ten recount the education, dedication, and marriage of Mary as well as the Annunciation– news from a heavenly messenger that she would conceive supernaturally and bear the Christ child. Twenty three more scenes wrapped twice around the interior recount major episodes from the life of Jesus.

What is striking about this organization of the stories is that viewing them in order requires the viewer to stand in the midst of the chapel, look up toward the top left corner of the southern wall, and then to turn 360° three times to reach the end of the cycle. This makes the arrangement literally a dizzying array of narration.

When those rotations have come to an end, another awaits: as a counterpoint to the gradual revelation of content in the narrative registers, another seven scenes at ground level along each long wall depict seven cardinal virtues and their corresponding vices. These are painted in grisaille, an illusionistic technique in grayscale that makes them look like bas-relief sculptures. The virtue and vice pictures are the easiest to see but the most abstract of all. Through their position, coloration, and content, they lay a conceptual foundation for evaluating the tales told above.

Scrovegni Chapel, Envy
Scrovegni Chapel, Vices: Envy
Scrovegni Chapel, Charity
Scrovegni Chapel, Virtues: Charity

Given the awkwardness of the process that a chronological reading of the images seems to entail, the worshiper faces a choice: whether to spin as the tales are spirally spun, or to move among the pictures and draw thematic connections in some less rigid way.

Anticipating this deviation from the strict sequence, Giotto provided alternative visual cues that deliver interpretive satisfaction in a variety of ways. Among the virtues and vices, faith stands opposite infidelity, justice opposite injustice, charity opposite envy, and so forth. But this raises the question of how scenes facing one another in the higher registers might be linked, or how vertical stacks of images might share a theme. For example, on the north wall just below the presentation of the young Mary at the Temple (first tier, 8 ) are two scenes that represent the beginning and end of Jesus' public ministry: his baptism (second tier, 23) and his crucifixion (third tier, 35). On the south wall opposite these depictions, the corresponding vertical pair shows the first and last acts of violence directed against him between his birth and execution: the massacre of the innocents (second tier, 21) and the flagellation (third tier, 33). These corresponding vertical pairs stand above the emblematic depictions of envy and charity.

Scrovegni Chapel, Wedding and Funeral
Scrovegni Chapel, Wedding and Funeral

Beneath a top-tier scene in which the suitors of young Mary pray that the dry sticks they have brought will supernaturally blossom, Giotto offers the raising of dead Lazarus (second tier, 25) and the resurrection of Jesus (third tier, 37). This stack of images about life despite death stand above the vice of injustice, which yields death out of life.

In another vertical stack, Giotto presents a wedding and a funeral, the Miracle at Cana (second tier, 24) and the Lamentation (third tier, 36). As he does throughout the chapel, Giotto includes in the illusionistic pseudo-architectural framework tiny emblematic or typological scenes from the Hebrew scriptures. Next to the mourning over the dead Christ, Giotto places Jonah being swallowed by the great fish, a tale that Jesus found analogous to his own death. Next to the creation of wine from water, Giotto includes the creation of Adam from earth.

Scrovegni Chapel, free form reading
Scrovegni Chapel, free form reading (Photo by

Thematic, theological, and emotional connections abound here in the horizontal, the vertical, the framing, the opposition, and so forth, so that the visitor who decides to wander around and search for connections will surely find them. Some Giotto provides explicitly. Some emerge spontaneously apart from his intentions as a result of the visitor's voluntary, self-directed engagement with densely thematic material presented in a sketched but incomplete web of formal interconnections. For this reason, the visitor's physical choice between spiral reading and free form reading (or synthesis of them), like his mental choice between prosaic and poetic interpretation (or synthesis of them), is a metaphor for the management of key paradoxes or complements at the heart of Christian experience that call for equilibrium: foreordination and free choice, law and liberty, pre-interpretation and re-interpretation, action and contemplation. The Scrovegni Chapel inducts the visiting Christian into the exercise of balanced understanding.

If the viewer abides at just the right time, perhaps the sun crossing the southern sky will shine directly into the narrow slits that serve as windows. If it does, its beams will directly illuminate the six frescoes that represent the Passion of the Christ.

Scrovegni Chapel, passionate sunbeams
Scrovegni Chapel, passionate sunbeams, photo by Eleonora Porta

Ready to leave the starry world of story and synthesis, the worshiper must turn to face the double doors by means of which he entered in the first place. On that end wall, the viewer confronts a grand depiction of the Last Judgment, one from which even Michelangelo drew inspiration.

Scrovegni Chapel, Last Judgment
Scrovegni Chapel, Last Judgment

Up near the vault, angels rolling up the lapis lazuli heavens like a scroll reveal tantalizing glimpses of the heavenly realm beyond. In the center, Christ in majesty signals blessing to those on his right and curse to those on his left. The blessed ascend with the same graceful tilt that marked Giotto's representation of Jesus' ascension elsewhere in the chapel. The cursed, stripped bare, plummet into rivers of flaming blood that flush them into any inky abyss to meet their doom at the hands of demonic torturers who mutilate and consume them.

By confronting the visitor with this stark antithesis between blessing and curse, salvation and damnation, joy and despair, Giotto proposes a moment of reflection best spent processing whatever one has learned in the course of construing and constructing his chapel's lessons. In that moment, the visitor comes face to face with the empty cross at the foot of the reigning Christ. Standing near the cross, three saintly figures receive from a humble, kneeling donor, Enrico Scrovegni, his very special pledge.

Scrovegni Chapel, Last Judgment, detail
Scrovegni Chapel, Last Judgment, detail

The gift he gives is the Scrovegni Chapel itself, recognizable by its distinctive, austere architectural style. He offers it not merely as a specimen of architecture or a stunt of fresco, but as a token of the complex type of immersive sensory experience and subversive spiritual encounter that the chapel was designed to provide.

About to re-enter the world that brought him here, the worshiper– the adventuresome interpreter– can pause to refine his understanding of the tales he chose to encounter among the contrivances of this magical vaulted space. He can contemplate the transcendent mysteries of the faith, ponder Christ's and Scrovegni's gestures, and weigh the paradox that losing oneself wholly in the rich weave of meaning is, among other things, a journey of self discovery. As he leaves, perhaps he'll wonder: to me much has been given, so have I anything to give? And perhaps, as he proceeds into the light or the night, he'll read himself and everything else just a little differently.

2 thoughts on “Immersion”

  1. Congratulations! Your post was selected to be included in the November issue of the Art History Carnival.

    Keep up the good work! This was my favorite post that I read during the review process. I especially liked your discussion of the Scrovegni Chapel. It is interesting to consider how the visitor is fully physically encompassed in that structure. I especially like the thought of how the building (especially the decorative ceiling) encloses over the visitor's head (as opposed to the open-air stupa).

    I'm glad to have become familiar with your blog through the review process. I look forward to reading your future posts.

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