As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground. – Nineteenth century French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)
Rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion, even hallucinations: just a few of the colorful symptoms that manifest in Stendhal Syndrome. Though the medical “disorder” was named after the famous author for his description of experiences while visiting Florentine churches and art galleries, Stendhal’s occurs with surprising regularity when people are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievements, especially the Renaissance art of Florence. After a lifetime of grubbing in American strip malls, there’s nothing like a sudden, blinding jolt of connection with the transcendent to prove to be more than some folks bargained for.
I get why these people’s hearts beat fast and their legs give out. I remember an afternoon watching light make sapphires and rubies of the air around the stained glass in the Florentine church of Santa Croce. I stood with a crick in my neck and an ache in my heart before the same Giotto frescoes that made Marie-Henri swoon two centuries ago. As to fear of falling, I could easily have sunk down among the pigeon guano outside some of those jewel-like basilicas and wept my eyes out over the gray blast of the world that hit me on the other side.
Living this far from paradise, extreme beauty is just plain dangerous. It smacks of God and we’re wary of it. Psychosomatic symptoms are the mind’s perfect deflection tactic. Still, we get our milliseconds, our sparkling glimpses of what’s beyond all this, “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as C.S. Lewis put it in “The Weight of Glory.” Whatever keeps us starving for what lies beyond the pigeon poop. When Prince Vladimir’s pagan emissaries visited the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they readily admitted, “we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.” What a tragedy, if they did know how to tell.
Go ahead and fall hard, Marie-Henri. I’m right behind you.