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A Reader Asks…

A Reader Asks…The Purkinje Effect in Medieval Art

A Vidimus reader, Richard Legault, poses the fascinating question of whether medieval art shows evidence that the optical illusion known as the Purkinje effect or Purkinje shift was exploited, deliberately or otherwise, in medieval art, and perhaps particularly so in stained glass, with its frequent deployment on intense tones of red and blue, and its inherent dependence on light in its perception. Richard invites fellow readers’ response.

The highly perfected artistry of Disney Studio’s Animatronics technology draws millions of tourists to their theme parks every year. To be sure, imparting a sense of motion to works of art in any medium can have a powerful effect on observers drawing them deeper into the significance and performance experience of any work of art. In this context, the well-studied Purkinje effect is relevant. In the right lighting conditions, it can trick the brain into a perception of motion where in reality there is none. It all has to do with the way human neuro-circuitry and cognition has evolved to switch the focus of attention back and forth between higher and lower frequencies of visible light in dim lighting conditions. This switching back and forth can impart a sense of motion to polychrome images – paintings, frescoes, painted sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, reliquaries, decorated catacombs and so on.

Does it make sense to consider that the Purkinje effect, or other optical illusory effects of a similar kind, could have been deliberately, inadvertently or accidentally exploited in the Middle Ages in Gothic Art? Could such effects be major contributors to claims of religious experiences of visions? Could these effects have played a role in enhancing the greater reputation for spiritual power of some pilgrimage sites over others?

The only two serious studies I am aware of, so far, are:

• Underhill, Justin “The Phenomenology of Sunset at the Palace of the Jaguars, Teotihuacan” in World Art.

• Duckworth and Sassin Colour and Light in Ancient and Medieval Art, Routledge, Dec 15, 2017, which contains a chapter on a study of the Throne Room at Knossos.

I would be grateful to all who could add to this list and or share with me any related experiences or projects of their own. Please get in touch at richardjlegault@gmail.com.