Stendhal Syndrome

“….and here we see a remarkable piece from his ‘Black Period’ which ranged from 1647 to 1701. Notice the larger than life quality of the individuals in the work, which is a result of their exaggerated facial features and the subtle use of chiaroscuro.”

The guide continued to fill the ears of the other museum visitors with fanciful words detailing the history of the art before us. I scratched my face beneath my right eye. It’d been a long two hours thus far. The first half of the tour had been enthralling, but now toward the end my interest was beginning to wane. Though the subtle use of chiaroscuro bringing out the central figures was impressive, I could not appreciate it as I was too fatigued – both of roaming the hardwood of the Renaissance wing and of viewing masterpieces which now all blended into one another.

“….though only a simple depiction of domestic life in the countryside on its surface, the subtle shades and exaggerated emotion in the facial expressions of the family allude to a greater theme beyond that of this simple country home depicted. Scholars in the early 19th century noted that the central figure, the father, can be viewed as a representation of Satan, and his family gathering with him around the light of the candle as his servants, the forces of evil.

“The real action in this masterful work, the real story, is told in the subtlety of the background; in the impossible perspective through the farmhouse window we see the dark rolling hills of the countryside’s farmland stretching to infinity, and the suffering of the common folk who are indentured to work the land for their greater master. The inevitability of a life of work and servitude to the corruption of those in control must truly have seemed to the people of the time truly vile, and brought to mind the work of The Evil One as alluded to in this complex layered portrait of agrarian life.”

I yawned. Though my interest had waned, I could not help but keep my eyes riveted to the guide – she was pretty: blonde, and her voice had a melodius quality to it.

In the crowd, someone sniffled, breaking the flow of the stream of words of times past and the beautiful works of the Masters.

I turned and saw that right beside me was a girl, a tiny girl who could be not more than fourteen. I’d not seen her before and was sure she hadn’t come in with the group – I was at the back of the crowd, closest to her and would have noticed. She was short, and her midnight hair hung limply in unruly bunches around her head. Her face was pale and her beneath her locks I could see her fair skin was wet, puffy and bright pink, as though she’d been crying.

“This piece is best viewed from a far distance and…” The stream of beautiful words stopped with another sniff, this time a sniff which turned into a sad sob, loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear. People in the crowd began to turn their heads. The museum guide stopped talking.

The sob was followed by another, and another. The crowd parted and left me and the girl staring between them at the bewildered tour leader and the massive black work of Renaissance allegory. The sobbing grew in intensity and volume; she was openly crying now, not wails of sadness but of fear and distress.

The guide slowly and cautiously stepped forward and leaned down to talk to the pale frightened girl. Her blue museum jacket shifted on her small frame and I saw light glint off the pin on the lapel.

“Sweetie, are you alright?” she said in a rising lilt.

I began to back away slowly. The girl was quiet now, trembling and staring straight past the guide and into the black depths of the dark canvas on the wall. Her shoulders and head were shaking. The museum guide began to back away. “Sweetie….”

The girl was catatonic now, trembling and frozen in fear. My blood turned to ice as I watched her eyes roll back and turn completely white. Her mouth was open but made no sound. She slowly raised a shaking thin white arm and pointed at the wall.

The painting was alive.

The subtle dark tones of the work’s shadows were leaking around the ornate golden frame and out onto the museum walls like a noxious vapor. The wicked elongated face of the central figure had depth now, and his wicked smile was growing wider. The pointed hear began to emerge from the flatness of the canvas and out into the gallery air.

The tiny toiling figures in the countryside became living beings in miniature, cowering in the monstrosity of the dark family within the farmhouse. The children were gaining shape now too, and the wife in her cowled shawl, their twisted faces were emerging from the shadows on long serpentine necks, twisting and turning.

The girl’s crying was drowned out by a scream, and the rising panic of me of those around me realizing that what we were seeing was real. One of the tour group, an old man in a khaki trenchcoat, turned to run but a tendril of the thick seeping vapor suddenly shot out and enclosed him. I watched his screaming face gradually be covered in blackness which had turned into that like a black ink.

The gallery hall was chaos now. I watched a woman get eaten by a monstrous black mouth like a giant Venus Flytrap. Across the room I saw the long face of The Evil One above the guide plunging and writhing – it was devouring her. The coiling tendrils of black smoke emerging from the painting took solid form and enveloped all those around. A leg here, an arm there, a torso – it pulled their clawing forms back into the awaiting darkness on the wall.

Through all the turmoil I stood unscathed next to the girl, and her next to me. She stared sightlessly with her white eyes into the black depths and watched the bodies of the museum guests – bloody, broken, twisted, dismembered – as they were sucked in.

A woman’s shrill scream snapped me out of my trance.

I ran from the gallery hall and did not look back.

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