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Heaven in a Box

Originally published 11 Nov 2010

I recently visited the Netherlands and came upon elaborate 17th century doll house exhibits. It made me think of virtual reality, where - like doll houses – the inner psychological depths and expansive terrains unfold for the intrepid.  The worlds we find there have become ever richer, speedier, and deeper.

17th century Dollhouse, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, Holland

It’s the craving to break out of the metaphorical dollhouse that is driving technological innovation in games and virtual reality.  In this post I look at how the desire to experience religious ideals drove the artistic innovation of linear perspective in art, the conceptual forerunner of virtual experiences. Now, the box is truly overflowing via immersive games and entertainment.

First I pause to consider what was driving the Renaissance Italian forward in the quest for perspective in art.  Most of the art in late medieval Europe was made for its audience to channel Christian feelings, whether that be through contemplating Mary or even their own divine sorrow if they were lucky enough to be a client portrayed in a scene.  To enable the connection with divine beings and their surroundings, the style became increasingly realistic.

“The failure of the Crusades, the loss of Jerusalem, and schismatic divisions within the Church itself had badly weakened the Faith by the late Middle Ages, and many felt that religious imagery needed to be refreshed in order to help rekindle Christian fervour. Some application of the revived ancient science of Euclidian geometry might be the answer.” (ref 1)
At the same time, all good Christians believed during the Middle-Ages, that living mortals are permitted to view the world only as a pale reflection of true “reality” in heaven, just as Saint Paul stated in his Epistle to the Corinthians I, 13:12, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then [in heaven] face to face. (ref 1)

Artists in the early 1400s began to play with the concept of mirroring reality through the employment of  natural laws such as geometry and perspective.  In Italy it is important to note, artists were no longer considered to be artist-craftsmen (as in the middle ages) but artist-philosophers. (ref 2) They helped citizens make sense of their inner world and the crucial problem of how to make it through to the end-game (death) and achieve salvation rather than damnation.

This mirroring metaphor can become philosophically and visually very rich and involved. A simple mirror of reality would be an even paler reflection of heaven, and therefore not much use. However, artists could create an ‘alternative’ mirror of heaven – a clearer, less obscured mirror. So heaven could be glimpsed face to face in a preview of our eventual salvation.

Perspective serves two purposes in this scenario.

  • Firstly it obeys the laws of natural space, which in their perfection, were one of the divine components of reality as a heavenly reflection. In other words, the more geometrically perfect, the better in terms of heavenly accuracy.

  • Secondly it breaks down the barriers between real space and the flat surface of a painting, and therefore the barriers to experience.

Linear perspective created a metaphorical doorway from reality to the heavenly space inside the box (and ourselves).

The Virgin and Child, 1426, Masaccio, The National Gallery, London

Masaccio’s The Virgin and Child is a great place to reflect on these concepts.  Masaccio was one of the first painters in Italy to employ linear perspective as worked out by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446), architect of the great Dome of the Cathedral of Florence.

This painting appears to house a recess within a wall.  The throne and heavenly beings tangibly and weightily occupy that receding box.  It is clear this isn’t pure realism with flat planes of gold framing the throne. A metaphor perhaps of the unknowable divine realm – too bright for even our less obscured painting mirror.  The angels are anchored to the shimmering plane with their flat gold halos. Notably, the Christ child’s halo alone is three dimensional – the only being capable of reconciling heavenly shimmer to our space.  The seated foreground angels slant  in and out of the space with their lutes.  A map of our journey in and out of the realm perhaps.  We can’t stay, we’re just visual visitors.

As mathematics were employed in the quest to revive Renaissance religious fervour, the games industry in now expanding our home playground to fuel sales.  The beautiful box now mirrors our organic movements: we can see our reflection more clearly.  Yet what is this place in which we want to see ourselves?   For certain they are spaces of emotional catharsis whether that be through aggression, dominance, cunning, speed, victory, role play or creation.  But what enhanced immersion does, is also what Renaissance paintings do – turbo boost our ability to ‘get inside the experience’.   And by simulating more fully our position in simulated reality we experience that catharsis more fully. 

However, unlike Renaissance painting, which brought together citizens in a universal imagining, games attempt to capture diverse fragments of desire, shared by some demographics and not others.  What the new generation of physically interactive consoles will do for sure is capture the children’s market more fully.  The Kinectimals, a Microsoft Kinect game of 2010  featured engaging cuddly animal experiences for children. Children and adults alike could get off the sofa and frolic with animal friends on the carpet, (now a meadow).

Kinectables, for Microsoft Kinect 360 (2010)

The implications of this are interesting to think about.  Will this create a new generation of adults unable to visualise their own inner worlds?  Will VR designers be the new philosopher artists, tasked with packaging myriad views of otherwise unobtainable glimpses of personal heaven?

It seems it will definitely increase demographic reach of virtual experiences.  But I do question….is the VR craving simply unquenchable?  Is the destination as elusive as heaven on earth in fifteenth century Italy?  Regardless, the journey is definitely art.

References 1. Edgerton, Samuel Y., Rev, of The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, by, Samuel Y Edgerton,Nexus Network Journal – Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010: 150.

2. BBC4 Renaissance Revolution, Programme 3/3, Matthew Collings analyses the illusionism and perspective used by the Peiro dela Franseca


A freely available translation of Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Pittura (on Painting) which contains the Treatise on Perspective.Edgerton, Samuel Y., The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, Cornell University Press (2009)



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