The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to explore the relationship between language used to describe the psychotic state and mystical experience, exploring the spirituality of mental illness through an immersion in sacred space. Otto Wagner’s Jugendstil Church is one of very few sacred spaces built exclusively for the mentally ill, providing a sanctuary for the patients of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. The exhibition will follow KUNSTGLAUBE’s tradition of offering a pilgrimage through the Church, beginning with an invitation to contemplate both historical and contemporary understandings of madness. Each of the works will be positioned throughout the liturgical space in order to enter into a meaningful dialogue with both theology and liturgy. The journey from crypt to the church will guide the visitor through a series of video installations in the dark and damp to emerge into a light filled church completely transformed by an immersive installation.
There have only been a small number of artworks and buildings created for the specific purpose of consoling the disturbed. The Isenheim altarpiece in Colmar, France was painted specifically for patients suffering from “Saint Anthony’s fire,” a condition known as ergotoxicosis. In the paintings, Matthias Grunewald included figures affected by the same symptoms of the disease as those who prayed before it. The bloated stomachs, gangrene limbs and bodies contorted in pain appear around the crucified body of Christ who seems to bear the same wounds as those afflicted. There is evidence in the design of the Kirche am Steinhof, that Otto Wagner also endeavored to provide a space that accounted for the specific condition in which the majority of patients found themselves. At the time of the Church’s construction, over ninety percent of patients intended for internment suffered from various strains of syphilis. Aware of the highly contagious nature of the disease, holy water was distributed by tap rather than from a bowl into which many contaminated hands would have otherwise deposited and further spread the virus. The easily washable tiles on the walls and floor, emergency exits on both sides of the church, wide aisles, narrow pews and the inaccessible sanctuary are all features that have accounted for the patients. The inclusion of a depiction of Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill in the apse and the absence of a prominent crucifix have also sought to console the patients.
Despite having different focus areas in their respective works on mysticism, roughly six characteristics of the mystical experience can be derived from Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, William James, Walter Stace and D.T. Suzuki. These characteristics include:
1) a sense of being connected/united with a supreme/transcendental other
2) a sense of being connected/united with other people/nature
3) a loss of sense of time
4) a loss of sense of space
5) an inability to articulate the experience
6) a lasting sense of peace
Attempts at categorising the mystical experience have often adopted similar language and processes to those found in the field of psychiatry. In 2006, a committee formed by prominent clinicians and researchers of the American Psychiatric Association presented an analysis of the implications of religion and spirituality for the diagnosis, course, and outcomes of psychiatric treatment. Their Research Agenda for the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) addressed the spiritual and philosophical issues involved in distinguishing a psychiatric disorder from a spiritual condition. Even after considerable changes to both the DSM-V and the 10th edition of the Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10), it surely remains challenging for the clinician to distinguish between religious delusions as a potential expression of a psychiatric disorder, mystical experience, and positive religious coping strategies. Disturbances that have a religious dimension should not by default be viewed as pathological. When an individual is however unable to find an acceptable explanation or social comparison for their arousal or disturbance, their inability to deal with it could eventually lead to symptoms of psychopathology.