Posts Tagged 'UWA-P5-research_point'

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil

In this exercise we are asked to “research some of the ways in which trompe l’oeil has been exploited in works of art, particularly in decorative schemes”.

Petrus Christus Portrait of a Carthusian 1446   Oil on wood

Petrus Christus
Portrait of a Carthusian (and detail)
1446 Oil on wood
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Trompe l’oeil” has been defined: “Term applied to a painting (or a detail of one) that is intended to deceive the spectator (if only briefly) into thinking that it is a real object rather than a two-dimensional representation of it” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 636 (2012 printing)).

On the right is an example from 1446 – a fly apparently perches on the edge of the lower frame. It displays the skill of the artist, highlights the brief moment represented, perhaps serves as a symbol, momento mori, and presents the viewer with a momentary puzzle and surprise. However the artist has gone further. The lay brother is shown in a space, the corner of a room. It’s very hard to appreciate with modern eyes, but everything about the picture is presenting an illusion of three-dimensional space.

In his later discussion Chilvers distinguishes trompe l’oeil from other “pictorial illusionism” such as quadratura. This he defines as ” as type of illusionistic decoration in which architectural elements are painted on wall and/or ceilings in such a way that they appear to be an extension of the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 507 (2012 printing)).

Masaccio The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors 1425   fresco  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors
1425 fresco
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s fresco of the Holy Trinity includes amazing architectural features. It’s always dangerous to judge from photos, but the pilasters, attached columns and barrel vaulting of this image appear incredibly realistic, the tomb below projecting into the body of the church, the chapel opening out behind. Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 420-421) explain “with the aid of the new system of perspective Masaccio painted all the figures to scale and set them within a single unified space. … Two levels of reality, temporal and eternal, are … indicated”.

"Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)" by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway - Church of Sant'Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Andrea Pozzo
painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio.
“Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)” by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway – Church of Sant’Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s work was created fairly soon after the re-discovery of linear perspective in the Renaissance. It is thought that he may have been advised or assisted in the work by Brunelleschi, a pioneer in the technique.

Just over 160 years later, Pozzo’s amazing painted ceiling in the Church of SantIgnazio was created. In the photographs I find it virtually impossible to determine what is physical architectural detail and what is part of the extraordinary paintwork. This allegorical fresco celebrates the triumph of Catholicism in the Counter-Reformation, and in particular the contribution of the Jesuits. The vision of heaven is apparently only completely convincing from a single point given the complexity of lines of perspective and optical illusion, but such details are lost in reproductions (or possibly most photographs are either cropped or taken from that particular position). The heathen and heretics tumble, Europe’s natural supremacy over all other continents is presented as natural, inevitable, perhaps ordained by god.

Discussing this work Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 576 – 577) explain the European attempt to impose order on the peoples discovered in the various voyages of discovery in the period. A classification system “which implied a process of social evolution from ‘savagery’ to civilization” was adopted supporting “the Christianization and commercial exploitation of the territory”.

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

In this light it is interesting to view the interior of the Sacred Heart in Beagle Bay. I included an image of the interior when writing about my recent trip to Western Australia (see 26-Aug-2014).

030The traditional owners of this land are the Nyul Nyul people, and they call this area Ngarlum Burr. The European name was given in 1838, the first Catholic missionary arrived in 1885, French trappist monks in 1890, replaced by German Pollottine missionaries in 1900. The church was designed prior to 1908, and was based on a photograph of a German village church. It was built 1915 to 1918 when wartime restrictions were placed on the movements of the German priests and brothers.

048I believe some of the wall painting and decoration with different shells goes beyond simple decoration, providing a brief impression of a real object, in particular in the treatment of the thurible (hanging censer).

Considered immediately after Pozzo’s work, it could seem possible that Sacred Heart church was another statement of the triumph over continents and peoples, imposing German architecture and christian beliefs, exploiting ‘savages’. Although very uncomfortable about our colonial history, I think that would be major distortion. The church remains the centre of an active parish. It “stands as a testimony to the generous work of generations of missionaries and Aboriginal people who have shared in the faith and aspirations of the Kimberley mission” (Kimberley Aviation, [n.d.]). The decoration includes tribal symbols of the local peoples as well as christian symbols. The woman who led the Sisters of St John of God to Beagle Bay has been quoted: “Remember, the natives did not ask us to come. We are here of our own choice and can only remain by their goodwill and the grace of God” (O’Brien, 1907).

After that side excursion I’ll finish with two more examples of trompe l’oiel – one all decoration, one quite different.

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The first is extensive work in the Castello di Masino. The ballroom frescos date from around 1730 and provide colour, movement and interest in a rather sparsely furnished room (see for a limited amount of additional information).

In the ballroom rows of windows, external landscapes and interior furnishings are all created in paint. The original fortress was destroyed in the sixteenth century, and the many frescos created in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I would have like to learn more about this and the reasons for the frescos. They appear to be purely a rich and elaborate decoration, but the extent of the work seems unusual. Would it be a display of wealth, or would the painted rooms be a cheaper way of richly “furnishing” the castle?

Finally Stephen Pong’s Broken Well, included in the current Archibald Prize exhibition. This three dimensional work is purely an exploration of optical illusion, with no decorative intent. The artist states “We perceive what we expect to see until our brain is confronted with conflicting information. This sculpture creates such conflict as a result of the interplay between the physics of light, reflection and inanimate objects. Mirrors were used to create an optical illusion of a dark, bottomless well. The brick wall perimeter was carefully constructed so as to merge seamlessly into the mirrored reflection. The gripping hand has been incorporated to represent a person hanging off the wall and about to meet an unknown fate akin to the struggles and outcomes encountered in one’s lifetime.” The work uses concealed lighting as well as mirrors and careful restriction of field of view to create a quite convincing illusion.


Chilvers, I. (1990, 2012) Oxford dictionary of art & artists Oxford: Oxford University Press

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kimberley Aviation ([n.d.]) Sacred Heart Church Beagle Bay Information flier available at church.

Mother Antonio O’Brien (1907) quoted in signage in Relationships Exhibition at the Old Convent, Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre, Broome

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Research Point – Trompe l’oeil


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