Adventures in Research (1): The Cyclorama of Jerusalem

Some time ago, while I was doing research for Chapter 2 of my Dissertation, I stumbled across the existence of a 19th Century panorama entitled The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. This popular attraction, located in the small town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec, depicts the moment of the Crucifixion, as well as Jerusalem and its environs. With its rich depth-of-field and immersive, 360° construction, The Cyclorama sought to provide visitors with an immersive experience that would allow them to encounter the exact moment when Christ was crucified.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to see just how far Sainte-Anne was from Syracuse, and it turned out that it was about 6.5 hours, not bad at all. When an opportunity came to go to a conference in Montreal, I thought I would seize the opportunity to make a jaunt up to see this cyclorama for myself.

I am very glad that I did.

Believe it or not, cycloramas were all the rage in the late 19th Century, and many have identified them as a precursor to the cinema. They typically depicted famous battles or other historical events that were deemed culturally significant; in fact, there is another extant cyclorama located at Gettysburg. Stylistically, they often emphasized both depth and breadth, so that the presumptive spectator could feel as if they were fully immersed in the midst of history. For the 19th Century, a period consumed with the consumption of history, the cyclorama was a tremendous opportunity to escape the bounds of modernity.

Even today, over 100 years after its original painting, this cyclorama is still awe-inspiring in the scale of its accomplishment. If you are willing to pay the extra $2 to rent a pair of binoculars, you can can get a real sense of the extraordinary detail with which this pivotal moment in the history of Christianity has been depicted. This was clearly a project that entailed a great deal of love and affection on the part of its creators, who have endowed the entire thing with a feeling of profound sanctity.

As strange as it may sound, while I stood there gazing, I could imagine myself caught at the interstice of several temporal planes: in the 1st Century CE (as bizarre as that sounds), perhaps even at the Crucifixion itself; at the end of the 19th Century, when spectacle-hungry tourists would have gazed in wonder at this marvel of artistry and technology; and in the present day, as a fledgling scholar interested in theories of immersion and embodied religious spectating. All seemed to be present in me (and I in them), as I stood on the balcony looking out at the vast expanse of the cyclorama.

What’s more, the painting itself seems caught up in its own chronotopic complexity. While Christ hangs suspended on the Cross, the world seems to move on around him. Aside from those standing at the foot of the Cross gazing up at his abjected body, many of the figures in the painting seem to be going on about their daily lives, heedless of the momentous event that has just transpired in their midst. Both stasis and movement are a key part of the cyclorama’s appeal. Likewise, the moment that it captures seems to be both in and outside of history, as Christ breathes his last and escapes from the worldly plane, it’s hard not to feel a sense of bereavement that, regardless of which temporal plane one inhabits at that particular moment, one is still stuck in the midst of historical time. The entire cyclorama, both in theme and execution, remains caught at the intersection of stasis and action.

What stood out to me the most, at least at a physical level, was the way my body responded to it as I was standing there. It is breathtaking in scope in a very literal way. When you first ascend the stairs and see the vista laid out before you, you suck in your breath at the sense of spatial disorientation that accompanies seeing the vastness of this accomplishment. Just as importantly, I also felt my eyes begin to feel the strain of gazing at this scene, and while I’m not entirely sure why that was–whether it was the poor lighting, the sheer scale of the painting, or something else entirely–it also kept bringing me back into my body, disrupting the sense of transcendence that always seemed just at the cusp of attainment.

Unfortunately, the future of The Cyclorama of Jerusalem is in some doubt. According to one of the attendants, there has been a marked decrease in funding, and apparently most of the upkeep for the Cyclorama comes from the nearby church. As a media historian, this saddens me deeply, as it is just another example of how much historical knowledge and experience is threatened with extinction by the relentless march of modernity and the unwillingness of many people to seek out the sort of roadside attractions that were once such a central part of the modern experience. Sure, there are parts of it that are a bit campy, but that doesn’t lessen the value of this attraction as a relic of a previous time, one that was an important precursor for the cinema.

If you can, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to this magnificent piece of artistic achievement. Sure, parts of it are a little kitschy (the location looks more than a little orientalist, complete with domes), and the interior looks as if it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. Rather than mocking it, though, I prefer to find it charming, a little reminder of the sorts of roadside attractions that once dotted the North American landscape, vestiges from a world that has been left behind.

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I’m really glad that I visited The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. What’s more, I’m now more convinced than I was before that this sort of attraction was a pivotal precursor for the widescreen processes of the 1950s.

Stay tuned for my next adventure in research, which will hopefully be another cyclorama, this one at Gettysburg.

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