The Great Cyclorama of Jerusalem

Cyclorama

— post by Helen Smith

Soon after we received news that we had been successful in our bid for network funding, I told a friend I was about to spend a few days in Quebec. ‘You must see the Jerusalem cyclorama!‘, he said.

Tucked away in the tiny town of St-Anne-de-Beaupré is a striking round building, home to a vast perspectival representation of the crucifixion. 14 metres high, and 110 metres in circumference, the ‘cyclorama’ is viewed from a small central platform, as a spectral voice guides you, step by step through the landscape of the Holy City.

Though the guidebook boasts that ‘Cyclorama creates an illusion of life … so real that it gives visitors the feeling that they are themselves in Jerusalem’, the truth – at least for those living in an age of 3-D cinema – is less compelling, though the intricate detail of the painting is still remarkable.

How did the Cyclorama end up in rural Canada? It was made in Munich between 1878 and 1882. The painter, Her Bruno Piglhein was so determined to achieve an absolute realism that – along with two companions – he spent a year in Jerusalem, taking photographs and studying the history of the city. His aim was to educate an ignorant public on biblical history, including details of dress, customs, and the surrounding countryside.

In trying to locate the scenes of the crucifixion within the places of Jersualem, Piglheim and his associates were following in the long tradition of Geographia sacra, or sacred geography, which flourished during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cartographers and biblical scholars worked hard to map biblical events onto the landscape of the Middle East, sometimes struggling to resolve obvious discrepancies between the biblical text and the physical features of the countryside (the abundant fertility of Jerusalem was one such trope).

The panorama was an exceptionally popular form. Conceived by Robert Barker in 1787, as he walked in the hills overlooking Edinburgh, panoramas were supposed to immerse the viewer completely in the scene, blurring the line between art and reality. Barker and his son created the first 360-degree panorama – a view of London – in a rotunda in Leicester Square.

Over time, the subjects of panoramas transformed, changing from sublime landscapes to military battles and biblical scenes. During and after the Napoleonic wars, panoramas displayed the victories and defeats of the Emperor. As his leading artist, Piglhein chose Paul Philippoteaux, already famous for his panoramic depictions of the Siege of Paris, the Battle of Gettysburg, and – perhaps most famously – the Battle of Waterloo.

The Cyclorama went on tour, displayed in the capital cities of Europe before it was taken to Montreal. In 1895, with the popularity of the panorama in decline, it was given its permanent home, near the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré.

Though the Cyclorama was designed to both immerse and educate visitors, it is clear that the ‘historic’ costumes and scenes bear the hallmarks of late nineteenth-century taste, and many visitors went to marvel at least as much at the size and technical achievement of the painting as to learn the story it told.

On a late September day in 2013, the Cyclorama was very quiet. It stands now opposite a car park, and the interior lacks the vivid freshness it must once have possessed. Its reviews on TripAdvisor are mixed, though one of the happier visitors records that ‘My wife and myself visited Jerusalem in Jul 2015’ – a momentary collapse of the city and its representation that would have made Piglheim proud!

Where the Cyclorama was once applauded as a compelling, immersive landscape, it stands now as a souvenir of the great age of the panorama, and the democratisation (in part, at least) of the great sites and scenes of the world and its history. It stands as a compelling reminder of the shifting priorities of heritage, commemoration, and display – now less a record of the biblical scenes and more a reminder of the competitive history and technical challenges of three-dimensional display.

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