The Grove Dictionary of Art’s entry for “Horror vacui” tersely states: “Term applied to a composition that is overcrowded.” In the printout my research assistant made for me—she was not expecting this pithy result—most of the page is, very ironically, empty. The Latin phrase, the dictionary explains, can be translated as “fear of empty space,” and it is true that the mostly blank page might be perceived as disturbingly bare, although this unused expanse can also be seen as an invitation to jot ideas or to doodle. In the reaction I just described, we can see the dual meaning this phrase encapsulates. The compulsion to fill empty space could come from a happy place and be the result of an inexhaustible overflowing of creativity or, on the other hand, it could be an anxious and compulsive response to what is perceived as unbearable nothingness. The dictionary’s definition, though, casts a definitely negative value judgment: “overcrowded” suggests indeed clutter, even chaos; but is it always so?
While calling a composition “overcrowded” is a rather damning assessment, packing an image to convey as much information as possible is a commendable goal. The Nativity Giovanni Pisano carved for the pulpit of Pisa’s cathedral, develops the narrative and takes advantage of every inch of available space. The Virgin Mary occupies a large portion of the composition as she reclines and extends her left arm to lift a blanket over the baby Jesus who lies right next to her, with the ox and the donkey looking down. Below Mary, two midwifes are shown about to give the newborn a bath (in a charming gesture, one of them dips her hand to test the water’s temperature), while Joseph sits nearby. We also see angels telling shepherds to go pay their respects to the newborn Jesus, with their sheep filling the lower right corner. Despite the extensive cast of characters—thirteen figures (the baby Jesus appears twice and we have no less than five angels) and fourteen animals (ten sheep, two dogs, the ox and the donkey)—we can easily follow the story. There is also a clear focal point: the Virgin, who is represented larger and is framed by a cave.
Chaos and Anxiety
Not so in this ancient Roman sarcophagus dating to the middle of the third century. We see a jumble of Romans fighting Barbarians, recognizable by their unruly beards and manes, contorted positions, and exaggerated features, which contrast with the Roman soldiers’ calmer demeanor and idealized features. Note in particular the young officer on horseback in the center top of the composition, believed to be the deceased. This scene of commotion and strife is packed with figures, carved in extremely deep relief with resulting dramatic shadows. The surface is comprehensively filled with hardly any focus or compositional unity. As we look at the relief’s tumultuousness, we understand that Rome has been turned upside down: it is hard indeed not to see a reflection of the unsettled Late Roman Empire, a time of unrest when the military became more powerful and produced ruthless rulers known as the “barracks emperors,” while so-called “barbarians” threatened the borders.
German expressionist George Grosz’s Funeral betrays the volatility of the years during World War I. The painting features a chaotic and hellish city in which a frenzied funeral procession takes place. The swarming crowd is reminiscent of the work of Renaissance artists like Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder, while the presence of a skeleton, along with the sign over the door that declares “Heute danz” (dance today), calls to mind macabre images from that same period.
Triumphing over Chaos
Although called “Barbarian” by the Romans, the migrating tribes—Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Angles, Saxons, Franks, etc.—produced glorious objects in precious materials, characterized by intense patterning taking over every surface. These objects were portable (after all, these peoples were on the move for several centuries!) and meant for personal adornment. A gold buckle from an Anglo-Saxon burial weighs nearly a pound and is decorated in niello (a sulfur alloy of silver, copper, and lead that turns black when heated). The stud to which the tongue is attached is made out of two interlaced biting snakes, while the plaque displays snakes and eagle heads.
Such animal forms appear in the art of many of these migrating peoples, as can be seen in this post from a Viking burial. The patterning that covers the neck and head of this ferocious creature is made out of the intertwined bodies of animals, referred to as “gripping beasts.” In both cases, the intricate workmanship captivates the viewer: the Anglo-Saxon buckle delights and fascinates, the Viking post scares and intimidates.
This approach to art and decoration, in particular the use of animal forms to cover the surface, continues in the manuscripts produced in the British Isles in the early Middle Ages, the most famous being the Book of Kells. The page that begins the Gospel of Matthew contains the first three Greek letters of Christ’s name: Chi Rho Iota. Matthew starts his account with the birth of Christ “Christi autem generatione”: “this is how the birth of Christ came about.” The letters are engulfed in decoration that contains snakes and “gripping beasts.” Gospel books were tools for the missionaries converting the newly settled pagans, and this decoration was an effective way of capturing the attention of an audience used to such “animal style” art. In the interlace so associated with Hiberno-Saxon art (we even talk of “Celtic interlace”), snakes and other beasts are confined to an over-arching order and their threatening biting and gripping becomes part of a perfect and beautiful pattern. Furthermore, as animals that shed their skin, snakes become a metaphor for Christ’s death and resurrection. Ultimately, the meaning of all this profusion of decorative forms is that you have to study to find the words. A medieval writer commented:
If you look at these superficially and with the usual lack of close attention, they will look like daubs rather than connected forms; you will perceive no subtlety in things that in truth are all subtlety. But if you adjust your eyes to sharper vision, and if you penetrate far deeper into the secrets of this art, then you will perceive intricacies so delicate and subtle, so compactly and skillfully made, so intertwined and interwoven, and in colour still so fresh, that you will declare all these things to be composed rather with angelic than with human care. (Giraldus Cambrensis, quoted in Pächt, 22)
The advice is not limited to how one should look at art, but it tells us that the Christian message is worth studying, and that it requires cutting oneself from one’s worries, from the world—which is what real spirituality is about. The word itself is sacred; after all, John started his Gospel declaring that “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” It is worth noting that the Greek word for “word” is “logos,” which also means order and reason. Wild animals, representing life-forces, are subsumed to order, to a higher, rational principle as they form the letters that signify God. The painstaking and gorgeous decoration is of course a way of celebrating the word of God—even the color scheme, with an abundance of yellow and jewel tones, alludes to gold and to precious materials.
This opulence in materials and decorative elaboration is what we find in other works of Christian art: in Byzantine art, for instance. In the mosaic representing the Empress Theodora and her retinue, the figures are clad in rich clothing, with sumptuously patterned fabrics and elaborate jewelry. The gold leaf applied under the clear glass tesserae (the pieces that make up the mosaic) refracts light, producing a shimmering effect. We find the same lavishness in Sienese panel painting, with an overabundance of gold and fabrics worn by the figures bearing elaborate patterns. The effect is otherworldly, giving the viewer a foretaste of Heaven, as in Duccio’s altarpiece in which the Virgin appears as the Queen of Heaven.
A similar opulent decorative excess reappears in fin-de-siècle Vienna in the work of Gustav Klimt, whose debt to Byzantine mosaics is attested. The overwrought quality of Klimt’s paintings and of other founding members of the “Vienna Secession” was interpreted as decadence by the proponents of a sparse modernist ideal, as expounded by the architect Adolf Loos in his texts Spoken into the Void (1900) and his more famous Ornament and Crime (given as a lecture in 1910 and published in 1913)—in a way anticipating Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous motto of “Less is more.”
Just like Loos would object to what he perceived as criminal decorative elaboration, we see boundless profusion of forms become the target of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order, whose churches are characterized by their sparseness. Bernard attacked the sculptures that graced the capitals of Romanesque monastic buildings, wondering
what is that ridiculous monstrosity doing, an amazing kind of deformed beauty and yet a beautiful deformity? What are the filthy apes doing there? The fierce lions? The monstrous centaurs? The creatures, part man and part beast? The striped tigers? The fighting soldiers? The hunters blowing horns? You may see many bodies under one head, and conversely many heads on one body. On one side the tail of a serpent is seen on a quadruped, on the other side, the head of a quadruped is on the body of a fish. Over there an animal has a horse for the front half and a goat for the back; here a creature which is horned in front is equine behind.
The issue is not so much aesthetic (I’ve always been struck that Bernard’s prose is as convoluted as the art he criticizes!) but that it distracts the good monks, for “everywhere so plentiful and astonishing a variety of contradictory forms is seen that one would rather read in the marble than in books, and spend the whole day wondering at every single one of them than in meditating on the law of God.” In a certain way, then, Bernard recognizes how compellingly engaging Romanesque art can be.
Space Made Meaningful
Oleg Grabar declared that Islamic architecture “is less a case of horror vacui, as it has so frequently been defined, than a much more positive attempt at making every part of the surface significant.” Nowhere else is this statement truer than in the case of the muqarnas, a distinctive feature of Islamic architecture consisting in the piling up of small niches, multiplied in fractal-like manner and suggesting infinite proliferation. What we might be tempted to see as the result of horror vacui is rather the generation of forms through principles such as addition, repetition, or multiplication, which activate space, or perhaps even, create space.
A painstaking, thorough, and even compulsive filling of space is a recurring feature of Art Brut (a term coined by French artist and writer Jean Dubuffet to refer to the art produced by non-professional artists, especially those who, for a variety of reasons, are cut off from society), or Outsider Art as Roger Cardinal called it in English. Some specialists use the term “bourrage” for such absorbing practice, which allows one to escape both the outside world and its demands and one’s inner demons. And yet, even though we forget about oneself as we get engrossed, the creation that remains is a record of activity that bears witness to the maker’s very existence. Adolf Wölfli is one of the most famous Art Brut artists and this large labyrinthine drawing combines representational and decorative elements (in particular his distinctive human heads with racoon eyes) with text (fragments of an imaginary biography) and musical scores (actual melodies can be deciphered). Walter Morgenthaler, chief physician at the Waldau psychiatric clinic in Bern, where Wölfli lived from 1895 until his death in 1930, observed that the artist didn’t plan his compositions but that “he thinks with his pencil. With him it is often the gesture that gives rise to the thought.” In other words, forms were born from and through the very act of drawing. I am tempted to suggest that what Morgenthaler is describing is, to paraphrase the title of the 1934 book by Henri Focillon, that forms have a life of their own.
Remarkably, the term horror vacui first appeared as an explanation of natural phenomena, by scientists trying to understand the logic at work in nature—further proof that it’s not about chaos. In part the conceptualization was linked to defining what is matter and what is void. Who exactly among ancient scientists coined the phrase, to express that “nature abhors a vacuum,” is still debated, but the central idea is that matter flows into what is empty. I am not a scientist, nor a historian of science, but what strikes me is that this has to do with motion and with forces such as attraction, suction, resistance, transformation. Physicians, in particular, were most interested in the question, for instance concerning the circulation of breath and of blood—in short, the most essential life processes. So perhaps, horror vacui is more than the opposite of void. It is not just the affirmation of space, but also of life!
Bernard of Clairvaux. Apologia ad Guillelmum Abbatem (1125). Trans. Conrad Rudolph, The “Things of Greater Importance”: Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Apologia: and the Medieval Attitude Toward Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Cardinal, Roger. Outsider Art. New York and Washington: Praeger, 1972.
Dubuffet, Jean. L’Art Brut préféré aux arts culturels. Paris: Galerie René Drouin, 1949.
Focillon, Henri. La Vie des formes.1934. English: The Life of Forms in Art. Trans. C.B. Hogan and George Kubler. New York: Zone Books, 1989.
Grabar, Oleg. The Alhambra. London: Penguin Books, 1976.
Loos, Adolf. “Ornament und Verbrechen.” 1908. English: “Ornament and Crime” in Ornament and Crime: Thoughts on Design and Materials. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books, 2019.
—–. “Ins Leere gesprochen,” English: “Spoken into the Void.” Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays by Adolf Loos, 1897–1900. Trans. Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.
Morgenthaler, Walter. Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler. 1921. English: Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli. Trans. Aaron H. Esman, Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Pächt, Otto. The Practice of Art History: Reflections on Method. Trans. David Britt. London: Harvey Miller, 1999.
Image at top: Printout of the “Horror vacui” entry in the Grove Dictionary of Art online (photo: Véronique Plesch).