PHANTASMAGORIA The Illuminated Graphic Simulation of the Mind’s Eye



The Illuminated Graphic Simulation of the Mind’s Eye

Curiosity and wonder bring into being a myriad of devices that reveal worlds hidden from human eyes, to bring them closer and make them bigger, to penetrate to their innermost workings – the microscope, the telescope, and, later, X-rays and Infra-red night sights.

These instruments enhance the physical faculty of sight and expand human empirical understanding. Optics developed tools that probed the unseen in an effort at rationality, and their use can be seen as a struggle to subdue the uncanny. But the character of the faculties involved was itself interwoven with imagery and symbolism, because the devices that amplified the mind’s faculties were modelled on pre-existing ideas of the inner eye, the organ of visions and envisioning, and they also reproduced mental imagery, and projected phantasms, dreams, and memories from the dark chamber of the mind into the light of day.

Because it is a metaphor we have lived by, the inward eye has also proved a practical stimulus to technological invention, and, eventually, to optical media like the Cinema, which reproduces the mind’s capacity to form images with eyes closed, or with eyes open in the absence of empirical data of any kind.

This reminds us of the psychedelic use of the isolation tanks. Psychedelia, psyche-delia, is an ancient Greek word, meaning the “revealing of the soul”. Also, the word “cinema” comes from the Greek word “kinema” which means “movement”. cinemato-graphy, means, in Greek, the Graphics of Movement, to draw the movement or a moving drawing, an animated painting. Actually, even the Greek word for painting, “zographia”, means “zoe-graphia”, which in turn means the Graphics of Life [Zoe], or a living graphic, or a graphic of the living, a simulation of life.

So, we have the projection of the visions of the inner eye, the Imagination, as a revealing of one’s own psyche, with moving pictures as to simulate the living picture, the living Image, as to represent life. A second life, an optical life, and the Art of Visual Living Graphics Design…

When Athanasius Kircher began experimenting with magic lantern slides and projecting them in Rome in the 1640s, he chose fantastical and supernatural subjects, such as a soul in Purgatory. After the telescope and the microscope, bold optical technologies turned to communicating the inner workings of the mind, not retinal pictures or observations of the world.

It is not known who actually invented the Magic Lantern, and for a long time Kircher was credited with its invention.

Many scientists and entertainers were involved in its development, including the brilliant Dutch horologist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-95). There are traces of its use in the Middle Ages, and by the mid-seventeenth century, a Danish magician, Thomas Walgenstein (1627-81), was touring and selling the equipment.

But the most vivid reports come from the experiments of A. Kircher at the Jesuit College where he lived and worked, and where he deployed smoking lamps, compound crystals, and various lenses and slides.

He illuminated the inside of his projector, sometimes even introducing gems to refract the rays and casting coloured beams – to imitate Divine Light. He prepared glass slides with salts and chemicals and then heated up in the projector, then sprinkled with water to produce reactions, so that the colours playing on the wall changed.

Kircher wrote: “We in our College are accustomed to show in a dark chamber a large number of sufficiently bright and luminous pictures, specially designed for the show, to the greatest wonder of the spectators. The show is most worthy to see…”

These were actually holograms! Smoke was rising up from the lantern, and the images were projecting on the smoke, and appeared three-dimensional and moving… a Holographic Phantasmagoria. “Holographic” is also a Greek word meaning “The Whole of Graphic”, [“Holon”: all, everything] that shows the whole image from all sides, holography, hologram. “Phantasmagoria”, also a Greek Word, “phantasm-agoria”, where “phantasma” is the product of the imagination (“fantasia”, “fantasma”) and came to mean a “ghost” or a “spectre”, and “agoria”, the thing we do in the “agora”: the gathering at the public square, where people are gathered to talk, or listen to talks, or to participate in an event or a show.
So, Phantasmagoria actually means in Greek: to talk with phantasms, or the talk of phantasms, or the talk of imagination, or the gathering of phantasms or fantasies, or the public outward presentation of imagination, or the show of fantastic images…

Unveiling Ancient Illusions

Athanasius Kircher, the Last Renaissance Man
Athanasius Kircher
Magic lantern demonstrations, 1702
Magic lantern demonstrations, 1702 | Oculus Artificialis

Kircher uses the phrase Camera Obscura, which might lead to confusion, as this term more properly describes the much more ancient method used to obtain a familiar, fascinating illusion, one that does not involve manufactured images at all – no “painted devils or gods”, but only the light of day:

Through a pinhole pricked in the wall of a sealed darkened room, the “real” image of the outside world will appear reflected upside down opposite the aperture, cast by the rays of the Sun moving in straight lines through the pinhole. The ancient Greeks, the Chinese, and the Japanese knew the phenomenon, and before the invention of the telescope, the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler used such a dark chamber in order to observe the spots on the Sun…

Magic Lanterns imitated its powers of illusion, and in this sense, became the forerunners of entertainment media based on image projections, including the Cinema.
Camera Obscuras were often equipped with lenses in the pinhole, to focus the image; the magic lantern Kircher was developing as an instrument of optical enchantments was the more ancient device’s descendant – but he was not bringing the light from outside into the theater, but creating his own illusions.

(Note the similarity between the words Illusion, Illustration and Illumination)

His Magnum opus on optics, reflection, refraction, projection, and other possibilities of Light, the Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, includes many diagrams illustrating refraction, parataxis, reflection, and other optical effects.
The physics handled by this Jesuit magus has a pronounced allegorical tendency, and light and shadow resonate with all their moral and mystical meanings, and as in Kepler’s observatory illuminate the dark.
The blank surface of a mirror, the tool of shadow and enigma (“for now I see through a glass, darkly” as said by St Paul), is a key instrument in Kircher’s system of visual revelations.

These images condense brilliantly the mystical Neoplatonism of Christian Jesuit Rome in the seventeenth century with the discoveries of the New Science.
(And also a new form of Art, an Art of real Light and Shadow – A Light Design, or Lux Design).
Plato’s shadows in the cave flicker beneath the metaphor organizing this mental landscape…
We are being presented to a probed consciousness, which equates darkness and light with the mind’s still mysterious propensities to dream, to fantasticate, to imagine, to see the Invisible…



  • Leona Pittman

    I have my own ultra psychedelic experiences with Camera Obscura and really, I mean really, this article is superb. Also the whole design of the article is astonishing! Congratulations for your much expected new website! You are the best! Sincerely

  • George Zachary

    Athanasius Kircher was the first who had a Cabinet of Curiosities. The Phantasmagoria article is very inspired and informative! A lot of kindred souls out there, salute you! You are the best designer, Val. The new website rules!

  • Fiona Macleod

    Illuminating the design of the 21st Century, such samples fulfil the expectations of all the people who want to see Art blending with Mysticism and the high quality design process. Val is a very talented artist and scholar of the arts, and we are happy to see her in her new WeirdTales Designs website. Best wishes.

  • Arlo Helen

    What a wonderful post! Phantasmagoria will be in my dreams. Val, thank you for everything you have done for me and my branding!

  • Institute for Advance Art Studies

    You have our best wishes for your exquisite new website. Your Articles section is going to be a textbook for advanced students. Your designs are some of the best we have seen in the field. Thank you for your talented artistic donations, we are proud to be in contact with you. IAAS

  • WOW! Phantasmagoria, what a word, what an article! I surely vote for Weirdtales. Val you are an inspiration.

  • Pantelis Giannoulakis

    Phantasmagoria was my obsession at my young age, this is an admiringly rich article full of information and inspiration. Thank you my Val for everything you are creating for us weirdos, lovers of the Strange, fellow travelers in a world of mysteries. And many thanks for this one of a kind new website for WeirdTales Designs. You are number one in a parade of twos! Truly the Best Designer, you have my love and respect.

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