Art as a Sanctuary for the Mad

Six characteristics of mystical experience and their visual accompaniment in contemporary art

David Rastas


Art can essentially disturb those with even the tightest grip on reality, temporarily removing the mask of sanity. The reason why the experience of art is able to give us an impression of what it must be like to be mad, is that it activates our imagination in such a way as to launch into the unknown. What we contemplate in contemporary art often reveals more about who we are, how we think and what brings us here than revealing an objective meaning present in the artwork. This paper will discuss the potential for a crossover of psychotic symptoms and features of a mystical experience. In order to demonstrate how art can be a trigger for changing perceptions of reality, a series of installations of contemporary art in churches will be discussed. Art can be a comfort for the disturbed and disturbance for the comforted. Art can simulate the sensations and provoke a similar overwhelming of the mind available to those affected by any of the common features of religious madness or symptoms of psychotic disorder. As much as Art is a Sanctuary for the Mad, it also offers a glimpse of madness to those who have become comfortable in their freedom from having to question their experience of reality.

Key Words: Contemporary art, sacred space, mysticism, psychosis, characteristics of mystical experience.


1. The Mad Awakening

During Lent 2015, a video artwork by Austrian artist Suzie Léger was installed in the tabernacle of a sixteenth century altar in Vienna. The work featured an ultra-sound of the artist’s empty uterus overlaid with footage from the Hubble Space telescope. Suddenly, the tabernacle and all it represents in a church were reconsidered and people who entered the chapel were simultaneously disturbed and consoled in an extraordinary way. What we discovered in the responses to this work was that when something new and unexpected is placed in an already familiar space, a kind of mad awakening occurs. Certain works of contemporary art can facilitate an encounter with madness providing the visitor is willing to court chaos and embrace the unexpected. The mad awakening in art can manifest itself as psychological disturbance, discontinuity, unusual or extreme emotion, distortion of thought processes, detachment and dissociation. Interestingly, all of these forms of psychological disturbance could also be recognised as characteristics of the mystical experience.

There was a time when divine madness was celebrated, when people who had visions were listened to, and eccentric behaviour was a sign of holiness. [1] Socrates declared, ‘Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift’. [2]

2. Characteristics of Mystical Experience vs. Psychotic Symptoms

Despite having different focus areas in their respective works on mysticism, roughly six characteristics of the mystical experience can be derived from Mircea Eliade, [3] Rudolf Otto, [4] William James, [5] Walter Stace [6] and D.T. Suzuki. [7] These characteristics include: 1) a sense of being connected/united with a supreme/transcendental other, 2) a sense of being connected/united with other people/nature, 3) a loss of sense of time, 4) a loss of sense of space, 5) an inability to articulate the experience, 6) a lasting sense of peace. Attempts at categorising the mystical experience have often adopted similar language and processes to those found in the field of psychiatry. In 2006, a committee formed by prominent clinicians and researchers of the American Psychiatric Association presented an analysis of the implications of religion and spirituality for the diagnosis, course, and outcomes of psychiatric treatment. Their Research Agenda for the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) addressed the spiritual and philosophical issues involved in distinguishing a psychiatric disorder from a spiritual condition. Even after considerable changes to both the DSM-V and the 10th edition of the Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10), [8] it surely remains challenging for the clinician to distinguish between religious delusions as a potential expression of a psychiatric disorder, mystical experience, and positive religious coping strategies. Disturbances that have a religious dimension should not by default be viewed as pathological. When an individual is however unable to find an acceptable explanation or social comparison for their arousal or disturbance, their inability to deal with it could eventually lead to symptoms of psychopathology.

Whereas religious zeal could be celebrated within the faith community, psychiatry is predisposed to see the delusion, intensification of adherence to religious practices and orthodoxy as a symptom of mental illness. When psychiatrists diagnose according to the DSM-V or ICD-10, they potentially overlook the cause of mental disturbance, especially when the roots of the distress have a religious dimension. In cases where the experience would otherwise be described as mystical, the diagnostic tools struggle with the possibility that the root cause of unusual behaviour and disorganised thinking are anything but symptoms of disorder. We can have experiences carrying features of the mystical experience, i.e. entering the ‘zone’ through repetitive physical activity, immersion in video games, or drug induced altered states. Ultimately, language plays a significant role in determining whether an experience is interpreted as mystical, pseudo-religious or psychotic. Both language and culture are referenced when constructing a narrative to make sense of madness and determine the likelihood of interpreting an experience as mystical or otherwise. The physiological sensation accompanying paranoia might be attached to a narrative informed by watching too many crime movies by one person, or interpreted as a demonic attack by a cloistered nun whose narratives are constructed from her religious imagination.

3. Sacred Space

For seven hundred years, the insane have been making pilgrimages to a healing shrine in Gheel, Belgium. Insanity was believed to reveal demonic possession and only recently, the concept of mental illness and its diagnosis has emerged and shaped the treatment of the mad. Historically, a form of spiritual consolation was provided by Churches, where Art played a significant role.

The Shrine of Saint Dymphna in Gheel and churches in general have been consoling, providing sanctuary for the disturbed. The act of entering a church was a stepping out of the world and into a space reserved for silence, involving the individual in an interaction with the architecture, art and quiet, where time slows down, the eyes having to adjust to the dim light, the lingering scent of incense filling the nostrils, inviting us to engage in gestures of submission and the result being deep consolation with attention drawn toward being present in the here and now. Today, visiting a church isn’t always a consoling experience. A church can be foreboding; we can be distracted by elements that speak of the power structures of the religious institution. Symbols and images can seem irrelevant to our daily lived experience. And yet, there are moments when we might glimpse the potential of the space to speak directly to us in a very personal way. When we encounter contemporary art that speaks the language of our time, we are challenged to disregard this cynicism and discover that as much as these spaces are heavily bound to a specific religious tradition, they go deep into the human condition.

4. First Characteristic – Sense of Union with a Transcendent Other

The first of the six characteristics for a mystical experience is a deep sense of union with a transcendent other, or a sense of being absorbed into something greater. For the psychotic, this can be interpreted and experienced as a disturbing sense of being watched, followed, spied upon or to have one’s thoughts interfered with. ‘The delusional system creates a special interior place in the world of the subject, which, in the case of a religious delusion, centres around prefabricated figures. […] Such a delusional system may provide stability and often gives the subject a purpose and mission in life.’ [9]

The religious interpretation of the sense of union with a transcendental other is most powerfully represented by the tabernacle in a church, the qibblah in a Mosque and the torah in a Synagogue. The tabernacle not only houses the Incarnate God, but also represents a meeting place, a coming together of man and the Divine. No other object in the church can have as much significance or import as the tabernacle, a hierarchical ordering of objects within a church reaching its summit in the sanctuary with the tabernacle being the pinnacle. In the Catholic Church, the Virgin Mother is referred to as the first tabernacle and there is a sense that after receiving the Eucharist each person becomes a kind of walking tabernacle. Suzie Léger’s video {uterus=space=universe} installed in the thirteenth century chapel invited visitors to reflect on the relationship between the unfathomable expanse of emptiness in the universe and the great expanding void within. For a mad person, the screen could become a mirror. The slow, hypnotising impression made by the short film counters the threat of being cast into an abyss of chaotic thinking, disturbing thoughts and frightening visions. Through the imagination, the beholder can both place themselves in this place and encounter a deep sense of union with God and a sense of having something profoundly beyond understanding taking up residence within.

5. Second Characteristic – Sense of Union with Others and/or Nature

The second characteristic for a mystical experience is a sense of union with others and/or nature. For the psychotic this sense could translate into a belief that there are profound or disturbing meanings in every interaction. Martin Creed’s Half the Air in a Given Space involves thousands of balloons filling half the Church of St. Leopold in the psychiatric hospital of Steinhof in Vienna. The experience of being immersed in a sea of balloons could simulate the sensation of being in union with others and the space. Moving through the balloons sets them in motion, even at a distance, showing an immediate impact of the visitor’s action that ranges far beyond his own physical existence, almost without limits. On the other hand, they are obstacles to his free mobility, slowing him down and forcing him to constantly struggle against boundaries and intrusion. Part of this suite of pieces made with balloons, the monochromatic and formless sea of spheres offers visitors an opportunity to navigate the work from within – while also challenging them to consider that the location of art can be found somewhere between physical experience and sculptural construct.

6. Third Characteristic – Loss of Sense of Space

The third characteristic for mystical experience is a loss of sense of space, of being in a particular, specific place. For the psychotic, this sense of being nowhere or everywhere can be terrifying. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled With The Brilliance Of Life aroused both disturbance and consolation in visitors to the Tate Modern in 2012. [10] It could have been interpreted as either a mystical space or a vast expanding emptiness making one feel completely insignificant and irrelevant. Entering the room and closing the door, the visitor found himself in a space that seemed to have no boundaries: highly reflective liquid on the floor, mirrors all around and dots hanging everywhere. Without any spatial cue, it is impossible to clearly define one’s own physical presence in a given space, potentially resulting in a loss of touch with reality as one cannot trust one’s perception any more.

The artist makes no secret of her decision to voluntarily live as a patient in Seiwa hospital for the mentally ill in Tokyo. She self-describes her condition as self-obliteration and her work is not only a means for her to cathartically process her reality but also to invite the viewer to share her disturbing experience of depersonalisation.

7. Fourth Characteristic – Loss of Sense of Time

Similar to the third characteristic, a loss of sense of time is the next feature of the mystical experience. This lost sense could manifest as reliving a traumatic episode as if it is taking place in the present. In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation Talo (House) a woman experiences the sense of being simultaneously in her summer house in the Finnish forest and hundreds of kilometres away at a city harbour. Viewing the work in a dark room, surrounded by large screens, the viewer is also transported out of actual space and into a virtual space, not unlike the experience of being ‘lost’ in a video game. Each of the three separate screens shows a different perspective of the respective scene, fragments the narrative and makes it impossible to simultaneously see ‘the whole picture’. In the context of trauma, dementia or depression, a loss of sense of time deprives of the ability of remembering and telling one’s narrative in a chronological order. Art can simulate this frightening experience, but by placing it in an environment that provides safety, like a church, the viewer is given the opportunity to construct a healthy narrative and find a way to deal with their experience. The Talo is a place where nothing is for certain anymore and by covering the windows with black curtains the protagonist tries to deal with this discrepancy between her perception and the objective world outside, finally getting lost in her own inner space with its own logic.

According to common experience, both time and space follow a rigid order. To live with this knowledge helps to experience the world as a safe and predictable place. The loss of sense of space and time is deeply disturbing and threatening as it questions one’s physical presence in the world. This loss has an obvious transcendental dimension as both time and space are inextricably bound to the very specific conditions of this material world. Images themselves, have the potential to draw together what would otherwise seem to be incompatible.

8. Fifth Characteristic – Inability to Articulate the Experience

An inability to articulate the experience forms the fifth characteristic for a mystical experience. For the psychotic this could mean incoherent speech, fragmented thoughts and patterns of speech. Anxiety and distress can result from the failure to be able to talk about certain experiences in sufficient depth. William James noted that the mystical experience ‘defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.’ [11] Joseph Beuys’ performance Explaining Art to a Dead Hare (‘Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt’) could represent the futility of trying to explain something to an audience that may not understand even if the right words could be found. Verbal language is indispensable for communication with others and for consciously store experiences in one’s memory. Sometimes, words are meaningless however, sometimes they are not necessary, and very often they are not able to address deeper levels of the inner self. Art, as a form of non-verbal communication, serves as a bridge between the interior and the external world firstly by bringing elements to the surface which might not have become conscious through verbal language alone and secondly by offering a sensual experience which can be described itself, something to lean on in a process of searching for adequate terms. The finding of words to articulate an understanding of experience is crucial in shedding light on the haunting spirits of the dark and unveiling their true potential and significance. ‘Even a dead animal,’ Beuys mused in a statement on his Action, ‘preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.’ [12] Human thinking was capable of achieving so much, but it could also ‘be intellectualized to a deadly degree, and remain dead, and express its deadliness in the political and pedagogical fields.’ [13] He then speculated that many were enthralled by the work, which had proved to be a media sensation, precisely because their imaginations were stimulated, allowing them to transcend rationalism in favour of ‘mystery or questioning.’ [14] His art was yielding results.

9. Sixth Characteristic – Lasting Sense of Peace

A lasting sense of peace is the sixth characteristic for the mystical experience. The opposite of this sense is often a determining feature for diagnosing the psychotic. The mystical experience can draw one toward a sense of being a part of something great, powerful and reassuring. The psychotic can find the difficulty in establishing a shared intersubjective reality with others to be unbearable. The ability to handle everyday common-sense levels of functioning can be a symptom of the overwhelming feelings of isolation in the psychotic.

Perception depends on our senses, but having no one else confirming them can be deeply disturbing. Based on his own experiences, Ronald Bassman describes the difficulties patients might have to face even within the mental health system.

When you become a mental patient, you are no longer a credible narrator of your life story. How you experience the world is unacceptable and is replaced with interpretations that are considered more valid than your perceptions. [15]

Trust Yourself by Tracey Emin can be experienced as granting permission to take seriously one’s unique interior sensations, whether or not anyone else can affirm them. This permission would be the first step to even allow oneself to think and feel without anxiety and shame. A ‘person who believed in them, who respected them; someone who made a genuine person-to-person connection with them’ was reported by patients as to what had helped them most in their recovery. [16] The artwork can potentially function like a representative of this other person who reassures one’s own perception. Only then, when one experiences the freedom to trust one’s own intuitive understanding of the world, can one experience this lasting sense of peace.

10. Conclusion

We are more likely to be moved when the encounter with art is entirely unexpected and any mechanisms which support ritual are in place. The engagement with such an artwork potentially leads to a corresponding resonance with a part of the viewer’s inner lives that never was recognized clearly before and would never have been otherwise aroused by usual routines, resulting in a deeper understanding of oneself and a different perception of the surrounding world.


[1] Joseph Pieper, Divine Madness, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), np.

[2] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), 1:244a, 465.

[3] Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, (New York: Colophon Books, 1975), 18-20.

[4] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 22-23.

[5] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures XVI & XVII, (1902), 33-41.

[6] Walter Stace, Mysticism & Philosophy, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960), 79.

[7] D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, (New York: Anchor Books, 1956), 103-108.

[8] ‘Religious or spiritual problems’ are now featured in the DSM-V (62.89) and the closest diagnosis for spiritual emergencies in the ICD-10 is found in the section on ‘Other specified neurotic disorders’ (F 48.8). The exemption of religious delusions from classification as a mental illness has made an appearance in the DSM-V.

[9] John Gale, Michael Robson and Georgia Rapsomatioti, Insanity and Divinity: Studies in Psychosis and Spirituality, (New York: Routledge, 2014), 205.

[10] Adrian Searle, ‘Yayoi Kusama: Spot of bother - exhibition review,’ Guardian Newspaper, February 7, 2012.

[11] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 34.

[12] Joseph Beuys, ‘Statement on How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,’ Joseph Beuys, ed. Caroline Tisdall (New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979), 105.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ronald Bassman, ‘Whose Reality is it Anyway? Consumers/Survivors/Ex-Patients Can Speak for Themselves,’ Journal of Humanistic Psychology 41; 11 (2001): 30.

[16] Ibid., 22.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.). Washington, DC, 2013.

Bassman, Ronald. ‘Whose Reality is it Anyway? Consumers/Survivors/Ex-Patients Can Speak for Themselves.Journal of Humanistic Psychology 41; 11 (2001): 22-30.

Beuys, Joseph. ‘Statement on How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.’ Joseph Beuys, edited and translated by Caroline Tisdall, 105. New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Colophon Books, 1975.

Gale, John, Michael Robson and Georgia Rapsomatioti. Insanity and Divinity: Studies in Psychosis and Spirituality. New York: Routledge, 2014.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures XVI & XVII, 1902.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Pieper, Josef. Divine Madness. Plato’s Case Against Secular Humanism. Translated by Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Harold North Fowler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.

Searle, Adrian. ‘Yayoi Kusama: Spot of Bother – Exhibition Review.’ Guardian newspaper, 7 February 2012.

Stace, Walter T. Mysticism & Philosophy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960.

Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki. New York: Anchor Books, 1956.

World Health Organization. The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders: Clinical Descriptions and Diagnostic Guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1992.


Ahtila, Eija-Liisa. Talo (The House). Super 16mm colour film transferred to three-channel video, 14 min. loop, 2002.

Beuys, Joseph. Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt. (Explaining Art to a Dead Hare). Performance at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf, 26.11.1965.

Creed, Martin. Half the Air in a Given Space. Balloons, Multiple parts, dimensions variable.

Emin, Tracey. Trust yourself. Neon, 11,3 x 44,7 in, 2012.

Kusama, Yayoi. Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled With The Brilliance Of Life. Tate Modern, London, 2012.

Léger, Suzie. {uterus=space=universe}. Video-installation, 4:37 min loop, 2007.

Maria Schlachter is both a psychologist and an art historian from Vienna. She is the Director of KUNSTGLAUBE, an organisation which installs non-religious contemporary art in sacred spaces.

David Rastas studied art history and architecture and has been installing contemporary art in churches since 2006. He is the curator for KUNSTGLAUBE exhibitions.