Catoptric Theatres

On Devices of Atmospheric Staging


  • Izabela Wieczorek University of Reading



Atmosphere, Materiality, Mirror, Glass, Illusion


Alluding to the Theatrum Catoptricum described by Athanasius Kircher in Ars Magna Lucis at Umbrae (1646), this article aims to present glass and mirrors, not as mere objects or materials, but as perceptual and spatial devices, defining a technology of immersion. Imbued with a dazzling energy, mirrors and glass appear to defy both spatial logic and the logic of the eye, triggering new ways of observing, channelling and manipulating light, thus redefining the role played by the immaterial in the production and experience of space. With their framing, amplifying, multiplying or distorting qualities, mirrors and glass also entail a shift of emphasis away from materiality as a merely tectonic or expressive medium, towards matter as an activator and catalyst of effects and experiences.

Unravelling the magical force and transformative quality of glass and mirrors requires an inquisitive journey, spanning different disciplines as well as historical, socio-cultural and technological contexts. Reflecting the myriad effects and affects of mirrors and glass, a kaleidoscopic range of examples will establish multidirectional dialogues. Although from different eras, the selected works, each one a ‘catoptric theatre,’ will provide the opportunity, not only to reimagine spatial relationships and boundaries, but also to decode the essence of atmospheric staging, suggesting a material pre-history to contemporary concerns for atmosphere and its production. From the enchanting effects of the Baroque Gallery of (fragmented) Mirrors at Villa Palagonia in Bagheria, via Sir John Soane’s unprecedented use of tinted glass and mirrors in his House-Museum in London, to the twentieth century light modulating machines of László Moholy-Nagy, Adolf Luther’s kaleidoscopic assemblages, and twentieth-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s belief in the performative nature of glass, the reader will discover multiplicities of meanings and ambiguities of reflections, exploring their atmospheric potentiality.


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How to Cite

Wieczorek, Izabela. 2020. “Catoptric Theatres: On Devices of Atmospheric Staging”. Idea Journal 17 (01):107-30.