A later version of the Laterna Magica, projecting images onto a rudimentary screen, which is strung onto a wooden frame.

Laterna Magica – the simple device that changed the way we view the world.

The idea of telling stories with pictures is as old as humanity itself

Imagine you’d never even seen artificial light, what would you think of an iPhone?

History tells us you’d be stupefied. More than that. You’d probably be terrified.

The Laterna Magica – or Magic Lantern – was like the iPhone of its time. To our modern tastes, it is basic: a slide projector, with a simple light source, such as candle, projecting hand-painted slides onto a screen. But in the context of the 15th Century, it was nothing short of witchcraft. Tracing the history of this supposedly simple tool, it becomes quickly apparent that the Laterna Magica is a device that reinvented the way people saw the world.

The Devil on the Wall

The reformation in Europe was a time of belief in gods and magic where the Catholic Church ruled in matters of morality and law, until their dogma was challenged by the emergence of the new Protestant church. The Reformers made use of the printing press to distribute their alternative ideas… but the Jesuit Priesthood had a more radical plan.

“The Jesuits were very important for the Roman Catholic Church because they were multimedia people,” explains Dr Andreas Scheucher, curator of the AV Stumpfl Museum in Austria. “They founded a special form of spiritual theatre – the Jesuit theatre – and used the Magic Lantern. The first projected images from the Laterna Magica were images of the devil.”

An illustration of a projection of hellfire or purgatory from Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s 1671 study ‘Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae’
An illustration of a projection of hellfire or purgatory from Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s 1671 study ‘Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae’

Reinhold Stumpfl, the owner and founder of Canon partner AV Stumpfl, is an avid collector of this fascinating memorabilia and asked his long-time friend, Dr Scheucher to curate the AV Stumpfl museum, where over two hundred artefacts from the long history of projection technology are exhibited in Wallern, Upper Austria. Dr Scheucher used his extensive knowledge and expertise in visual storytelling to bringing Reinhold’s incredible collection to life.

“The ‘devil on the wall’ shows how miraculous this technology would be for simple country people. At that time, the Jesuits travelled widely using the Laterna Magica to spread church propaganda, and as a way to show that if you were not a good Catholic, you would go to Hell. There’s a connecting line beginning from the middle ages, right through to today where powerful images in projections are used by powerful people to shock and influence.”

This was probably the first use of broadcast or projected images for the purposes of propaganda, but as wealth moved from the hands of the church and aristocracy and into the hands of merchants, so did the use of the Laterna Magica.

‘Phantasmagoria’– The Theatre of Horror

Étienne-Gaspard Robert had macabre intentions for the Laterna Magica. At the time of the French Revolution, he discovered how to project from two Magic Lanterns mounted on rails and used this simple invention to take full advantage the mood of the Parisian people, who lived in a city shaken by riots. He performed terrifying shows of supernatural spectacles called ‘Phantasmagoria’, where his audiences were locked into a pitch-black ‘dungeon’ and subjected to all manner of moving projected horrors that increased or decreased in size, accompanied by eerie sound effects and phantom voices.

Photograph of an exhibit at the AV Stumpfl Museum, showing a typical ghostly scene that would have been projected by a Laterna Magica.
Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s ’Phantasmagoria’at the AV Stumpfl Museum – “I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them.” (© AV Stumpfl)

An explosion of limelight

We are all familiar with the early 19th Century. It was a time of great progress, – inventions and discoveries and the exploration of new, exotic and distant lands. At the same time, an invention arrived that allowed images of these incredible spectacles to be broadcast in a huge and exciting way.

Dr Scheucher picks up the detail of this new stage in the life of the Laterna Magica, “In the middle ages, an oil lamp for was used with the projecting apparatus, but when the oxy-hydrogen lamp was invented, it was a sensation. Hydrogen and oxygen were mixed, creating a tremendous temperature in a chemical reaction so that a limestone began to glow with a very white, beautiful light. This ‘limelight’ was about 6000-8000 lumen, which is brighter than average car headlights, so remembering that at this time the most people had seen was the light of a yellow oil lamp, you can imagine how people responded.”

There’s a connecting line beginning from the early times of mankind, right through to today where powerful images in projections are used by powerful people to shock and influence.

Astonishing new images from around the world were meticulously hand-transferred onto glass slides in crisp, beautiful detail and the “limelight” then allowed them to fill huge screens with news, discoveries and catastrophes, such as erupting volcanoes – every new wonder of the world. Halls filled with people, eager to see what lay beyond their towns and villages.

By the Victorian industrial revolution its popularity peaked and thousands of people descended upon the Royal Albert Hall, clamouring to see these projection shows. “This was very important because many people believe that the Magic Lantern was a toy for children, but this isn’t the case. It was very powerful, and the apparatus used in this case were big projectors with three lenses, dissolve units and limelight. We have this apparatus in our museum – from England, America and Russia. It was the cinema projector of the 19th century.”

Because “limelight” went on to be used in the illumination of theatres, the term has endured to this day to describe someone who is centre stage. This is just one of the legacies of the Laterna Magica

Photograph of an exhibit at the AV Stumpfl Museum, showing dozens of beautiful and intricately hand-painted slides, which would have been projected by a Laterna Magica.
Laterna Magica slides are meticulously painted and exceptionally detailed.
(© AV Stumpfl)

The slides themselves have since become very desirable objects and, as Dr Scheucher confirms, “they are very, very beautiful, unique in colour and every slide a piece of art. In our museum you can see these hand coloured images. They are only about 8x8 centimetres in size and more than 100 years old, yet the colours are so clear and when projected on a big screen, you see every detail. The painters were really precise.

When you use your smartphone to view a slideshow, the word ‘slide’ comes from the Laterna Magica. It had a wooden slider to insert the image into the optical system and project it out, and this became the word we now use.

In some ways you could say that the Magic Lantern is still alive”

The AV Stumpfl Museum is open for group visits during AV Stumpfl opening times, where you can see Reinhold Stumpfl’s unique collection in full and experience three cinemas, showing broadcast technology from throughout the ages – including the Laterna Magica.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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