The Restoration of The Atlanta Cyclorama

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

The Atlanta Cyclorama is scheduled to be restored. What does this piece of art and history contribute to the understanding of the Civil War? We asked Professor Guelzo to weigh in on the history and Professor Brody to talk about the artistic endeavors. 

This article originally premiered on NPR.

Professor Guelzo

By Professor Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.

The Atlanta Cyclorama is a great visual historical monument. Like the Gettysburg battle Cyclorama, by Paul Phillippoteaux, jot was created by a team of artists superintended by William Wehner. It was first displayed in Detroit, and purchased for exhibition in Atlanta, where it has been ever since. I saw the Atlanta Cyclorama at its old location shortly before it closed; and while the Cyclorama was as impressive as ever, it was clearly in severe need of refurbishment, upkeep, and a new home. It will have all of this through the Atlanta History Center.

The Cyclorama depicts the events of the fighting around Atlanta on July 22nd, 1864, when John Bell Hood and the Confederate Army of Tennessee came out of the Atlanta fortifications and attempted to drive away approaching Union forces under William T. Sherman. Among the more riveting vignettes of the painting are the desperate fighting around the Troup Hurt House, a cavalry engagement at Dalton, and Sherman encountering the ambulance bearing the body of his friend, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. The Cyclorama is as close as one could get in the days before motion pictures to feeling yourself actually part of the battle, and it still has great emotional impact today for viewers.

Image of Professor David Brody
By Professor David Brody

Professor Brody

One goal of works like the Atlanta Cyclorama, that wed two-dimensional image to three-dimensional architectural space, is to create an immersive experience for the viewer. You’re not just looking at something, you’re in it. In our species’ long history we’ve created and enjoyed these kinds of experiences for many, many generations all across the planet.

Central to the experience of the cyclorama is walking through the building as you view the painting. This lends a sense of palpable time. It’s no accident that, originally, viewings were often accompanied by narration and underscored with music. Being time-based media, both set a clear start and end time to the viewing of the painting. And words and music had the added benefit of stimulating senses beyond the visual.

In some respects we can consider cycloramas as the descendants of the kinds of panoramic painting that adorned the walls and ceilings of Catholic chapels like Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Massacio’s Brancacci Chapel in Florence or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

It’s not hard to imagine these visually immersive environments on special occasions when priests, bishops and cardinals would be dressed in rich garments. The sound of Latin chant would echo in the high-ceilinged rooms and mix with the fragrance of incense and smoke trailing from swinging censers. The addition of ceremonial wine and wafer could further engage the senses. Immersive.

There are even earlier examples of this kind of “full-room” painting from Asia. The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang along the Silk Road in China’s Gansu province come to mind. These caves date from about 400 to 1400 ce. That would be from the Sixteen Kingdoms period up through the Yuan Dynasty. About 1,000 years.

These weren’t naturally occurring caves but were carved into the cliffs in the form of rectangular rooms. In several hundred of the caves the walls and ceilings are richly painted with Buddhist imagery and decorative motifs. Some of the caves also contain figurative sculptures that interact with the painted imagery. I had the good fortune to visit these caves this past summer and the experience is, indeed, immersive.

Traveling back to our species’ even more distant past, it’s clear that early man sought out these kinds of experiences, too. Prehistoric caves, like El Castillo in Spain or Lascaux and Chauvet in France, must have provided a deeply immersive experience. Just being in these dramatic spaces without natural light must have, in and of itself, played powerfully on the senses. Add the astounding cave paintings—seen, as our early ancestors must have, in torch light with shadows flickering on the walls—well, I can only guess that it was at least as powerful an experience as donning a virtual reality headset or being at the IMAX on a Friday night.

For more with Professor Guelzo, check out “A History of the United States” on the Great Courses Plus!

For more with Professor Brody, check out “How to Draw” on the Great Courses Plus!