Light Treatment in Sacred Settings
Dr. Anat Geva, associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University, Registered Architect in Israel and Associate member in AIA. She is a Fellow of the University’s Center of Heritage Conservation, and a co-editor of the new journal Preservation Education and Research. Her major area of interest and teaching focuses on sacred architecture. Dr. Geva serves as the vice president of SESAH; vice chair of CHSA; and the secretary of the National Council for Preservation Education.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12- Autumn 2009
Anat Geva, PhD, Architect
Department of Architecture, Texas A&M University
“Then God said let be light and there was light… evening came and morning followed – the first day” (Genesis 1: 35)
(Figure1, Light and Shadow).
The completeness of light and darkness “symbolizes at once the day and night of nature, the appearance and disappearance of any sort of form, death and resurrection, the creation and dissolution of the cosmos, the potential and the actual.”1 Light is rich in associations and carries rooted meanings and links to spiritual and mystical transcendence. Light deities of dynamic celestial bodies (e.g., sun, moon, stars) occupy the vault of heaven and their luminescence was seen as an entry of the Godhead into otherwise dark and anemic material.2 Light provides premonitions and points of departure for spiritual and mystical transcendence, creating a space where heaven and earth are melting into one another3 (Figure2, Light and shadows: spiritual and mystical transcendence).
Given the centrality of light in the spiritual domain, this paper questions the differences between natural and artificial light serving as daylight in sacred settings. Specifically, the study focuses on the implications of the qualities of natural and artificial light on the potential perceptions and experiences of worshippers with a central feature of religious iconography, such as Byzantine frescos. The spiritual experience of the Byzantine worshipper as related to the a dome fresco was already described in the twelfth century “This dome shows in pictured form the God-Man Christ, leaning and gazing out as though from the rim of heaven… wholly directed toward
all at once and at the same time toward each individually… to those however, who are condemned by their own judgment… the face is wrathful, terrifying, stern and filled with hardness….” 4
This study focused on the dome fresco of the Church of St. Themonianos, built in Lysi, Cyprus (C. 1150-1300) and on the same dome fresco in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, built in Houston, Texas (1997).5 The first was illuminated by natural light, while the second is illuminated by artificial light, where dark walls serve as the background enhancing the lit focal point of the fresco.
These two churches, which were constructed more than 800 years apart, serve the same faith, are similar in size and scale, and have the same religious icons in the interior: the dome fresco: Christ Pantokratorand Angels, and the apse fresco: Virgin and Archangels. These frescos were originally housed in the Church of St. Themonianos. In the 1970’s, thieves removed them in pieces. In the 1980’s they were rediscovered, restored and installed in a new Byzantine Chapel in Houston, designed by Francois de Menil (Figure3, The restored Byzantine frescos, Christ Pantokrator and Angels, and Virgin and Archangels).
Due to small openings and the location of the fresco in the dome of the church of St. Themonianos, part of the fresco image was always in shadow and there was in fact no full vision of the whole fresco (Figure4, The dome fresco in the original church: a reconstructed digital model6). Yet, this effect, which depended on the seasons and the hour of the day, helped to alter the view according to the amount of light and shadows created on the dome fresco. Thus, the viewer was exposed to different parts of the fresco during the day (Figure5, Light and shadow on the original dome’s fresco: a simulation image).
The major source of light in the chapel in Houston is artificial lighting, which extends the effect of the murals by “dematerializing the rest of the chapel with darkness and light”7 (Figure6, The restored frescoes as installed in the Byzantine Chapel in Houston8). This illumination provides a constant, even light so that the entire fresco may be seen at any time of the year and enhance the relation to the faith icon, which enriches the sacred space (Figure7, Light on the Houston dome’s fresco). The bright and strong colors of the fresco that “yield vigorous combinations that contribute significantly to the visual energy of the ensemble”9 can be viewed in full and are not influenced by any temporal changes.
The comparison of natural and artificial lighting in these sacred settings shows that natural light enhances the general spiritual effect of the space ambiance using the relation to time and sky. Furthermore, it illustrated how an iconographic symbol is embodied by the dynamic three-dimensional spiritual experience of architectural plan, geometry, surface, form, and space.10 The interplay of these features also influences electrical light. The artificial light provides a controlled environment that can create a drama of light and shadows around a sacred icon. Thus, natural light enhanced the fresco’s sacred ambiance, while electrical light illuminates the fresco as a focal point. Hence, both sources of light complement each other in their effects in sacred settings. Based on this premise, the research posits a concluding question: can artificial light evoke the same spiritual experiences as natural light when viewing a sacred icon.
1. Eliade, M. (1958) Patterns in Comparative Religion. NY, NY: Sheed & Ward
2. Plummer, H. (1987) Poetics of light, Architecture and Urbanism, (December): 8-11.
3. Schwarz, R. (1958) The Church Incarnate: The Sacred Function of Christian Architecture; trans. Chicago, IL: H. Regnery Co; Eliade (1958); Plummer (1987); Millet, M. S. (1996) Light Revealing Architecture. NY, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold
4. Downey, G. (1957) Nikolaos Mesarites: Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society NS 47: 469-70
5. Geva, A. and Garst, A. (2005) The Holy Light: A Comparison of Natural and Artificial Light in A Sacred Setting. SiGradi – IX IberoAmerican Congress of Digital Graphics Proceeding: Vision and Visualization. Lima, Peru: 695-699
6. Garst A (2005) conducted the digital model and light simulations.
7. Giovannini, J. 1997. Modern reliquary, an authentic setting for two Byzantine frescoes. Architecture. April: 68-75.
8. Morrocco, L J. conducted the reconstruction and restoration of the frescos
9. Carr, A W. (1991) A Byzantine Masterpieces Recovered, the Thirteenth-Century Murals of Lysi, Cyprus. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press: p.68.
10. Barrie, T. (1996) Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture, Boston: Shambhala