Religious architecture and light. Part III
In the early Christianity period and the Romanesque, another big shift regarding the use of light took place.
The secrecy of the cult and the decline of technological progress in the first period of the Middle Ages originated in architecture- again characterized by the darkness, with small openings in the facades.
However, in this case, the inside of the church was accessed by devotees and there was a small penetration of light in the interior which was more concentrated in creating movement in the space. The brightest part was situated in the altar, always oriented towards east. Therefore, the individual was attracted by this brightness and moved towards it. In this way; we can observe a progressive change of direction of the light treatment, from a more central structure to a linear one.
The evolution from the Romanesque architecture to the Gothic period was intimately related with a change in meaning of faith. From a dark and cruel god that resided in the mystery, there was a change to a more benevolent and light conception. Besides, a scholastic philosophy, conceived as a meeting of the ancient classical philosophy with the medieval Christian theology, started to gain strength and was characterized by putting a lot of emphasis in the philosophy of light related with god. Therefore, the theological discourse evolved to a focus on light as a message from god. At the same time, the culture moved from the Roman Empire to northern countries and a concern for cold and insulation and lighting the interiors started.
As a result, gothic churches have the objective of introducing as much light as possible in the interior space, a light understood as “the light of god”. Consequently, an overwhelming feeling, like in Byzantine churches, is achieved. The vertical dynamism, related with the conception of god linked with the heaven and the sky, and the light income are the main features of the gothic cathedral. Two features intimately related, as the evolution of the structure is what allows the vertical space and the presence of big openings at the same time.
However, this “light of God” has a magical attribute related to it and, therefore, it is not considered as ordinary. As a consequence, the openings of the church are situated towards the sky rather than the direct exterior. In addition, the use of stained glass confers this light a special character. The most impressing example of the symbolism related with openings in the gothic church is the rose window, an icon of the divinity oriented towards west and, therefore, illuminating the altar in the afternoon. Additionally, the inside surfaces of the church tend to have also a gloomy quality in the reflection of the light. All in all, the general impression given to the individual entering in the gothic cathedral is of insignificance of the human in front of the grandiosity of God.
In the border between Europe and Asia, the Ottoman Empire had a position of great power, clearly reflected in its architecture. Its geographical position promoted an influence by the byzantine type, adapted to the Muslim faith. This alteration is mirrored in different lighting changes, with daylight and artificial light treatments. The increment of daylight penetrating in the interior by opening windows with stained glass in non-structural walls would be a first one. But also the lowering of the perception of the ceiling level by the addition of pendants of oil and, therefore, the creation of a new ceiling in a human scale is a very interesting one, as it deals with the use of artificial light in the design. The result is a shift from an overwhelming sensation in byzantine churches to a serene feeling in Muslim mosques, a calm environment more suitable for personal reflection than for impression.
The Renaissance is the period of the reason, the age of invention, when mysticism, divinity and faith lose importance and experience while insight and human reasoning gain relevance. However, the Renaissance is not only determined by these factors, it is also the age of change from a theocentric conception of the world to an anthropocentric one. Humanism and individualism become the central point of discussion and, therefore, the human body becomes a principal reference for architecture.
The translation of these concepts into architecture bring a focus in geometrical organization that, in the case of light, is translated to a modulated arrangement, following a rhythm and enlightening the architectural elements. Light is not a tool anymore to emphasize the magnificence of God; it is a light made for the human. In this case it is used to accentuate some architecture strategies adopted in the design of the building. For this reason there is a change of use from stained glass, which gives the light spirituality, to transparent glass, which allows the entrance of pure light and makes easier the emphasis in the structure and the architecture.
On the other hand, Baroque architecture has a clear connection with the dramatic use of the light. Instead of treating it in an immediate way, like in the renaissance, its objective is to give a scenographic effect. To achieve this atmosphere, among other strategies, a high contrast between light and shadow – chiaroscuro- is used, as in the paintings from the period. At the same time, the complex and ornamented forms of the surfaces create shades against the light. Another aspect that adds the scenographic characteristic to the ambiance is the mysterious procedence. In a lot of the cases it is not easy to see where the light comes from. Instead, the observer is only able to see the effect and therefore, he gets more impressed by it. In general, the perception of the space is characterized for its high dynamism and contrast.
Getting closer to current times, in the case of modern architecture we can witness a big change in the structure of the ideological field. Although the use of natural light is still of great importance in divine spaces, the spiritual meaning tends to depend more in personal spirituality or ideology of the architect than actually the period itself. However, it is interesting to see a general tendency towards the central model, which gains importance again. Also, a combination of both models is developed, as a central plan that collects light from the perimeter. Besides that, in the specific field of light treatment there is also a general interest in the daylight cycle and its perception from the interior of the building. In conclusion, although new technologies have been included in daily life and religion has a different position in society, the most meaningful spaces still show a clear relation between the use of daylight and its spiritual conception.
In the case of contemporary architecture, as it is always more difficult to analyse with perspective the closer periods, the explanations should be understood more as hypothesis than a research coming from consolidated knowledge. In any case, we can perceive a clear inheritance of the use of light in sacred spaces of modern architecture. However, a progressive shift from a more conceptual use of light in the former one towards a more scenographic use in the case of contemporary can be recognized. This symmetry could be understood as a parallelism with the relation renaissance-baroque, a progression from a more intellectual use of light to a more expressionist one.
(to be continued…)
Author: Glòria Serra Coch