LED Lighting For The Sistine Chapel – The Genius Of Rome In New Glory

  Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Creation of Adam  (1510, Michelangelo)

Yes, I have been to the Sistine Chapel. But did I actually see Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings (1508-1512)?  No, not really.

Being carried along with a herd of tourists, straining to look up 40 feet in that eternal twilight, what can one see? I could only imagine Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) labors being wasted on us. How did he paint so up close to produce a view that would always be seen from more than four stories below? And on a ceiling that is not flat.

But amazingly, just as neuroscience has helped us understand how our eyes see, and how our brain interprets it, technology is helping us see better at a distance – and therefore more. The new LED lighting installed in the Sistine Chapel this year—450 years after the death of Michelangelo—will help us see more colors, more depth and more details than ever before; while at the same time using less than half the energy. Furthermore, the new lights contain no UV or infrared rays that damage paintings. Osram, the German company that designed and installed the system had demonstrated to the Vatican last year that the new lighting would keep the ceiling‘s pigments in current condition for at least 1000 years.

The incandescent light bulb that we have always known but seeing less and less of, is incredibly energy wasting. All of 95% of the energy that heats up the bulb’s tungsten elements to produce light is wasted as heat. By contrast, these new Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) use an entirely different method to produce light needing much less electricity for the same amount of light.

Known since the 1960s, LEDs then could produce only weak light, and only in red. So it was used for indicator lights. As more colors were produced by manipulating the diode (the semi-conductor material which when excited by an electric current produces light), a full array of lights, red, green, yellow, and finally blue were produced, sometimes with the help of filters. It was only in the mid-1990s when white light was produced, and with sufficient brightness.  Now LEDs can produce the full spectrum of light based on the three primary colors. And even better, each LED fixture can be altered to enhance a particular combination of pigments in a painting—and by remote control. No more climbing ladders! And these lights last a very long time. (However there are some complaints that some turn yellow after five years or so. My new LED lights have a slight yellow cast compared to the old low voltage incandescent bulbs but unnoticeable after a while)

With all these virtues, one would think museums would be flocking to it. Well, the cost is near prohibitive. For example to change all the lights in the Metropolitan Museum in New York would cost four millions dollars (probably more). And the Sistine project alone cost a cool $2.5 million.

Last year I reported on a pioneering project in the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Titian in Venice & Rome – In A New Light with LEDs, Neurobiology… , where one of Titian’s masterpieces was lit with different LED lights and audiences were asked to state their preference. The experiment, which would be conducted in three more cities, would determine the ultimate lighting for the painting.

As museum professionals remain to be completely convinced, the future of LEDs’ use for art is inevitable despite the initial cost; and museums have different views and strategies (See here).  Some worry that such innovative lighting deviates from the artists’ intentions. One cites a photographer specifying that her art be seen under fluorescent lighting; such explicit wish no doubt should be honored.  But most artists do not give an expressed wish, especially those from previous eras, before electricity. Curators often assume that if the art was painted under candle light or daylight that that was the intention of the artist: I do not think such implicit conditions should be read as such. In any case, the idea of artist intention, I believe is due for a re-examination because of what we now know about the conception and perception of art, based on neuro-biology. Osram, the Sistine project designer stated:

“…and the aim was to achieve an impression of color that more closely justifies the high component of saturated colors in the frescoes…a sophisticated correction algorithm was developed that integrates the differing color perception of the human eye with various color temperatures into the spectral distribution of the LED light. It is highly probable that visitors in the future will be able to experience the interplay of fresco colors just as Michelangelo once intended, and such ambitious fine-tuning is currently only possible with light emitting diodes.”

There is little disagreement at the moment in art as well as in science that true art (and its perception) engages  our unconscious, the ineffable, the implicit, the unspoken part of our nature. And it involves the many sensing cells in our whole body whose activities we are mostly not consciously aware. *


*   For example, there is now experimental evidence that all of our cells in the body have the capacity for sensing and setting circadian rhythm, not just the ‘master clock’ deep in our brain which responds to light from the eyes. It should not be surprising then that these masses of peripheral cells are sensing other cues  as well from the environment, via our sense organs; registering form, shape, distance and other memory.


3/20/2015  The Nobel prize in physics for 2014 was awarded to three Japanese physicists  who succeeded in producing blue LED light in  the 1990s, enabling the production of white light from these diodes. See here the announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  It is not often that we the public understand what those Nobel scientists do. And in this case, it is more a technological triumph than a theoretical one but a great contribution to conservation and our environment. It can also bring light to the 1.5 billion people in the world who are not on electricity grids: because very small amount of electricity is needed to produce light in these diodes, solar power can be used to produce light for these people.

“Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”


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