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Institute of Advanced Study

Light, the Senses, and the Aesthetic


The physical immanence of light (even the darkest vacuum is populated by virtual photons popping momentarily into existence before vanishing again) is in contrast to our perception of light, which is entirely in relative terms, as the quotation from Ruskin illustrates. Our brains do not interpret absolute light levels, but the relative brightness and hue of juxtaposed objects. While this sensitivity to gradients in light may have evolved to aid rapid identification of prey or predators, it also influences our perception of reality and our concept of beauty. Landscape photographers do not take their pictures in the midday sun, but in the morning and evening when shadows heighten contrast and mists generate atmosphere. Portrait artists light their subjects from the side, while chiaroscuro has been used since the Renaissance not only to create depth but as a central compositional construct by artists such as Caravaggio and Vermeer. Light and colour provide a sense of space that significantly transforms the environment in which we live and work. New advancements in the study and experimentation of organic and inorganic electroluminescent materials have enhanced this transformative power considerably, allowing architects and interior designers to manipulate the sense of space in accordance to biological rhythms, cultural needs and collective feelings. Far from serving the function of merely illuminating darkness, artificial light is able today to dramatically change the physical perception of space, the emotional predisposition with which we perform our work and leisure activities, and the visual dynamics through which we approach the world. The Architectures of Light project intends to exploit this new creative function of luminescent material to visualise the Vitruvian subtext of Durham Cathedral, showcasing the virtual power of light as a new tool of historical exploration.

Light and the Poetics of Ambivalence

A One-Day Symposium organised by the Romantic Dialogues and Legacies research group, this event will focus on imaginative representations of light in English literature, c. 1790-1950. Over the centuries writers have sought to depict the various possibilities of ‘light’: an idea crucial to Western literature’s conceptions of meaning, illumination, revelation, and perfection. As such, it is a topic of interest to many cognate areas of cultural enquiry: philosophy, theology, art history, among them. If light can serve as an emblem of absolute goodness, it can also suggest doubt and illusion (Shelley’s depiction of the ‘shape all light’ in The Triumph of Life might be regarded as an example). The one-day symposium is especially interested in light as a focus for ambivalence: about the value of enlightenment (and the Enlightenment); about the nature of beauty and truth; about the significance of artistic representation; about the process of perception. The event will consist of a mixture of plenary papers and panels; speakers will be invited from within and beyond Durham. The symposium will be open to all, though attendees will be required to register in advance. The panels will explore (i) Romantic Stars and Suns: Wordsworth, Coleridge and others; (ii) Victorian After-traces: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and others; (iii) Modernist Light: Yeats, Eliot, and others. Grounded in literature, papers for the panel sessions will have multi-disciplinary implications.

The symposium will take place on Saturday 23 November 2013.. Panels include:-

Romantic Literature: Dr Chris Murray (IAS JRF Fellow); Dr Mark Sandy (English); Professor Jeremy Dibble (Music)

Victorians: Dr Anna Barton (Sheffield); Dr Sarah Wootton (English); Dr Peter Garratt (English)

Moderns: Dr Tony Sharpe (Lancaster); Professor Stephen Regan (English); Professor Michael O’Neill (English)

Plenary Speaker: Professor Nicholas Roe (St Andrews).

Refreshments will be provided in the Institute of Advanced Study. For further information please contact Professor Michael O’Neill (m.s.o', Dr Mark Sandy ( and Dr Sarah Wootton (

Shedding Light on the Galilee: the Vitruvius at Durham Project

The significance of light for the meanings and impact of architecture is no greater for any period than for the architecture of the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose text, compiled in the second half of the first century B.C., became a cornerstone of architectural theory for subsequent periods. Paradoxically, however, precise detailed prescriptions on the lighting of buildings are hard to deduce from Vitruvius’ text, leaving our understanding of these issues subject to the conflicting interpretations of his later readers down to the present day. Recent work has drawn attention to the interactions between architectural theory in late sixteenth-century Italy, derived from the Vitruvian tradition, and contemporary developments in optical theory, particularly the “Book of Lights” by the Milanese writer Gian Paolo Lomazzo (Borys 2004). However, less attention has been paid to the understanding of light in architecture in the medieval dissemination of the Vitruvian tradition. The same may be said for the classical buildings of Vitruvius’ own time, including especially his own basilica at Fanum Fortunae in north-western Italy, described in his fifth book, but in which the sources of light remain disputed by scholars (Saliou 2009). The present project addresses both classical antiquity and the Middle Ages and, by applying the latest scientific theories in lighting, as well as architectural and lighting theory, aims to understand better how the illumination of the built environment has the potential to enhance spirituality and human wellbeing.

There is no better place to consider the impact of light in architecture than the so-called “Galilee Chapel”, added by Bishop Hugh of Le Puiset to the west end of Durham Cathedral in the early 1170s as a replacement for an aborted extension to the east end of the cathedral. As Douglas Pocock has written: 

“It is the Galilee’s quality of light which may beckon in the first instance, out of the grey of the nave, especially after noon and most particularly when the low evening rays of the sun irradiate the whole interior.” (Pocock 1996, 380)

There are remarkable similarities between the two buildings. The Galilee consists of an inner core of columns, four wide by three deep, laid in a rectangle in a ratio 2:1 (approximately 24 by 48 feet) within a walled outer rectangle with sides in proportions of just over 1.5 to 1; Vitruvius describes his basilica as consisting of an inner colonnade 60 by 120 feet, and the perimeter wall has been reconstructed as around 110 by 170 feet. Like Vitruvius’ basilica, the Galilee was originally designed with an entrance from the centre of the long side, which gave access to the cathedral nave. Above the arcade nearest to the south aisle are the remains of an apparent clerestory of windows, incomplete and later walled in, which might at one stage have been conceived as allowing light from above as in a Roman basilica. At the centre of the west side, which is now much altered by the addition in the fifteenth century of thick buttresses on the outside and three large windows, and opposite the original entrance from the cathedral church, is a small rectangular recess of no obvious function, which corresponds spatially to the recess of the aedis Augusta in Vitruvius’ basilica.

The project has three objectives: (1) to understand, through a collaboration between architectural historians of antiquity and the Middle Ages and modern designers, the lighting of the original Galilee chapel and the differences from the chapel as it stands today; (2) to elucidate, through collaboration with physicists and experts in architectural lighting, the lighting possibilities of Vitruvius’ basilica by scrutinising a similarly proportioned space and using laser-ray technology to recreate daylight radiating from different directions according to the path of the sun; and (3) to appreciate more closely, particularly through collaboration with experts in digital photogrammetry and virtual reality models, and consultation with experts in the medieval textual tradition, the links between the Galilee of Hugh of Le Puiset and Vitruvius’ description of his basilica at Fanum.

Two events will be held in 2013/14:

(1) A closed interdisciplinary project seminar on 4th February 2014 to discuss and develop the basis for a large grant proposal designed to achieve the above objectives of the project. The seminar will be led by Stefano Cracolici (Modern Languages and Director of the Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures), Andy Monkman (Physics), and Edmund Thomas (Classics & Ancient History). Experts from a range of disciplines will be invited to participate in the seminar, including Roman and medieval architectural history, medieval palaeography, architectural lighting, and photogrammetry.

(2) A public evening event at the Gala Theatre on 12th May 2014, presented by the three Durham leaders of the project and two to three of the external participants in the seminar.

Borys, A. M. (2004) ‘Lume di Lume: A Theory of Light and Its Effects,’ Journal of Architectural Education 57 (4): 3-9.
Pocock, D. (1996) ‘Place Evocation: The Galilee Chapel in Durham Cathedral,’
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s., 21 (2): 379-386.
Saliou, C. (2009) Vitruve, De l’Architecture, Livre V. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Perceiving the Light: Image, Shadow and Transparency

Most contemporary work in the philosophy of visual perception takes as its canonical focus the visual experience of three-dimensional, solid, bounded and coherent material objects – things like coins, bicycles and cabbages. Insofar as they can be sensed by other means, such items also have a non-visual nature; for example, they can be touched or, when they produce sound, heard. But in addition to such objects we also see items the perceptible nature of which does not extend beyond the purely visible realm in this way – items like shadows, mirror images, and rainbows. Such items remain strikingly overlooked by philosophers of perception, and because they problematize many object-centric treatments of perception they have proven difficult to capture theoretically. For example, most theorists endorse a causal theory of perception, but on many orthodox accounts of causation, absences cannot be causes. So orthodoxy assumed, shadows, which are privations of light, cannot be perceived (a conclusion to be naturally resisted!). By focussing on the mostly neglected phenomenon of the perception of light and on the perception of the absence of light (viz. shadow), the proposed activity will invite reflection on a number of such ephemera – rainbows, mirror images and shadows – as well as on their re-presentation, for example, in photographs, and their use in art and artistic practice. As such, it will straddle the philosophical subdisciplines of aesthetics and philosophy of mind, while also being of interest to historians of art, theorists of English Literature, Geography and, it is hoped, IAS fellows working on the thematic focus.

Two interwoven events are proposed: A half-day workshop that will consist of two Master classes on the subject of perceiving light, followed (the next day) by a day-long conference. This will comprise six talks (four invited and two contributed (blind, peer-reviewed)). Discussion will be chaired by Durham postgraduates and staff.