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Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Event Archive

Shedding Light on the Galilee

10th July 2014, 18:00, Prior's Hall - Durham Cathedral, Dr Daniela Amadei, Dr Laura Bertuccioli, Prof. John Crook, Prof. Andy Monkman, Iain Ruxton, and Dr Edmund Thomas.

An evening of presentations supported by the IMEMS Small Research Grant Scheme

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.

Contact e.v.thomas@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.