New Lighting Technology More Light for Rome’s Sistine Chapel

 Sistine Chapel in Rome
Sistine Chapel in Rome | Photo (detail): Osram, © Governatorato dello Stato della Città del Vaticano

The installation of an entirely new lighting concept will enable visitors to the Sistine Chapel in Rome to see the chapel as it was in Michelangelo’s own time.

The Pope will be the first. The first to experience one of the greatest works of art of all time, illuminated in the way Michelangelo saw it. The artist presented his masterpiece over 500 years ago to Pope Julius II who commissioned the work. At that time, natural light still came through the windows of the Sistine Chapel. Today the place is dark, with thick curtains hanging over all of the windows to protect the frescoes against damaging natural light. The Last Judgement over the altar can therefore only be viewed by visitors and even high church dignitaries in very low lighting.

Real light with LED

The colours appear somewhat faint, but that is now set to change. 2014, marking the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death, the chapel where popes are elected will shine in a new light. A new technology will then illuminate the Sistine Chapel. The project, initiated by the Munich-based company, Osram, and implemented in cooperation with four european partners, is aimed to imitate the natural light entering through the windows. To accomplish this task 60 light fixtures with some 7000 LEDs have been installed.

“We were looking for a really demanding task”, says Martin Reuter, who helped develop the idea and is one of the two technical project managers. In 2011 his team won the EU competition LED4Art. This project was announced by the European Union to demonstrate technical progress in LED technology. Reuter and his team were therefore looking for a project that focussed on colour, energy efficiency and longevity, and also one that would stand as a symbol. “We also wanted a place where we could provide a significant improvement to the current situation”, Reuter adds.

Light as from heaven

Many visitors of the Vatican museums find the bright lamps disturbing when they look up to the ceiling. This is now something of the past. The new luminaires will be concealed so that they emit light like natural daylight. This new lighting system increases the luminance by ten times. “With greater luminance it is possible to experience an excellent diversity of colours”, Reuter adds. The Vatican was also very pleased about the project. An European Union website does mention costs amounting to 1.9 million Euro. The EU itself is contributing 870,000 Euro towards the project.

Director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, considers it most important that the technology used should show respect for the work of art. “The lighting should remain reserved. It should be homogeneous, not too severe, not too weak, and not allow any part of this holy place to be left out.” Technically it would not be a problem to highlight certain areas of the chapel using the LEDs, areas such as the famous Last Judgement, for example. However, the Vatican and Paolucci would like to re-establish as far as possible the light in which Michelangelo experienced the chapel. At that time the chapel was illuminated with candles and torches, comments the museum director. “The LED light should not imitate candlelight, that would be too far fetched. But it should not compete with Michelangelo.”

Osram was also responsible for the lighting system installed in the Lenbachhaus Museum in Munich, that reopened in may 2013 after a perennial reconstruction phase and has received much acclaim. In this building the light temperature is adjusted according to the respective era, Martin Reuter explains. Here the work of modern artists, for instance, is illuminated by cooler light.

Saving energy in a large scale

In the Sistine Chapel the Vatican Museums are expected to save at least 60 percent in power consumption for lighting, and with the special lighting required for services and concerts it should be possible to save up to 90 percent, according to Osram. Because LEDs create less heat, the air conditioning will not have to work as hard. “Our new lighting system should prove very interesting for the entire museum area and for clerical areas“, says Reuter confidently. And indeed, Museum Director Paolucci already wishes to have the works of Raffael illuminated by this LED system. “It should be our goal to convert all of the Vatican Museums “, he adds.