I have been involved in the lighting of many religious spaces in my lighting practice. From my experience, I feel that the architecture, the atmosphere, the space, makes a similar statement whether it is highly traditional or simple Zen modern. We all feel a “presence” in a religious space. Spirituality resides in places that are infused with prayer.
I have visited the great cathedrals of the world, and small churches and chapels of all denominations, and I have always felt a quiet prayerful awe when entering and spending time in those specials spaces. One factor that speaks to me is the quality of light within; light is the key to understanding spaces, and key to our emotional reactions to a space. Light may come through classic stained-glass windows, from clearstory windows on high, or from rows of candles in dark mysterious areas. We react differently to a space lit by natural filtered light than we do to the same space lit in artificial light at nighttime. Even the lack of light can form its own message of awe and quiet. I often feel that in past times, and sometimes appropriate to the present as well, religious organizations sometime intentionally used an atmosphere of dim light and mystery.
Every person reacts individually to a religious space, but a common experience is a spiritual vibration: a safe place, a calm quiet, a respectful presence. And I believe that the lighting within either helps or hinders that presence. Once in Italy, at Camogli near Portofino, my wife and I entered the dark interior of the local Duomo to find dozens of crystal chandeliers hanging in a 17th century gilded interior. So many chandeliers above us should have felt like reflected water – a transparent glow – but the church had attempted to “fix” the light level by putting circular fluorescent-bulbs within each chandelier; it was sinful. It certainly did the job of providing light but the glare and desecration destroyed the spiritual experience, at least for me.
We live in the 21st century so we expect more than candles and oil to make our spaces bright. Today’s rituals and gatherings all require more and brighter light than ever before. The aging population needs more light to function, and building codes and other authorities demand minimum light levels for the safety and usefulness of contemporary spaces. Proper lighting panels and controls provide longer lamp life and energy savings. In our religious buildings and offices, energy efficiency and operating costs are significant factors when considering improvements to worship spaces and working spaces as well.
As a lighting designer, I have been fortunate to work in many sacred spaces, and I have developed an understanding of their special qualities and challenges. A congregation is sensitive to its traditions, its strengths, and its special personality. Planned lighting can highlight the special architectural features of a sacred space, can create focus lighting for special types of services or gatherings, and can illuminate cherished places in a building. Good lighting of course can provide adequate quantities of light to see and read, and generally make spaces feel balanced, useable and inspirational. Proper designed lighting can make small spaces feel larger and larger spaces more intimate, and will illuminate the special qualities unique to each faith community.