It’s that time of year again when lights attract and cheer the souls of fleece-lined, partially-frozen shoppers. Whether they signal for Santa’s glittery grab-bags or for elegant, high-tech marvels, light is beckoning to us all.

But the beckoning of light is also vividly expressed during the winter holy days for Christians and Jews, when the lights symbolically reenact overcoming darkness. Hanukah and Christmas reflect common poetic metaphors, darkness for death and destruction, while light stands for illumination, victory and life.

“And The Light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it” – John 1:5

Considering that light is the primary symbol for these ecclesiastical truths, it’s odd that so little has been done with light as a substance itself in churches and synagogues. Let’s skip for just a moment the Menorahs and candlelight services, although those beautiful traditions have their place. These all involve using either fire or light bulbs (at least a slight nod to modernity) as a means of illumination, but light as an art medium has vastly more potential.

“Pattevugel Lightkite” by Michael Bleyenberg

Recent innovations in the fields of physics and electronics have resulted in heaps of light-emitting gadgets for artists and architects to experiment with, and they haven’t let it go to waste. Projected images, lasers, LEDs, fiber optics and holograms have all successfully been used to create art, but are rarely seen in churches.


“Lincoln Cathedral Cloister” by Martin Griffiths, image: Richard Devereux

A few “light artists” are working with churches or using religious subject matter, such as U.K.-based Martin Griffiths. In 2010 he installed a series of sculptures at Lincoln Cathedral Cloister which radiate, absorb, reflect and produce light.

His pieces are geometric and solid, creating an extreme contrast with the bands of airy light running through them. Griffiths combines polished metals, gold plating, mirrored glass and acrylic with new lighting technologies to create sharp, brilliant “light lines” that look like cuts.

He describes the unusual and joyous properties of working with light as being most beautiful when it reveals a “volume of infinite space,” which is “more subtle than an atom’s depth.”

In Germany, light artist Michael Bleyenberg “builds” with light by applying it to architectural or environmental sculptures. His highly technical process involves using Diasec, halogen and light foils embedded between glass and mirrors to create light refraction – which he compares to prisms. The colors shift as observers move about them, causing continual change, so no two observers have the same experience.

“Spero Lucem,” light art by Michael Bleyenberg

“Spero Lucem” is a cross-shaped design on a glass screen using HoloSign (a newer type of holography). It requires no projector, but the embedded design explodes by itself into spectral colors and permutations of a cross when struck by various types and angles of light, including natural sunlight. Since 2003 this piece has been slowly working its way across the Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany and was hosted in 15 churches there.

Bleyenberg describes the effects of his art as being foreign to normal perception and experience and “barely tangible” because of the ephemeral qualities of light. This fleeting quality and difficulty discerning objects makes light an ideal medium for portraying spiritual subjects.

There is also no possibility of offending via transgression of the Second Commandment. Light is also a universal metaphor for God, life, goodness, hope and all things transcendent and positive. It easily and naturally can be used as an expression of illumination and hope.

Using light as a medium alone probably tends toward the creation of the most abstract of all artwork. The majority of traditional art is somewhat representational and appears on some type of object (stone, canvas) with boundaries and definable edges. Even digital art appears on a tangible substance, computer or screen.

Light art is created at the foundational level of physics with light waves involving no intermediary, transitions and requiring no subject. There is also no frame of reference to traditional art, and so light art can easily assume a spiritual quality.

Secular artists have been experimenting with every new type of light technology since the advent of the light bulb and have dreamed up imaginative works of art using pure light itself or variations of it for many decades. However, all these years after Edison, people are still a little resistant to expanding the meaning of “art” to something which has an off switch, especially within the confines of the traditional church.

Russian art historian and big-time icon collector Viktor Bondarenko doesn’t have that problem with new technology at all. He encourages the church to “keep abreast with the times” and describes his vision of art and technology for future churches.

“It is a plasma icon-stand and some kind of laser lighting system instead of chandeliers. And holograms,” he said in a recent interview for Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.

I was with him until he suggested abolishing hymns and using rap to keep up with the times. I’m also trying to imagine what the new icons would look like.

In case this alarms anyone, it isn’t likely to happen soon, as new technology is quite slow to show up at churches for any number of reasons. Some members are still at odds over electric guitars or digital screens and suspicious of technical changes being a distraction. Regardless of the means or machines you use at this time of year, keep the light in mind.

By the way, Bleyenberg’s work is currently part of a group exhibit at MIT Museum in Boston, Mass. “Luminous Windows: Holograms for the 21st Century” will show all winter from dusk to 2 a.m. – viewable from outside the Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery.

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