Michelangelo Meets the Light-Emitting Diode in Sistine Chapel Lighting Retrofit

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A UN-funded lighting overhaul will enable Vatican City visitors to take in Michelangelo's magnificent frescos with significantly less eye strain. (Photo: Fotopress/Getty Images).

Following last spring’s LED makeover within Notre Dame de Paris, Europe’s latest Catholic house of worship-cum-tourist attraction to be treated to an energy-saving lighting retrofit is none other than the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

More of a high-traffic art museum than a working chapel, the Sistine Chapel is best known for serving as papal election HQ and being the world’s preeminent source of devastating neck cramps. (Pro tip: Don’t visit Vatican City without a pocketful of Aleve and/or a compact mirror).

When visitors enter the Sistine Chapel, consecrated in the late 15th century by Pope Sixtus IV, they immediately crane their necks and look upwards toward the most famous vaulted ceiling in existence. A lot of bumping, shoving and grunting commences as the horde collectively shuffles around the cramped chapel with its eyes focused on the prize — Michelangelo’s magnificent Book of Genesis-depicting frescos including the Creation of Adam (you know, the almost finger-touching one with God and the hidden brain stems).

Michelangelo’s famed ceiling frescos, which turned 500 in 2012, aren’t just associated with neck pain. Serious eye fatigue is also a known Sistine Chapel aftereffect given that Vatican City visitors —all 5 and a half million of them annually — are required to squint and strain their eyes to appreciate the quintessential Renaissance man's masterwork. A sore neck and tired eyes, however, don't even come close to the discomfort experienced by Michelangelo as he begrudgingly painted the chapel's ceiling for four years straight (1508 to 1512) while standing atop a self-designed scaffold. Heck, he even suffered from a goiter so monstrous that he wrote a poem about it.

While it won't do much on the neck discomfort front, an EU-subsidized lighting overhaul recently commissioned by Vatican Museums and carried out by German lighting company Osram will dramatically improve visibility — and alleviate visitor eye strain —in the Sistine Chapel.

You see, back in the 1980s the Vatican sealed off the Sistine Chapel's windows due to concerns that harsh natural light would lead to fading and deterioration of the Creation of Adam and other paintings including Botticelli and Perugino's side walls. Makes perfect sense.

In the absence of natural light, low-wattage halogen lighting systems were somewhat hastily installed to illuminate the 6,135-square-foot ceiling. While they posed little threat to the art itself, the dim and uneven halogen lighting scheme didn’t exactly allow Michelangelo’s work to truly “pop." And so, for the last three decades, the famed frescoes have been rendered blurry, bland, hard to see — a world-class case of beyond-iconic art hampered by subpar lighting.

Composed of 7,000 individual LEDs, Osram’s custom-designed lighting scheme (price tag: $2.4 million) brings Michelangelo’s frescoes to full, vibrant life with zero exposure to ultraviolet and infrared radiation.

Osram explains in full lighting-geek speak:

From 2014, the 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo, LED light will be illuminating the artist's masterpiece ‘The Creation of Adam’ as well as other works accommodated by the chapel, and art lovers visiting the interior of the Sistine Chapel will then be able to experience the art in a completely new diversity of color. Lighting experts from the company of OSRAM developed a sophisticated LED lighting concept that increases illuminance by five to ten times, elevating the colors from the semi-darkness of twilight and illuminating the complete color spectrum of the frescoes in highly homogeneous and optimally controlled light.
Simultaneously, control options inherent with LED technology are exploited to the full, and the aim was to achieve an impression of color that more closely justifies the high component of saturated colors in the frescoes. The first stage in the project was the non-contact analysis of fresco pigmentation at 280 points on the Renaissance paintings by colorimetry experts from the Pannonian University in Hungary, the analysis points being illuminated with a calibrated light source and the reflected spectrum measured. This actual color response (and not the classic color rendering index) then serves as a benchmark for the fine spectral adjustment of the LED luminaires. Today, experts assume that Michelangelo did not mix his colors under candlelight or the light of torches but with daylight and thus with a cooler color temperature. The chapel though is illuminated with LED light at 3,000 Kelvin, and so a sophisticated correction algorithm was developed that integrates the differing color perception of the human eye with various color temperatures into the spectral distribution of the LED light. It is highly probable that visitors in the future will be able to experience the interplay of fresco colors just as Michelangelo once intended, and such ambitious fine-tuning is currently only possible with light emitting diodes.

Osram goes onto to explain that thanks to the cool, non-heat-emitting nature of LEDs, they'll be installed inside the confines of the Sistine Chapel, discreetly hidden around the building's perimeter (the aforementioned halogen lights were installed outside of the solar radiation-blocking windows due to the amount of heat that they generated). Glare, a common occurrence with the halogen set-up, will also no longer be an issue.
And although the Vatican isn’t exactly hurting for cash, it’s expected that the LED overhaul will ultimately be a big money-saver given that it slashes both the Sistine Chapel’s art-illuminating visitor lighting and “gala lighting” for special events from over 66 kilowatts to a meager 7.5 kilowatts.

Perhaps the money saved lighting the Sistine Chapel with LEDs can be used to resurrect the shelved solar Popemobile plans?

Via [The Wall Street Journal]