Light and Translucency in Art: Examples from the Early Medieval Period to the Present

Harvard Art Museums announced last week that the Rothko murals will be displayed in November 2014 after being restored to their former intensity thanks to a novel no-touch light conservation project. The restoration involves using light projection to return the long-faded paintings to their original hue and intensity. The color loss resulted from the presence of lithol red, a light-sensitive pigment,  according to conservation scientist Paul Whitmore. By isolating one pixel at a time, this innovative technology will ‘replace’ the fugitive pigments, enabling new audiences to see these paintings close to how Rothko intended. For more information about this project and its contributors at MIT’s Media Lab and at University of Basel, read ‘A light touch for Rothko murals’ or ‘Rarely Seen Rothkos Highlight Harvard Art Museums’ Reopening’.

Rothko famously gave great attention to the way light operated in installations of his work. The ‘suggestions’ he gave to the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 included the following instructions about the exhibition lighting: ‘The light, whether natural or artificial, should not be too strong: the pictures have their own inner light, and if there is too much light, the color in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs. The ideal situation would be to hang them in a normally lit room – that is the way they were painted. They should not be over-lit or romanticised by spots; this results in a distortion of their meaning. They should either be lighted from a great distance or indirectly by casting lights at the ceiling or the floor. Above all, the entire picture should be evenly lighted but not strongly’. This passage is in the Whitechapel Gallery archives and is characteristic of other writings by Rothko regarding the optimum viewing environment for his work.


Whitechapel Gallery Archives, document from Mark Rothko

Using light to control and enhance the reception of art work is nothing new, but in each phase of history, artists’ use of light itself (as opposed to pictorial light) has signified innovation in craftsmanship. Generally artists like Dan Flavin, James Turrell, or Olafur Eliasson come to mind when we think of artists working with light as their medium. However, the phenomenon of artists using light as a key component in both the creation of art and the viewing experience is evident in much earlier periods.


Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, “Take your time,” 2008

My current studio project involves using a painting technique called ‘tinted drawing’ that was popularized in the thirteenth century. Tinted drawing is a method of manuscript illumination that is characterized by thin washes of paint, which allow the translucent vellum surface to operate as the light in the composition. In preparation for this painting series, I’ve been ruminating on ways light was used by artists in premodern times. Tracing the use of light in artmaking back to the early medieval period, I’ve noticed a reassuring continuity through the centuries in artistic practices and viewers’ fascination with spectacle.

The eighteenth century: Gainsborough’s showbox

When I first saw Gainsborough’s showbox at the V&A, it reminded me that artists have always found ways to incorporate the latest technology in their works. Long before the early modernists were experimenting with film or magic lantern slides, Gainsborough was borrowing from theatrical techniques and using candlelight and lenses to alter our perception of paintings. Gainsborough painted a series of oils on glass in the 1780s and constructed his ‘showbox’ in which to view these landscape paintings. Candles placed behind the painted transparency illuminated the scene, and silk was used to diffuse the light.


Thomas Gainsborough, oil on glass


Thomas Gainsborough, Showbox, Victoria & Albert Museum

Anita Callaway, in her book Visual Ephemera: Theatrical Art in Nineteenth-century Australia, elucidates the subject of transparencies in popular culture. She points out that it was a rare medium among fine artists, but Gainsborough was a notable exception. In addition to his showbox, he is said to have collaborated on large-scale transparent paintings for a concert hall that were ‘lighted behind… sufficient to illuminate the room’.  Transparencies of such scale and scope required professional painters, but by the nineteenth century, amateurs took up the practice to meet the demand for this form of decoration in domestic interiors. Transparent paintings were the middle class answer to lavish stained glass windows in the home. The use of transparencies on vellum for window coverings dates back to the medieval period, and there’s undeniably a correlation in the rise in popularity of stained glass and the thirteenth-century revival of the earlier ‘tinted drawing’ technique.

The eighth to fifteenth centuries: tinted drawing and stained glass

Once thought to be a less expensive alternative to fully-painted images, tinted drawing is a form of manuscript illumination that gained popularity in the 13th century and was in fact used in many luxury manuscripts. If there was not a budgetary imperative that required this more restrained form of manuscript decoration, then it was aesthetic choice that caused this technique to be favored by so many artists and patrons. Why was the translucent use of pigment on vellum aesthetically pleasing to a thirteenth-century readership? Some scholars have pointed out the correlation between the rise in popularity of this form of manuscript painting and the increased use of stained glass. (Stained glass was to the thirteenth century what television was to the twentieth, so it’s no surprise that a painting technique that had similar luminous qualities was fashionable and wildly popular).

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Canterbury Cathedral window, The Cloisters, New York, NY

Much of the existing research in tinted drawing emphasizes its material differences from opaquely-painted miniatures which are further embellished with gold leaf. By comparison, tinted drawings are minimalist and less lavish. However, a major material difference is overlooked – that is the translucency of the vellum surface itself. Opaque paintings in books do not allow the light to shine through the pages in the same way that the thinly applied pigments of tinted drawings do. Translucent use of the vellum is a key feature of tinted drawing, and perhaps it was this quality that delivered the desired luminous effect that attracted medieval audiences to this technique. Shifting emphasis away from the handling of the pigments to this use of light may give us new insights into manuscript production and medieval aesthetics.


British Library, Harley Roll Y.6


Bodleian Library, Ms Tanner 184, Tanner Apocalypse

This characteristic translucency of vellum was known and utilized by artists as early as the eighth century. The artist-scribe who created the Lindisfarne Gospels used an innovative approach to planning this masterpiece. He devised a method for backlighting the folios to work in reverse on the underside of each drawing. As Michelle Brown points out in her book The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe, he would then copy the image the right way around on the opposite side with pigment, thereby preventing the lead lines of the drawing from interfering with the final image. His creation of a lightbox to aid the production of his masterpiece was an ingenious contribution to the craft. This gospel book and its accompanying technical innovation were nothing short of ‘a Leonardo moment,’ in Michelle Brown’s words. When the 15th-century manuscript the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry was unbound for conservation purposes in 2010, it was on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in an exhibition entitled ‘The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry‘. I observed that the recto and verso sides of the elaborate borders exactly matched, even in cases where the line waivered or a mistake was made. This precise copying from recto to verso suggests that a similar technique to the one the employed in the making of the Lindisfarne Gospels seven centuries earlier was used. Clearly the artist charged with producing the borders understood that the light passing through the surface would mar the appearance of the manuscript if not duplicated precisely.

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Medieval grisailles glass, The Cloisters, New York, NY

Not only is light used to aid production, but also it is used for aesthetic effect. In a palimpsested flyleaf from MS Cotton Nero D.1, Matthew Paris instructed the viewer not to write on the back of the image (drawn by Brother William) and to hold the drawing up to the light in order to view it at its best advantage. As already mentioned, there are parallels between the drawings in manuscripts and the relatively new medium of stained glass, particularly the grisaille techniques, which were being developed in the thirteenth century. Like the monochrome black or brown ink drawings on glass, those on blank vellum or parchment lent themselves to a special way of using light to describe the subjects’ inner luminosity.  Many medieval writers picked up on the New Testament image of Christ as light: ‘Ego sum lux mundi’. Given the metaphoric meanings of lumen in the medieval world, it is no surprise that artists used light in a way that conjured something quite different from conventional reality. In the miniatures in a medieval codex, light does not strike the objects externally. Rather each object contains its own light source, in contrast to Renaissance art. Tinted figures on parchment allowed this pictorial light to match the literal light shining through an image. Of course artists’ intent in this time period is a difficult thing to prove. More work will need to be done to determine which contemporary texts – Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus, or Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, perhaps – medieval craftsmen had access to and whether there’s a correlation to the ideas espoused in these works and workshop practice.

Ivan Illich describes the complex relationship of the light emanating from the manuscript’s page to the reader’s eye in the following analysis of the 12th-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor’s writings: ‘The light of medieval manuscripts “seeks” the eye, as God “reaches out” to the soul…. For Hugh the page radiates, but not only the page; the eye also sparkles’. Reading is a means of bringing light back into the world that was darkened through sin, according to Hugh of St. Victor. This idea of the reader’s enlightenment relates in an metaphoric way to the light source in manuscript paintings.

Light may not carry the associations with the Divine that it did for Hugh, but today we’re still preoccupied with this interrelationship between the surface, the light source, and the viewer’s eyes. To bring the discussion full circle, Jens Stenger, former Harvard conservation scientist, made this comment about the thought process behind the new conservation technique employed on the Rothko murals: ‘In human color perception you have a light source, a surface, and a viewer, and the three interact. If you can’t change the surface, you can change the light source to change the color’. The interplay of these basic elements is infinite and ensures our continued fascination with the subject.