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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 18 November 2013

In a Nutshell: infinite space in Durham Cathedral's light show

Lumière has come and gone. Durham’s festival of light brought 175000 people into the city over four dark winter nights. The city was filled with beautiful, inventive light shows that revealed how sophisticated technology can serve art. For many, the Crown of Light installation on the north face of the Cathedral was (forgive the word) a highlight. It painted a vast colourful canvas in images and music encompassing the northern saints, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the building of the Cathedral.  Although I had seen it many times, it never failed to work its magic.

We don’t yet know how many tens of thousands of people found their way into the Cathedral: the queues were so long that not everyone made it inside. Those who did may have found themselves bewildered at first. The blacked-out nave communicated darkness and mystery like a huge cave. Narrow beams of light swung rhythmically back and forth across the width of the church, so focused that the surrounding darkness remained almost impenetrable. Clusters of very fine wire hangings, looping invisibly down from the vault caught the beams as they passed through creating an effect like a myriad of dancing fireflies. As the rays hit the architecture opposite, amazing geometrical patterns formed converging and diverging, expanding and retracting, picking out for an instant capitals and arcades, flutings, striations and chevrons in an ever-changing dance of light. It would need a poet to put it into words. It was hard to photograph too though I have posted some images on my Twitter feed @sadgrovem.
As I watched this celestial drama I wondered what made it so beguiling. It was as if I was looking out across the vastnesses of a dark empty cosmos to stars and galaxies millions of light years away, reaching back across the aeons of a far distant past.  The Cathedral had become a mass , a container that was re-shaping time and space.  Hamlet says: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’. The title of the light show designed in France by Atsara was [M]ondes: ‘worlds’ with the ‘M’, ‘waves’ without it. Light at work in the cosmos creating worlds, light both making waves and being waves: a whole theology of creation was suggested by what we were seeing.
The 12th century Abbé Suger said of his masterpiece, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris, that a cathedral should encapsulate heavenly worlds. It should be a casket for the infinite, a beautiful container in which to glimpse what lies beyond human understanding. The created materials of stone and glass should become a window on to the Eternal. For him, the essential quality was light and how it irradiated the building, and how the building in turn influenced and shaped the light pouring through it. 

To me, [M]ondes was an extraordinarily subtle, complex, many-layered work. It was not in your face, exhilarating like Crown of Light. It was more reflective, and understated, needing time to do it justice, penetrate its textures and touch its mystery. Yet I heard people remark after walking through it for a few minutes that there was something tantalisingly effective about it. Perhaps they experienced it as thought-provoking, suggestive, putting questions to us that were not just interesting but even important.  If art succeeds in getting us to ponder, perhaps touching and changing us in some way, helping us to glimpse God, it is realising a deeply human and spiritual purpose.

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