Trish Worth has been a long-time member of the Via Lucis congregation, and one of the regular voices in the choir. A couple of years ago she brought up a question of whether it was possible to photograph a church at night by candlelight, specifically the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. She wanted to understand how the church looked to those who built it.
Trish wrote, “I did an experiment with a candle and a painting of mine yesterday, and my husband took a photo. The painting completely changed in candlelight. I only had one candle, but pre-electric artists probably had a number of them lighting a studio, nevertheless my painting was shadowed all the time, never wholly illuminated. Anyway, the exercise reminded me of a scene in “The English Patient” where the nurse was hoisted up towards the ceiling, holding a candle, to see the old frescoes. I tried to imagine you and PJ being given permission to enter a completely dark church with your candles and cameras.”
This prompted a fairly long-discussion that of the subject in the comments section that led to the difference in modern illumination and candles.
I wrote, “At a targeted illumination of 15 lumens per square foot (the approximate illumination for a hotel corridor) for us to light the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay would require about two hundred 100 watt incandescent lamps producing 1650 lumens each, spaced six feet apart. This would leave the upper reaches of the church almost dark. To accomplish the same lighting with candlelight at 13 lumens each would require approximately 24,000 candles. Using long exposures, we could achieve results with about 20% of these candles, but that is still would require 4,800 candles. Now admittedly, Vézelay is quite a grand church, but it goes to show what it would take. Now, maybe we could use torches …”
Trish wrote back “I’ve been wondering how monks would light the church when they went several times a night for offices. Did they hold one candle each? Were there candelabra continually burning? I discussed your 24,000 candles with a friend and she reminded me that the first few thousand would have melted by the time you’d finished lighting the last one. Perhaps a small church, with a few candles providing very low lighting, is an option … I’ve since looked at a couple of YouTube videos of monks in night offices. They seem to hold a candle or lamp each. The camera doesn’t pick up much architecture.”
I replied, “Exactly. A few cameras will allow us to pick up almost no architectural detail, even to the naked eye, much less to the camera. And since the video camera only has an exposure of 1/24th or 1/30th of a second, even less for video.”
I then told her that we had shot at night, but not by candlelight and then described something extraordinary that happened many years ago in the Dordogne.
“As you surely know, Europe (especially France and Spain) are filled with caves decorated with paleolithic art. Lascaux, Chauvet, Font-de-Gaume, Altamira and so many others are filled with extraordinary prehistoric images, and these are of special interest to me. About twenty-five years ago I went to one of the smaller caves in the Dordogne region to see the carvings. I was the only visitor (oh for those times again) so the guide gave me special consideration. He shined his flashlight on a section of wall that was filled with lines. Closer examination showed that there were images carved on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. It was chaotic and confusing – why would the artists do this? Then the guide lit a candle and turned off the flashlight. By the dancing of the candle flame, a whole other world emerged. Instead of superimposed images, it was clear that they were animated images. Animals moved in the light.
This was an extraordinary discovery for me, that 20,000 years ago our ancestors were sophisticated enough to create movement on the walls of their holy places. I recently found this link that shows the concept clearly, but with originals that were painted and not incised. Extraordinary.
The point of all of this is that we are constantly astonished by the creative impulses in human beings. We are so fond of thinking that history is linear and progressive, that today is better than yesterday (except for certain people who are convinced that a few years ago is always better than today). We always feel that we are at the summit of human history. I was long ago convinced that this was a foolish thought and that other ages, while perhaps less technologically advanced, had significant advantages over us in matters that count. The fact that artists from 20,000 years ago were able to see movement in lines and created animations on the walls of their caves demonstrates this.
That the masons who created Vézelay were able to visualize a space that changed with the hours and days of the year, constantly renewing our appreciation of its structures and volumes, is more proof, if an ounce more were needed.
We won’t be lighting thousands of candles in the Basilique Sainte Madeleine to see how the church looked so many hundreds of years ago. We will, however, light a candle for my brother Steve who passed away a year ago, a second for my father who has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and a third for my mother who has to struggle with loss of those she most loves. May Madeleine show mercy.