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Quality was a Key Component to Re-lighting the Sistine Chapel

By Scott Costa

Lighting the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City is a three and a half year project. But if you want to light some of the most famous artwork ever created, it has to be done right and it has to be done with extreme caution.

“We had a simple philosophy and that was quality, quality and quality.  Do not do any harm to the pigments or the paintings,”  Mourad Boulouednine of Osram told tED magazine after the lighting ceremony. 

Damage to the paintings as a result of natural light forced the Chapel to block the lighting from nearby windows, which led to disappointed visitors who wanted to see Michelangelo’s nearly 500-year-old masterpieces.  Osram took on the project to use more than 7,000 LED lights to bring the artwork back to life.

“We proactively looked for this opportunity.  We had done a smaller museum in Munich,” Boulouednine said. “We wanted to make use of LED technology. We made a proposal and when an idea is good it breaks through.  We were putting several things together and told them we have a system that can help you and you can use it.”

Osram also had to build a high level of trust before the lighting could be installed. That took not only a long period of time, but also sharing all of the details of the lighting plan.

“With several mock ups we showed the technology and the potential results.  It was an outstanding occasion for illumination and for color,” Boulouednine added. “We tested for nearly a year to make sure the lighting would not damage any of the paintings.  We wanted to make sure there would be no fading or any harm to the paintings.”

Another complication was making sure each of the 7,000 lights were directed in the correct locations. And, the Chapel did not want visitors to see the luminaires.

“We wanted people to make sure they see the paintings with Jesus and Moses on the walls, too. We needed to make sure we had the exact direction of light on the walls.  We thought this was a very important thing for us.  And we had to do that with no luminaires visible and no glare from the lighting from any position.  We had to find locations in the Sistine Chapel that would provide the light but not block the views from the visitors.”

But in the end, Boulouednine says seeing the reaction from the visitors when the light switch was flipped made the three and a half year effort worthwhile.

“It was a wow reaction to the initial lighting.  You get to see the joy and they get to see the colors now, so you can appreciate the detail much more.   You can hear the reaction and see the smiles from the people there.  They are pointing and showing each other the detail.  This was really a fulfilling experience.”

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