Norfolk, UK

Great swathes of light arc across cathedral buildings, poppies cascade down the walls, gigantic stained glass windows appear on every surface, lines of monks pass by while bombers fly overhead – these are cathedrals illuminated as they have never been before, combining art and religion in a very unique way.  

Such illuminations result in displays that are dramatic, beautiful, stimulating and thought-provoking.

“There is definitely a spiritual element to these illuminations," says Rev Canon Matthew Vernon, who is currently organising St Edmundsbury Cathedral's first illumination project due to take place in 2022. "They feed our souls with images of light and show the power of light over darkness as well as giving a glimpse of the beauty of God. We all love stories and light projections are great ways of telling stories."

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'Sarum Lights: Heaven and Earth' by a collaborative team of artists known as Luxmuralis held at Salisbury Cathedral this year. PICTURE: Courtesy of Salisbury Cathedral. 

Over the past decade, the idea of illuminating cathedrals as part of vast community-based 'lumiere festivals' has become extremely popular throughout the UK. Cities come alive at night as vast crowds of people meander from place-to-place, marvelling at the incredible artistic scenes being portrayed in light against familiar buildings.  

They are certainly popular. It is not just local people who come to see the light shows, tourists and visitors come from far afield enjoying weekends away from home attracted by the incredible spectacles at places like York, Salisbury, Lichfield and Norwich. Durham is home to one of the oldest lumiere festivals, having launched the concept back in 2009. In 2019, more than 165,000 people attended the four-day event. 

 “There is definitely a spiritual element to these illuminations. They feed our souls with images of light and show the power of light over darkness as well as giving a glimpse of the beauty of God. We all love stories and light projections are great ways of telling stories."

- Rev Canon Matthew Vernon, of St Edmundsbury Cathedral which will host its first illumination project due to take place in 2022.

While some Church of England cathedrals like Durham and Norwich have taken part in citywide illumination events and festivals, others, such as those at Lichfield and Salisbury, have undertaken their own specific shows. In 2020, Salisbury held a special light show highlighting the life of faith in the cathedral. Images were taken from the stained glass windows as well as pictures of people living in Salisbury and blown up into giant size illuminations on both the exterior and interior of the building. As people left, they were given a bookmark bearing a prayer of St Francis of Assisi. 

Images created for cathedral illuminations cover almost every possible theme and are complemented by other media such as music and words. In 2019, St Paul’s Cathedral in London was transformed by light displays, poetry and photos to tell the story of the watch volunteers who spent nights upon nights on the cathedral roof during the Blitz as part of a memorial to London’s war dead. During a lumiere in Durham, a lightshow highlighted images of the cathedral’s history across its walls.

In Lichfield, science met religion in a stunning night display last summer.

“The cathedral works on a theme for the year, and the illuminations tie in with that theme," explains Canon Jan McFarlane. "This summer we focused on science and referenced the amazing speed with which researchers and scientists had created a vaccine against COVID-19.”

McFarlane says the light shows - which have included award-winning displays for Christmas - has helped the cathedral attract new people.

"It also helps people to see that we’re not just a big beautiful ancient building but a living organisation..." she adds. "The large scale sound and light exhibitions use every part of our 900-year-old cathedral and enable people to see things from a new perspective. They encourage people to lift up their eyes and to see the bigger picture. To that extent, in enabling awe and wonder, they encourage people to explore the spiritual dimension of our existence. We give people a small prayer card as they leave, which also points to the times of our regular services, both in the cathedral and online."

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 'Sarum Lights: Heaven and Earth' held at Salisbury Cathedral this year. PICTURE: Courtesy of Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral has just finished hosting 'Sarum Lights: Heaven and Earth'. Timed to coincide with the recent COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, it focused on the beauty of Earth and the surrounding galaxy from sunrise to sunset, with scenes both inside and outside the cathedral.

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 A view from Lumiere Durham in 2017. PICTURE: Courtesy of Durham Cathedral.

ANGELA YOUNGMAN was among the visitors to Durham Cathedral's light show in 2017...

I was one of those visitors to Durham Cathedral in 2017 and can honestly say that it was memorable.  The whole building resonated with sound, while the lights shone through a mixture of mist and incense creating an otherworldly ambiance. Almost everyone entering the building found themselves sitting, listening and watching as well as walking round, experiencing the sound from every angle. These were not short, quick visits. You really experienced the cathedral gaining an appreciation of its history and spirituality. 

I have to admit the 2017 display was different [from previous displays at the cathedral]. The focus on black and white, shadow and light linked in at every stage of the changing images to the varying sounds of the bells being tolled in a complicated pattern of change bell ringing, where every bell has a different sound, combining in the creation of complex peals.  Watching the TV screen at the bottom of the nave, it was possible to see the ringers at work, and follow the changing sound patterns on the televised list of numbers. Among the ringers, the church authorities and the public, there was an appreciation of something unique being created, which would be hard to replicate ever again.  

Scenes depicted the vast expanse of space with planets, moon and stars, the power of the ocean and even the delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wings while highlighting how small changes made by individuals can collectively make a big difference to the environment. Above all, the show set out to encourage visitors to think about their own place within the universe.

When it comes to light shows, cathedral authorities are prepared to be innovative. In 2017, light artist Pablos Valbuena joined bell ringers at Durham Cathedral to combine the sound of the bells with light displays. The result was totally unique. Each night during the event, teams of bell ringers trained in English change bell ringing rang the bells continuously in extremely complex patterns for six hours.

A huge TV screen was mounted at one end of the nave so that visitors could see the bell ringers at work high in the belfry above. As the bells were rung, light images flashed across the exterior of the building, creating changing shadows within it. Using special microphones located within the nave, visitors were able to hear the bells within the church for the time in its history, as well as outside. 

Not surprisingly, people queued for hours to enter each night with thousands of people passing through the cathedral within just a few days. During the display, the whole building resonated with sound, while the lights shone through a mixture of mist and incense creating an otherworldly ambiance.

“We gave people the opportunity to respond to the bells and the light installation," explains Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham Cathedral.

"There was an area in the cathedral where they could post a note of response, light a candle or take away a copy of St Luke’s Gospel. Over 11,500 people took a copy of the Gospel, over 8,000 lit candles and many more left messages.  It was the power of the installation and the power of the building working together. The peal of bells has traditionally called people to worship, and it certainly called people in during the lumiere."

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Bell-ringing at Durham Cathedral's 2017 lumiere event. PICTURE: Courtesy of Durham Cathedral.

Some events are more poignant and moving than others. In Salisbury, there has been a tradition of using light displays to highlight remembrance of the war dead, with one such illumination showing vast swathes of red poppies cascading down the front of the cathedral. Chaplains are available to speak to people if they want to do so.

Salisbury’s Canon Robert Titley is very clear on why they undertake such events.

“We are part of the local community and it helps bring people into Salisbury. Art opens ideas to people and makes you raise questions, it is a way of opening up conversations with people. It is also worship, darkness into light, the coming of light into the world."

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Ultimately, those behind such illuminations see them as an updated version of the work of medieval artists who illuminated cathedrals with stained glass, telling stories that everyone could instantly understand.

Neil Sanderson, director of the York Minster Fund - responsible for the minster’s 'Northern Lights' illuminations, points out that the light shows aim “to showcase the building as well as give people insights of eternal truths the building represents". "Much as the stained glass painter did, using the technology of their age.” 

It also brings in much-needed revenue. “[R]un well, they can also be financially viable and don’t involve major interventions with the historic fabric," notes Sanderson.

But, above all, such events bring people into cathedrals.

“Light and sound shows bring audiences to the minister who would otherwise probably not come and engage people in truths the buildings were built to express in new and exciting ways," says Sanderson.

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Part of the 'Northern Lights'  event at York Minster. PICTURE: Courtesy of York Minster.

Lichfield’s MacFarlene agrees.

"It enables people to see things from a new perspective. The large scale sound and light illuminations encourage people to lift up their eyes and see the bigger picture. To that extent, in enabling awe and wonder, they encourage people to explore the spiritual dimension of our existence."

While keen to encourage the spiritual dimension, care is always taken to tread sensitvely and not overly push the religious element.

“People want to explore the lights, and not feel they are being got at for talks about God," says Canon Titley at Salisbury Cathedral. "Our hope is that it will deepen their spirituality, and that they will come away with an awareness of something bigger than themselves, an awareness of God. It does seem to happen. We hope that people gain from it but it is a question we do not know the answer to this side of Heaven.”