Since the first dawn, we as humans have been drawn to light. We are drawn to fire, sunsets, beautifully lit landscapes, and illuminated spaces. We turn our faces to the sun and feel its warmth and goodness, and we get depressed when it’s lacking- like in Seattle. We hire experts to engineer lighting scenes in our modern homes- one for entertaining, one for reading, one for romance.
To those who came before us, light was more than just a wattage, lumen or sunray; it was critical to our existence; for without light, the universe would cease to exist. To early Greek thinkers, light was seen as the source of goodness in the world. Plato pondered its metaphysical properties; “Just as good sheds light on knowledge, sunlight is not only the author of visibility in all visible things, but generation, nourishment and growth.”
During the so-called Dark Ages, medieval thinkers began to make the connection between the “metaphysics” of light and the “aesthetics” of light. To Neo-Platonists, light is now conceived as the “transcendental reality that engenders the universe and illuminates our intellect for the perception of truth- the Devine Intellect that enlightens the human mind.”
In Dante’s Paradiso he writes, “la luce divina e pentrante per l’univero second ch’e degno” (31:22)- “The divine light penetrates the universe according to its dignity”. To these pre-renaissance thinkers, light had become “the principle of order and value; the objective value of a thing is determined by how much it partakes in light.”
The architecture of this era soon began to transform in order to capture the essence of light in the form of the great Gothic Cathedrals, the ultimate earthly reflection of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Light, which was ordinarily concealed by matter in the heavy edifices of the Romanesque,
“Light now appears as the active principle; and matter is aesthetically real only insofar as it partakes of, and is defined by, the luminous quality of light.”
Great Cathedrals rose with towering walls, not of stone, but as veils of light, illuminating earthly surfaces and the faithful in a tapestry of all that was good. Light had become the essence of being, and all that stood outside of it stood in the dark. It was only when a great mason understood the principles that ordered the universe that they could then be named “architects”.
Artists and architects have always sought to capture the essence of light, yet today we do so without an understanding of the true importance of light; the poetics of light. We seek the aesthetic light can bring to an object, but not the meaning. Once architects were required to have mastered the liberal arts; they understood philosophy and history- they understood the why. Despite all of our innovations of a modern society, have we lost sight of knowledge and meaning? For if so, despite all of our technological achievements, we may just slip into a real Dark Age.
– Inspired by Otto Von Simpson’s- The Gothic Cathedral.
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