Posted in education on September 15, 2015 12:28 pm EDT

Harnessing the Power of Light in Sacred Spaces

An examination of three specific goals in the lighting of environments for worship.

Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum, Minneapolis, MN; HGA. HGA’s Lakewood Garden Mausoleum in Minneapolis, Minn., a building type that might otherwise be foreboding, uses skylights, angled windows, and folded walls to offer a sense of uplifting serenity, comfort, and hope to its visitors.











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By Chuck Hulstrand

Let’s begin our discussion of lighting design for worship centers with a few professional terms: dichroic filter, Fresnel lens, PAR cans, and field spreads. Better yet, let’s leave the terminology and logistics to our esteemed lighting designers, for whom we are sincerely grateful, and let’s take a minute to consider light itself.

Even in prehistory, people harnessed the power of light to mark celestial events, create strategic darkness, sharpen spiritual focus, and evoke a sacred presence.

Throughout human history, light has served as a metaphor for the divine. Even in prehistory, people harnessed the power of light to mark celestial events, create strategic darkness, sharpen spiritual focus, and evoke a sacred presence. In many cases, the early use of light is masterful. Consider the stone-age Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, whose pitch-black interior illuminates each year at dawn on the winter solstice. The famous oculus of the Pantheon draws one’s eye, and one’s spiritual focus, skyward, and fills the space below with ethereal light. The intricate screens of Fatehpur Sikri in Agra create a meditative space with filtered light while providing respite from the blazing sun. Hagia Sofia, whose clerestories create a mystical interplay of light and shadow in its spectacular domes, has been described as so brilliantly lit that it appears to glow from within.

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, WA.

Fresh Perspective

Examples of light in sacred spaces in architectural history are endless, and endlessly fascinating, but are these early examples relevant to today’s facilities and the realities of our modern worship centers?

In short, yes. History reminds us of the importance of light as a key design element, and of the value of very intentional light design. Whereas worshippers have long valued the element of light as a metaphorical representation of the divine, we may also approach our current designs from a different angle: that of celebrating the physical impact of light itself, recognizing the significance of natural light as a high point of Creation: “Let there be light!”

Indeed, today’s designers are pursuing some of the same central goals as other designers through the ages, while viewing light design through a 21st century lens that leads to new expressions of inspiring, meditative, and joyous spaces.


Today’s worship centers face a common challenge: that of helping worshippers transition from the outside world, replete with vast parking lots and the bustle of the wider public realm, into a space that provides a focused experience of worship. The design strategy that shuts out distractions by creating a “black-box” space, in which all sensory elements can be controlled, makes sense for many contemporary worship centers. However, many designers have been rediscovering the benefits of natural light as a design tool that can enhance the worship experience.

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, Wash.; Stephen Holl Architects.

The key is to control and direct light, not to eliminate it. Stephen Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle shows us how to combine multidirectional light and a spare materials palette to envelop worshippers with a dynamic, exciting space that highlights spiritual themes. The light is diaphanous and dramatic, and in lieu of representational stained glass windows, individual panes of colored light wash across the walls and are replaced with others as the sunlight shifts.


Carefully considered light design can also serve to direct the worshipper’s gaze to a contemplative or spiritual element, much like the spectacular rose windows in Gothic cathedrals. Tadao Ando demonstrates the power and simplicity of this strategy by allowing sunlight to flow into the space through a cross-shaped void in his Church of the Light in Osaka, Japan. Eero Saarinen designed a dramatic focal point in his MIT Chapel in Cambridge, Mass., with a shimmering Harry Bartoia sculpture. Furthermore, watery light from the surrounding moat enters through slits in the undulating brick interior walls to create an effect that is both subtle and sublime.  continued >>