By Angela Youngman
Illuminating cathedral buildings is proving an increasingly popular way of highlighting the meaning of the Nativity. Such events have become a familiar part of the Christmas scene over the past few years.
At Lichfield Cathedral, the illuminations have become an essential part of the festivities and this year the light show is on between 16 and 22 December (except on the Thursday).
Marketing manager Vicky Osborn says: “People come from all over the diocese. We get 15,000 visiting to see the light show across six evenings. It has become something that people look forward to, something they regard as part of their Christmas festivities.”
Previous Lichfield festive illuminations have included massed scenes of angels flying across the front of the cathedral. This year the light animations team Illuminos has taken In the Bleak Midwinter, recorded by the cathedral choir, as its inspiration.
The light show follows the story of a fox moving through a snowy landscape following a star. Gifts are shared by the fox to nervous animals as they travel onwards towards the manger, bringing those gifts to the baby Jesus.
Rob Vale, the co-founder of Illuminos, says: “Playing with the notion of creatures being able to speak at midnight on Christmas Eve, our menagerie bring their gifts, but the fox now has nothing. Inspired by the angels, he gives his heart.
“The idea of using the carol came from the cathedral. Using the recording of the cathedral choir is perfect, as it brings the heart of the cathedral family right into the heart of the artwork. The fox has become the motif to use around the rest of the cathedral activity, so everything ties neatly together.”
Liverpool and Peterborough cathedrals expect more than 30,000 visitors will watch the Christmas story play out across the exterior of the buildings, before following the storyline via artworks throughout the interior, with the ultimate nativity scene illuminated near the high altar.
According to Luxmuralis, the projection art business that is putting on this show, “the aim is to take you back to the very heart of the Christmas story, to the manger and the tiny infant lying in the hay who would change the world”.
At Sheffield Cathedral, Luxmuralis is staging a multisensory immersive experience, Starlight, based on the carol We Three Kings. Visitors follow the Wise Men to the manger through a series of light and sound displays focused on bringing to life stained-glass windows and paintings inside and outside the cathedral.
The forecourt of the cathedral is being opened up as “a gift to the city” to allow all to enjoy the projections across the walls, and listen to the soundscape. Those keen to see more can buy tickets to allow access to the interior where they can follow the star to the birth of Christ via an immersive experience in which the nave is bathed in light. Visitors can also view multiple displays of starlight artworks.
As Peter Walker of Luxmuralis indicates, “this is creating the stained-glass windows of our time. As a fine artist, I am looking at ways of encouraging deep emotions and deep responses, in light, colour and scale. Visitors are at the heart of the event.”
For cathedrals and artists, these illuminations are seen as important ways of connecting with the wider community. They appeal to a mass market, people of all ages, of all faiths and none.
“Most of us have grown up with cathedrals around us. People are still called to cathedrals, even though we live in a more secular world. Light events take people into a space that belongs to the public especially at Advent,” Mr Walker says.
“It opens up cathedrals to allow people who don’t know about them, or have just started a journey, feel spiritual or don’t have time to express feelings. Everyone feels involved in the narratives.”
Stuart Haynes, Liverpool Cathedral’s director of communications, said: “People are really interested in what we are doing. They appreciate it is not just telling a story, but is something more than that. They have not come just to look at pretty lights. We find that people light candles, say prayers. They may not have been before, but once here, they engage with us. We show people that the cathedral is a place for them, the lights bring hope and give people space away from the commercial aspects of Christmas.”
Research carried out by Luxmuralis indicates that many visitors have never been to a cathedral before.
“This light installation may be the one time they encounter the building and it can encourage them to come back again. They need a reason to go through the door,” Mr Walker says. “The feedback comment we often hear is that it moved me, it was spiritual, it connected me with the cathedral.”
For ecclesiastical buildings, holding such light events reflects the significance of light at this time of year.
The Dean of Gloucester, Andrew Zihni, said: “The opening of St John’s Gospel that we hear each Christmas, with its glorious imagery of Christ the Word of God coming into the world to be the light and life of all people, is high on my list of key biblical passages.
“Our Christmas Experience at Night events offer the unique opportunity to explore this amazing building after dark. It will be illuminated with beautiful decorations, including sparkling lights throughout the cloister.”
Mr Walker adds: “Bringing light into people’s lives at this time of the year is essential. It’s easy to forget that when the church grew, the world around would have been a dark place, physically and in many ways socially. The church offered that light spiritually and literally.
“In the modern context, the world is fast-paced and in many ways saturated with light. However, it is not a light which penetrates deep and connects. These illuminations create a light of connection again, and have been specifically designed to draw people into the light to walk through it and be bathed within it, which can be transformative.
“It allows contemporary visitors to experience through modern technology the light again, in a world which in many ways is consuming and dark.”