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Lighting the way for Durham’s pilgrims

03 March 2020

From the evening of 20 March, the interior of the 12th-century Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral will be transformed with a dazzling light installation by the world-renowned artist, Chris Levine. The installation is the latest in a series of ambitious artistic installations to mark 2020 – Durham’s Year of Pilgrimage, bringing the launch of the Northern Saints Trails – in recognition of the cathedral’s continuing role as a place of veneration and pilgrimage for visitors from all over the globe.   

The installation of LIGHT, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation in 2010 for Holy Trinity Church in London, has been adapted to suit Durham Cathedral. Realised through the support of headline sponsors the Friends of Durham Cathedral, it features a sublime matrix of lasers in the form of a cross, directed through crystal, and, rendered in the viewer’s peripheral vision, an image of the St Cuthbert Pectoral Cross, one of the cathedral’s treasures. 

LIGHT is a work that draws you into the present moment, the Now. It is meditative art to engage and heighten the senses – unashamedly contemporary, yet confidently at home in the historic Galilee Chapel. As an immersive work it reflects the medieval tradition of foot-washing by gently bathing visitors in light and creating a welcoming space, so that pilgrims who have journeyed far to reach the cathedral can relax and decompress. The installation will be accompanied by sacred choral music by Durham native Will Todd, among other composers, in recordings by the distinguished choir, The Sixteen, under its conductor Harry Christophers (for whom the Genesis Foundation commissioned the music).

Light has long been the medium of choice for Chris Levine and is central to all his work, including his celebrated portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Lightness of Being (2004), widely regarded as one of the most memorable and iconic images ever created of the monarch. More than purely stylistic, his use of light reveals an artist with a deep connection to its spiritual properties, which have been understood by artists and people of faith for millennia.

Levine commented: “My work as an artist is a journey into exploring a deeper connection with our higher self through the use of light and meditation. I believe that Light can be used to induce a meditative state, as well as an expansive realm between thought and experience. In this elusive space of Lightness, we can recalibrate, harmonise our senses and discover who we really are.”

Light is one of the most universal and meaningful of all symbols – holding a special significance for almost all cultures and religions. In Christianity we talk of the light of the Holy Spirit; Jesus proclaims that he is ‘The light of the world’ and that all who follow him will have ‘the light of Life’ (John 8.12). Both the Jewish and Muslim faiths describe God as light, and in Buddhism the path of faith is called ‘enlightenment’, whilst Hindus and Sikhs celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. 

As the sustaining energy of the sun, light creates and nourishes all life on earth. Light is transformative: the arrival of electric light has made learning and knowledge accessible to billions of people on an unprecedented global scale.  To ‘see the light’ is to reach a place of understanding, whilst darkness is both a metaphor for the absence of God and for temporal death and decay.
If many complex cultural and social definitions have shaped our understanding of light as a metaphor over thousands of years, nothing overrides the bliss of encountering pure light. This automatic reflex is one of the defining essences of Levine’s work.

He explains: ‘Feelings of rejuvenation and positivity are palpable effects of the work and the process is literally purifying. Laser light is very pure, just single frequency light, and to put our attention on it and to surrender to the sensory experience, one enters a meditative state where stillness becomes a portal to the Divine.’ 

Levine’s exquisite, yet quietly thought-provoking artworks provide a special place of contemplation for the viewer and this stunning installation for Durham, one of Europe’s oldest cathedrals, is a fitting and original way to mark almost a thousand years of pilgrimage and worship. Levine commented: “I am not a religious man, but I am deeply spiritual. I’m humbled to install my work in the cathedral and to be able to share a direct experience of Light.”

The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham, said: “We are thrilled to be joining forces with an artist of Chris’s calibre to bring the immersive and deeply powerful LIGHT to the cathedral this spring. This is in no small part down to the generous support of the Friends of Durham Cathedral, who have worked to secure the piece for Durham.

“We are excited to see how the ambient artwork will transform the intricate Norman architecture in our 12th century Galilee Chapel, providing an unrivalled welcome to all the pilgrims who will pass through our doors during Durham’s special Year of Pilgrimage in 2020.

“Foot-washing has long been a tradition of welcoming pilgrims into God’s home. It is an exercise still used in our service on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week. It is a show of honour and humility towards one another and serves the purpose of cleansing pilgrims of their sins. Chris’s innovative work with lasers will give pilgrims the experience of being spiritually bathed in light, instilling them with a feeling of calm and serenity as they prepare to enter the main church. Fittingly, LIGHT will make its debut on 20 March, the feast day of St Cuthbert, a joyous occasion when we welcome pilgrims from all over the world to the heart of Durham Cathedral, The Shrine of St Cuthbert.”

The launch of LIGHT will take place during the first of three ‘Cathedrals at Night’ evenings at Durham Cathedral. Visitors are invited to experience the cathedral in a new way, by marvelling at stunning artwork and architecture by candlelight and losing themselves in the beauty of a choral evensong under the cover of night. Cathedrals at Night is a project supported by the Association of English Cathedrals to mark 2020 as the Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage.

Michael Galloway, Chairman of the Friends of Durham Cathedral, said: “We are delighted to sponsor such a stimulating piece of artwork as LIGHT.  This will be an exciting start to the Year of Pilgrimage and we hope that visitors to the cathedral during this time arrive as pilgrims and leave as Friends.”

Durham Cathedral is grateful to the Genesis Foundation, the original commissioner of LIGHT, for its financial contribution to the staging. The Foundation, which nurtures the careers of outstanding young artists, launches its 20th-anniversary celebrations with this Durham installation. In addition, it has supplied the playlist of sacred and spiritual music, performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, that visitors will hear during their visit to the cathedral. 

As John Studzinski, founder and chairman of the Genesis Foundation explains: “In nurturing the work of a wide range of artists, the Genesis Foundation takes ‘art and faith’ as one of its themes. We are delighted to celebrate the Durham Year of the Pilgrimage with Chris Levine’s LIGHT, a piece of visual art commissioned by the Foundation, and to compound the work’s impact with music we have commissioned from some of today’s most exciting composers.” Over the past two decades the Genesis Foundation has established itself as the UK’s foremost commissioner of sacred choral music, engendering some 25 new works, the majority for performance by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. 

The cathedral is also grateful for the support of Arts and Heritage in developing this year’s arts programme.