Stained glass windows and the language of light

One development that oft goes unremarked in the evolution of church buildings is lighting. Consider how lighting interplays with a common architectural feature of churches, stained glass windows. When there is low lighting inside a church, but daylight (say) outside, the stained glass windows are illuminated, creating (usually) beautiful pictures. When there is more lighting inside the church, this effect is reduced.

Historically, churches would have been lit by candles, torches, and so on. Not only would there be beautiful images lit up by the external light (which is symbolic in the context as well as beautiful), but inside the church would be candles and so on. This internal sort of lighting is generally more conducive to spiritual contemplation, and so on – the kinds of states churches generally are created for.

Now consider a common type of ‘modern’ church. It is lit up by rows of fluorescent lights, which often make it feel like an office, say. What is the language of such illumination saying to the person inside the church? Now consider the lighting at a typical Starbucks – which is better? Why?

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