The Sistine Chapel Got an LED Upgrade

And physics said: Let there be light.

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Oct 30 2014, 1:00pm

The Sistine Chapel, a monument that has attracted visitors with its religious significance and Michelangelo frescoes since the 15th century, now has a new draw: a really cool LED lighting system. As of yesterday, the renowned landmark and place of worship is decked out with no fewer than 7,000 LEDs—and just check out the difference it makes.

This is part of the chapel's art before:

And this is it after:

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have finally had a moment in their own spotlight, what with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics going to the scientists who cracked the secret of the blue LED 20 years ago and thus enabled white LED lamps.

That marked a revolution in lighting-related tech, with applications from solar-powered lamps to a light-based alternative to wifi and maybe even quantum communication. But the new installation in the Sistine Chapel shows how they can be applied to the artistic realm too.

Osram, a Germany-based lighting manufacturer and one of the partners in the project, explains on its site that the LED solution "is designed to protect the artworks while enabling much stronger lighting." The previous lighting meant the frescoes were generally in low light, as the windows to the Chapel are partly covered to stop the artworks deteriorating. Additionally, the LEDs—known for their low energy consumption—use up to 90 percent less electricity.

The "colour temperature" of the lighting could be adjusted by controlling the colour of the LEDs (here comes our celebrated blue LED), with the installation in this case throwing out a temperature between 3,000 and 4,000 Kelvin, which is on the warm end of the spectrum among the yellowish tones.

That's not just an arbitrary number: experts analysed the pigmentation of the frescoes at different points in order to find an LED mix that would best match. They even took into account the latest knowledge of Michelangelo's working habits. It was once assumed he mixed his colours by candlelight, but according to Osram it's now thought he worked in daylight.

The work is part of an EU-subsidised pilot project called LED4Art that aimed to prove how you can get both better light quality and better energy efficiency. I'll take that as mission accomplished.