Golden perception: Simulating perceptual habits of the past

Golden perception: Simulating perceptual habits of the past

By Claus-Christian Carbon and Pia Deininger

i-Perception, Volume 4 (2013)

ottonian art

Abstract: Medieval times were neither dark nor grey; natural light illuminated colourful scenes depicted in paintings through coloured windows and via artificial beeswax candlelight. When we enter, for example, a church to inspect its historic treasures ranging from mosaics to depictions of saints, we do this under quite unfavourable conditions; particularly as we mainly depend on artificial halogen, LED or fluorescent light for illuminating the desired object. As these light spectrums are different from the natural light conditions under which the old masterpieces were previously developed and perceived, the perceptual effects may dramatically differ, leading to significantly altered affective and cognitive processing. Different qualities of processing might particularly be triggered when perceiving artworks which deal with specific material prone to strong interaction with idiosyncratic light conditions, for instance gold-leafed surfaces that literally start to glow when lit by candles. We tested the perceptual experiences of a figurative piece of art which we created in 3 (foreground) by 3 (background) versions, illuminated under three different light conditions (daylight, coloured light and beeswax candlelight). Results demonstrated very different perceptual experiences with stunning effects for the interaction of the specific painting depicted on a gold-leafed background lit by candlelight.

Introduction: There are medieval paintings, arisen in the 10th and 11th centuries, which show no cast shadows and no chiaroscuro modelling. Around the year 1300, the painters again started to use chiaroscuro, a technique allowing shadows to be cast gradually, which had already been known by antique painters. The chiaroscuro creates an impressive spatial effect by illustrating the light, which illuminates the scene of a painting. Objects of persons have darker and brighter areas depending on the angle of incident light, and they cast shadows. The light source (a) can be shown within the painting; for example a candle, torch or even the sun or the moon or (b) can also be located outside of the painting rendering it unnecessary to paint the direct light source itself but rather the effects of the emitted light.

The thought that medieval painters simply did not know how to paint in chiaroscuro technique would be wrong as chiaroscuro was not unknown during the Middle Ages. Instead, we have to ask: Why had they decided to use another technique?

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