Books Features

Natural Light in Medieval Churches

By Alice Isabella Sullivan and Vladimir Ivanovici

A new edited volume – edited by Vladimir Ivanovici and Alice Isabella Sullivan – explores how the study of sunlight inside Christian churches can help reveal essential aspects of the design, decoration, and function of medieval sacred spaces.

Light holds a particular place in Christian theology and practice. Identified with God in the Scriptures, light was used throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages to represent the divine and even to flesh out its presence. The holiness of spaces, persons, or objects was stressed by having light interact with them in awe-inspiring ways. Thus, the study of natural light brings us to the core of how Christianity staged interactions with the divine; a key aspect of the religion.

Sunlight entering the church through the west entryway and aligning with the altar, Church of the Holy Cross, built 1487, Pătrăuți, Moldavia (modern Romania). Photo by Gabriel-Dinu Herea

Discussing contexts ranging from the sixth to the seventeenth century, and spaces from Serbia to Spain and from Estonia to the United States, the papers in Natural Light in Medieval Churches adopt various approaches. Typically interdisciplinary, since the study of sunlight requires the consideration of several fields (scientific, anthropological, art historical, etc.), the studies were difficult to fit into one or another category. We decided to organize the chapters so as to offer readers a coherent introduction and treatment of the topic with available, current methodologies. Therefore, although the individual contributions can be read independently, the volume can be read as a monographic study, where the chapters not only complement each other, but flow coherently and build on one another within and across the two sections: “Light, Theology, and Aesthetics,” and “Lighting Sacred Space.”

Sunlight on Christ pulling on Adam’s arm in the Descent into Hell mural. Interior north wall of naos, Church of the Holy Cross, built 1487, Pătrăuți, Moldavia (modern Romania). Photo by Gabriel-Dinu Herea

Themes covered include the interaction between patrons, advisors, architects, and artists, as well as local negotiations among competing traditions that yielded new visual and spatial constructs for which natural light served as a defining and unifying factor. The study of natural light in medieval churches reveals cultural relations, knowledge transfer patterns, processes of translation and adaptation, as well as experiential aspects of sacred spaces in the Middle Ages.


Drawing on studies that focused on the use of light in the Latin and Byzantine medieval traditions, the volume Natural Light in Medieval Churches inquires how light was used in the cultural pockets that were geographically and culturally in-between these two areas. The twelve chapters focus on case studies, methodological issues, and theoretical aspects, thus covering the conceptual, practical, and theological issues raised by the study of a phenomenon that is simultaneously a category of nature, architecture, decoration, and theology.

Embedded in the extant spaces, the know-how and willingness to harness the symbolism of sunlight to legitimize the cultures that formed in the areas from the Balkans to the Baltic Sea shed new light on the complexity of these networked and creative cultural pockets in the Middle Ages.

Natural Light in Medieval Churches was published in Brill’s series East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Use code 72325 at checkout for 25% off through 31 December 2023. Click here to visit the publisher’s website.

Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle AgesEclecticism in Late Medieval Visual Culture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Traditions, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan


Top Image: Descent into Hell with sunlight on the face of Adam. Interior mural, north wall of naos, Church of the Holy Cross, built 1487, Pătrăuți, Moldavia (modern Romania). Photo by Gabriel-Dinu Herea