David Shepherd, Trinity College Dublin

Art, Light, and Awe: Uncovering the Mysteries of Stained Glass

How does light impact the way that people experience stained glass?

How does light influence how we remember and experience awe when viewing stained glass?

Do certain conditions when viewing stained glass generate a greater sense of awe and wonder?

Grant Title
Through a glass brightly: light variation and the perception of religious stained glass
Legal Organization
Trinity College Dublin
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 November 2023
Grant Amount

David Shepherd is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Trinity College, Dublin. Prof Shepherd’s interests in recent years have significantly shifted toward how the visual arts illuminate biblical texts. One art form that has especially captured his attention depends particularly on illumination: the art of stained glass.

“Stained glass depends not on reflected light, like most forms of art do,” Shepherd notes, “but on transmitted light, the light that comes through the stained glass… How does that impact the way that people perceive and experience stained glass as an art form?”

This isn’t just a project about art, but about light, and the fact that human cognitive functions work in coordination with different qualities of light.

A Long History of God as Light

The history of stained glass as a type of religious art is deeply intertwined with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The theological significance of light can be traced from the earliest Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 1 and Isaiah 9) to the New Testament gospels (where Jesus’ self-identifies with it, saying “I am the light of the world,” Jn. 8:12).

Light is a perennial and ancient symbol of revelation, understanding, and divine presence.

An Overlooked Sacred Art Form

Stained glass imagery relies on the light that passes through it to bring spiritual understanding to the viewer. But the way this partnership works has been incredibly under-studied, until now. Professor Shepherd and neuroscientist Professor Fiona Newell and their team, are investigating how variations in light shape people’s perception and sense of awe when viewing religious imagery in stained glass windows.

“Sometimes the stained glass is overlooked because it’s seen as decorative art rather than fine art,” Shepherd explains. “Sort of more like the paint that you put on the wall, rather than the painting that you hang on the wall. It becomes part of the fabric of a building and sometimes can be overlooked… The more time I spend with stained glass, the more I realize that those kinds of dismissals of stained glass really don’t stand up under scrutiny.”

So Much to Uncover

The lack of attention to stained-glass has left an empirical mystery, which the team is only beginning to solve. One of their hopes is that not only will the power of stained glass begin to be understood, but that the project will stimulate more empirical research on the topic.

To understand how light and stained glass “work” on viewers, this project focuses on psychology, light, and art, through the lens of “empirical aesthetics.” Empirical aesthetics investigates the cognitive aspects of what humans find beautiful (in particular, art), aspects like attention, perception, and memory. Existing studies focus largely on paintings and sculptures, and have not explored stained glass. This project addresses this gap by examining the impact of light variation in stained glass art.

Bringing the Cathedral to the Laboratory

The way the imagery in stained glass is perceived can vary greatly depending on the position of the sun, weather conditions, and shadows. The researchers on Shepherd’s team seek to control for a lot of variability by creating a stained glass “lab.” A careful catalog of stained glass has been curated to facilitate these experiments on computer screens.

The researchers are investigating the mysteries of stained glass by testing three hypotheses: (1) greater intensity in transmitted light leads to increased attention, duration of viewing, and memory; (2) dynamic light variation in stained glass enhances attention, duration of viewing, and memory; and (3) greater light intensity and variation result in a stronger sense of awe.

Stained glass depends not on reflected light, like most forms of art do, but on transmitted light.

“We’re trying to break a bit of new ground by using pupillometry,” says Shepherd. “Pupil dilation has never been used in connection with studies of awe before, but it has been associated with emotional arousal states like anger and fear and joy. And so we’re trying to see whether there’s some way in which people are ‘wide-eyed’ in amazement or wonder and to see whether pupil dilation may be able to point us to experiences of awe as people are engaging with and experiencing stained glass.”

They also hope to utilize virtual reality in future studies, to measure the effect of height and scale of stained glass on study participants. This would have the advantage of being able to still control the “environment” for variables, but contextualize the stained glass in a religious space.

A Three-Pronged Approach

The research program is divided into three themes:

  1. Building a stimulus database: In this phase, the researchers collect images of stained glass windows from various locations in Ireland, carefully capturing variations in light conditions. These images are categorized based on content—including people, scenes, and abstract patterns—to study their cognitive impact.
  2. The cognitive impact of light variation: Experiments are conducted to measure how changes in light conditions affect cognitive processes, including spatial attention and memory. Eye-tracking technology is used to analyze eye movements and fixations.
  3. The cognitive processes relating to aesthetic judgments: Experiments are conducted to understand how light variation affects the perceived aesthetics and emotional responses to stained glass. Online participants assess the impact of light variation on feelings of awe and transcendence.

Generating Awe

Technologies like pupil measurement and eye tracking may seem unusual tools to study the impact of religious stained glass windows. However, Prof Shepherd’s hope is that the data his team collects will generate more appreciation for the unique features and spiritual significance of a form of religious art which has been experienced by millions over the course of more than a millennium.

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