Michelangelo gets the LED treatment


Can a change to LED lighting really make a difference to a classic work of art? The Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is one of the most important tourist art hubs in the world, drawing over 4 million visitors per year.  And in November, lighting manufacturers OSRAM put the finishing touches to a complete lighting overhaul for the chapel’s historic masterpieces.

LED lighting for true colour

To mark the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death, OSRAM began work in early 2014 on the new lighting concept. It would replace the old 1980s halogen installation, which left the artist’s famous frescoes in semi-twilight conditions. The new system of LEDs should boost luminous intensity by five to 10 times, bringing to life the true colours of the Renaissance frescoes.

So how did they do it?

A precise study of colour pigmentation at nearly 300 different points throughout the chapel’s artwork let OSRAM fine-tune  40 new LED luminaires. In total, 140 red, green, blue and white LEDs.  The luminaires let the lighting experts accurately control these four colour channels to match their pigmentation study.

So visitors can see the frescoes just as Michelangelo did 500 years ago.

It’s also making significant savings

Despite dramatic increases in the intensity of the lighting, the new LED system is also said to cut energy consumption – and consequently carbon emissions – by at least 90%.  The new electrical power consumption of the chapel, including gala and visitor lighting, will go from over 66 kilowatts to less than 6 kilowatts.

But is it conservative?

OSRAM claims that the move to LED technology means that the chapel’s famous frescoes are ‘more optimally protected than ever before’.  It’s believed that LED light causes significantly less damage than other light sources.

In fact, part of the reason that the previous lighting system gave such poor illumination was that the light sources had to be installed outside the chapel’s windows.  Semi-transparent plastic covers on the windows – intended to protect the valuable works of art from ultraviolet radiation – meant that the older lighting system was unable to perform at its peak.  The change to LED means the lighting can be inside the chapel.

But there is some research that suggests that LED lighting might not be the Holy Grail of art conservation.  Scientists have noticed a gradual darkening in a number of masterpieces, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.  Lead chromate, a type of yellow paint introduced in the 19th century, was found to be slowly turning brown or olive green. And experts think that the extra green/blue light given off by some LED sources could be to blame.

The Sistine Chapel’s move to LED technology has led to savings of 90% in their electricity consumption.  Could a move to LED lights help you make savings on your business’s electricity bills, too?

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