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Lighting the Sistine Chapel
Starting next month, a new lighting system will boost by at least five times the illumination of Michelangelo's 500-year-old masterpiece. The LED display will finally light up 'The Creation of Adam' in the center of the room.

Rome.

Let there be light.

That is, essentially, what the Vatican Museums wished for in the Sistine Chapel. Museum officials wanted to improve lighting so poor and patchy that some visitors struggled to clearly see famous details, such as the panel where God's hand touches Adam's, bringing him to life.

Starting next month, the new lights will boost by at least five times the illumination of Michelangelo's 500-year-old masterpiece—but won't damage the frescos. The move will also cut energy consumption by at least 60% while Pope Francis, who is expected to be the first to view the new system, is encouraging parsimony at the Vatican.

The Sistine Chapel, where cardinals meet to elect a new pope, is a particularly high-profile example of a change sweeping through major museums in recent years, as they switch to LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to cut costs, save energy and improve their displays. Last LEDs were installed for the Mona Lisa and other works in Paris's Louvre Museum. London's National Portrait Gallery and Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum have also switched to LEDs recently.

When Boston's Museum of Fine Arts renovated its Impressionist Gallery, it installed LED lighting, and it plans to eventually make the switch for the rest of its exhibitions, says Keith Crippen, the museum's head designer. "Our visitors are impressed by the richness in color, sharper [lighting] and clarity from the LEDs," added Mr. Crippen. Another plus: the long life of LEDs cuts down on how often bulbs on 30-foot-high ceilings need to be changed.

Some critics claim LED light can be too cold, making colors appear too bright. "All new technology is criticized when it is introduced," said Paul Ruffles, principal at British consultancy company Lighting Design & Technology, citing opposition in museum circles to the introduction of fluorescent lighting in the 1960s and 1970s and halogen in the 1980s and 1990s. "If they want it to be lit as it was originally, go back to candles."

Trent Peterson, a 40-year-old Australian visiting the chapel this week, struggled to make out the Old Testament figures on the ceiling. "I had difficulty distinguishing who they were," he said. "There is just so much detail…" Better lighting "would allow you to focus much better."

Michelangelo was said to have mixed the pigments for his work and painted the frescos using natural light, and for centuries, the only illumination came through the few windows in the chapel or from candlelight. In modern times, Vatican officials blocked off the windows for fear the sunlight would damage the frescos. In the 1980s, the museum installed a halogen system that emitted low-level lighting to protect the artworks.

But that left visitors sometimes struggling to see the extraordinary color and detail of the ceiling and of panels on the side walls painted by Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino. The lighting was also uneven, as the halogen spotlights created a glare in some areas, but left others dim. "As a new observer you ask, shouldn't you see better?"

The new lighting will also add brightness to Michelangelo's "Last Judgment," which covers the entire altar wall. Of particular interest is St. Bartholomew, who holds his own skin, and is widely believed to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

Technicians examined 280 patches on the chapel's ceiling and wall frescos to map a complete spectrum of the colors Michelangelo and the other Renaissance artists used. Engineers then designed a system of LEDs that blended a mix of red, blue, green and white shades to best display the frescos. To ensure the LEDs wouldn't cause any damage, Vatican laboratories carried out stress tests for a year by subjecting pigments to LED radiation.

To hold the 7,000 LEDs, dozens of custom-made small tripods that would sit firmly amid the bumps and crevices on the ledge running around the chapel were installed. The result is more-uniform illumination of the 6,135-square-foot ceiling. "It's astonishing," said Elizabeth Lev, an art historian and longtime guide to the Vatican Museums, who has seen the provisional system.