Untitled by Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin

Untitled, 1996, Green, ultraviolet, blue, pink, and yellow fluorescent light, Nave: two sections, each 28 m wide; Transept: two sections, each 9.75 m wide; Apse: two sections, each 9.75 m high, Permanent installation at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, Milan, Copyright: © 2020 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image: Courtesy David Zwirner

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‘Presiding Presence’

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

Dan Flavin's light installation at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa in Milan was the last project designed by the artist before he passed away in 1996, making this artwork his ‘aesthetic testament’. 

Upon entering the church—which still functions as a place of worship—the beholder is confronted with two parallel lines of ultraviolet light, spanning the length of the nave. Positioned at the intersection between colonnade and barrel vault, these lights emphasize the longitudinal axis of the building, directing the viewer’s gaze towards the apse. The ultraviolet tubes also fill the nave with a deep blue tint, which stands in sharp visual contrast with the intense reddish-pink hue of the transept and the golden yellow that colours the apse. The overall visual effect is that of an architectural space made of light, rather than simply illuminated by it. 

Flavin vocally rejected any symbolic or metaphysical interpretations of his works. Yet, in the early Sixties, he entitled his first series of light-works ‘Icons’ in homage to Orthodox religious paintings, whose ‘presiding presence’ (as he wrote in a record book in 1962—see Ragheb 1999: 62) he tried to realize in his own works.  

Flavin’s notion of ‘presiding presence’ may offer a useful interpretative cue to his multicolour installation in Milan. The choice and juxtaposition of colours—blue, pink/red, and yellow—in the Chiesa Rossa is evocative of the biblical rainbow. In the Genesis narrative, the rainbow is not summoned as a mere metaphor of God’s covenant with creation. Instead, it establishes the new alliance, and is effective against divine ire every time it appears in the sky.

Similarly, in Ezekiel and Revelation, the rainbow does not represent a symbol, but is, rather, an intrinsic part of the theophany by which divine presence and radiance are manifested. 

Flavin’s installation operates in a similar fashion. It transports the faithful into an ethereal, tinted atmosphere, which glows like a jewel and tinges their skin in blue, red, and yellow as they move across the church. In doing so, this light-work manifests divine radiance, and marshals the rich semantics of the rainbow in Christian scriptural tradition and aesthetics to instantiate God's presence and its transformative power in relation to the human soul.  



Celant, Germano, and Dan Flavin. 1997. Santa Maria in Chiesa Rossa, and Fondazione Prada. Cattedrali d’arte: Dan Flavin per Santa Maria in Chiesa Rossa (Milan: Fondazione Prada)

Ragheb, Fiona J. 1999. Dan Flavin: The Architecture of Light (Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim)


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