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)
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. 6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. 7And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”