The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The Light in Thorvaldsens Museum

  • Eva Henschen,, 1998
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Eva Henschen: ‘The Light in Thorvaldsens Museum’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1998, p. 55-67.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


In June 1827, Bindesbøll wrote a letter from Rome to Jonas Collin concerning his accompanying sketch for a museum for Thorvaldsen’s works. The letter included, among other things, the following comment: “The light is approximately as high and broad as in his large studio”. So it was the lighting conditions in Thorvaldsen’s own studio that were to be copied in the Museum. Although Thorvaldsen’s large studio has not survived, we still have a fairly good idea of what it looked like from several contemporary paintings of it. However, other pictures of Italian sculptors’ studios also show the prevailing principle of installing an aperture to direct the light in obliquely from above. Artists in Denmark arranged for similar oblique light in their studios. It was called “blocked light” because the light that otherwise entered horizontally through the lower part of the windows was blocked by means of shutters or curtains. In this way the light entering was concentrated, producing clear shading with a resultant clear and precise experience of form.

After the king had given his permission to use Christiansborg Palace’s old coach-house for the Museum, a group of members from the building commission worked out a report which among other things concerned the lighting conditions; this was in reality written by the art historian N. L. Høyen. In his 1837 book on the Museum, Høyen had moreover used the lighting conditions as an argument for exhibiting various statues individually in the smaller rooms. When it came to the final proposals for converting the coach-house sheds, Bindesbøll retained this idea. He then formulated the rule that the head of a statue should always be the part most strongly illuminated. To achieve this, a line should be imagined drawn from the head of the statue to the upper edge of the building opposite shading the light, and where this line intersected the frontal wall was to be the lower edge of the window.

Two rooms in the Museum are markedly different from the otherwise rhythmical repetition on all levels of large and small rooms. They are the entrance hall and the Christ Hall. In the entrance hall, Bindesbøll solved the problem of lighting by cutting square openings to admit light in the actual large barrel vaulting, while in the Christ Hall he placed a huge doorway with a large window leading in from the courtyard. A diffuse, broken light originally seeped in through the windows in the doors which according to Bindesbøll’s plan were etched matt with patterns echoing the embellishments on the courtyard walls. That is to say a variation of blocked light. The low light refracted in the corridors around the courtyard containing the grave, so that it was spread evenly, gently and diffused on the floor. At the same time other, unbroken light also fell in here through the clear glass windows above the doors, shining powerfully on the heads of the figures. On the first floor there are what the painter Jørgen Roed in a letter called “the sunshine corridor”. The bright low vaulting and the ochre walls give the natural light every potential for reflection. Here, the sculptures stand in pairs each around its own window. The figures can be seen in direct profile with the yellow walls as their background.

Last updated 29.05.2017