Frederick Evans and the Theology of Light

by Brian H. Peterson

Frederick Evans, ProvinsPhotography is arguably the most mechanized artform that has ever existed. In the old days it was the mechanism of the camera and the chemistry of film, paper and darkroom. Now the camera has become a sensor surrounded by sophisticated software, and the darkroom has become the mysterious god Photoshop, which, like the ancient deity of the Bible, can be both angry and merciful, and no mortal soul has any hope of truly understanding. A glance at the plethora of Photoshop self-help books at your local bookstore quickly confirms the fact that photography attracts people who have been mesmerized by the “mechanism” and can’t see very far beyond it—people whose images often look like desiccated Magritte (“Look how I can put a naked lady inside a rock!”) or souped-up Ansel Adams on acid (“Why make a tree green when it could be orange?”).

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pleasure in the mechanism of photography. Just as painters enjoy the texture of the canvas and the viscosity of oil paint, photographers become photographers in part because they feel comfortable with the tools and processes of the medium, be they analog or digital. But with the best workers—photographers whose images continue to nourish people well beyond the artist’s lifetime—the camera almost always becomes the conduit for some great passion. For Eugène Atget it was the streets and storefronts of Paris. For Dorothea Lange it was the pathos of the Great Depression. Walker Evans had rural Alabama, Lewis Hine had Ellis Island, Edward Weston had Carmel, California—not to mention green peppers.

Ansel Adams made his first picture of the Yosemite Valley with a Kodak Brownie at age sixteen. While he photographed countless other places throughout the west, Yosemite was his first love, and like any true love, Yosemite to Adams represented an intense connection with something outside himself that led to a deeper understanding of what was going on inside. Its unearthly beauty was, in essence, a religious experience for him, and in some non-verbal, visceral way he recognized and named his own spiritual feelings about nature there. This inner/outer dialogue is common to almost all great photography. You could go so far as to say that great photographers are also great lovers (not literally, of course). They fall in love with something outside themselves that focuses their lives and energizes their work, in the process teaching them something about who they are and what they care about.

Frederick Evans (1853–1943) was the last person you would think of as a great lover. His friend George Bernard Shaw’s first impression of Evans was “as a man of fragile health, to whom an exciting performance of a Beethoven Symphony was as disastrous as a railway collision to an ordinary Philistine.”1 If Evans was a lover of anything, perhaps it was old books. He began his adult life as the owner of a bookstore, a place that Shaw referred to as “a genuine book-shop and nothing else, in the heart of the ancient city of London….It was jam full of books. The window was completely blocked up with them, so that the interior was dark; you could see nothing for the first second or so after you went in, though you could feel the stands of books you were tumbling over.”2 Evans was an early champion of the famous illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose drawings Evans exchanged for books, and who was given his first major commission (to illustrate Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) through Evans’s influence.

Evans began to make photographs seriously in his thirties, mostly portraits and close-ups of natural forms. By his mid-forties he had sold the bookstore so that he could concentrate on photographing the Gothic cathedrals of England and France. There are no surviving stories of a teenage Evans visiting Chartres or Notre Dame with camera in hand (as Adams did with Yosemite). But Evans had a great interest in art, literature and philosophy, and as a young man developed a particular taste for the spiritual writings of the German mystic Jacob Boehme as well as the Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. These early spiritual interests eventually led Evans to fall in love with the cathedrals, and while he was not in any sense an orthodox religious man, it’s clear from his images that his love for these buildings was both real and intense.3 More than any other photographer before or since, Frederick Evans understood the otherworldly vision that motivated the medieval architects and priests who built them.

There is no shortage of cathedral photographs in the world—from nineteenth-century tourist photographs and cartes de visites, to architecturally oriented pictures that document the buildings’ geometrical complexities, to glossy, romanticized photos of stained-glass windows and gargoyles. While Evans was utterly captivated by the cathedrals, he had little or no interest in simply documenting what they look like, in all their grandeur. The closest he came to a grand exterior view is the magnificent photograph Lincoln Cathedral: From the Castle, which actually depicts the cathedral as a dream-like image of architectural perfection rising above the jumbled, earthbound rooftops of nearby houses. Some of his best photographs are small-scale, interior views of anonymous looking doorways and stairwells. These images inhabit a universe of powerful light and deep shadows. Often the shadowy areas predominate: dark corners and hidden recesses, silhouetted pillars and barely visible passageways.

Frederick Evans Ely Cathedral—Southwest Transept to Nave (A Memory of the Normans), 1908But the darkness in Evans’s pictures is never harsh, never cold. There are no demons and monsters lurking behind his stately columns. In part this is due to his mastery of the platinum print, which softens both the brightest and darkest areas of the image. In an Evans photograph you can always see into the shadows—the surface of the intricately carved rock, the delicate curve of an archway—so the dark areas are always warm, full of possibility. His darkness is also never truly dark because it is always and everywhere a counterpoint to the light. Light is a constant presence in these pictures. It illuminates every interior, it penetrates into every corner. It comes in brilliant shafts that pour down from windows, or as a steady, luminous glow that permeates the very molecules of air and stone. As the eye is lifted upward, from shadow to brightness, the light causes the inert cathedral walls to shine, to transform. The walls are no longer made of rock, but are almost translucent. If you touch them, will they still be solid? This is more than light as a physical, material thing, divorced from poetry and spirit. This is light as an embodiment or reflection of the divine, the light of the first epistle of John in the Christian gospels, which simply says, “God is light.”4

Almost nine centuries separate us from the planning and early reconstruction of the first Gothic cathedral, which was conceived and built by Abbot Suger of St.-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris whose cathedral had long been the burial place of France’s kings. Those nine centuries do not even begin to measure the distance that the Western mind has traveled since the cathedrals were built, a distance so great that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the aesthetic universe that Suger and his priestly colleagues inhabited. The whole concept of aesthetics as we understand it would be utterly foreign to the medieval mind, which could not conceive of beauty and art as anything but an expression of a religious experience. Even the word expression is misleading, because it implies a kind of aesthetic gap between the experience of the observer and its artistic utterance. Mirroring would perhaps say it better. As the architectural historian Otto von Simson said: “The Middle Ages perceived beauty as the ‘splendor veritatis,’ the radiance of truth; they perceived the [artistic] image not as illusion but revelation.”5

So the Gothic cathedral is not a “work of art” in any modern or postmodern sense. While these buildings seem to share many qualities with more recent artistic creations of various kinds, it would be a mistake to look at the cathedrals as we do Cubist drawings or even cathedral paintings by Monet, which in some sense are grounded in purely intellectual explorations of ideas and processes. Von Simson explains: “The church is, mystically and liturgically, an image of heaven.”6 And heaven, to the medieval mind, was more than anything a place of light. Actually—and this is an even stranger concept to us—the earth was, too. The French historian Georges Duby describes this idea beautifully in his book The Age of the Cathedrals:

Every creature stems from that initial, uncreated, creative light. Every creature receives and transmits the divine illumination according to its capacity….The universe, born of an irradiance, was a downward-spilling burst of luminosity, and the light emanating from the primal Being established every created being in its immutable place. But it united all beings, linking them with love, irrigating the entire world, establishing order and coherence within it.7

This theology of light was not the only metaphysical principle that the cathedral builders tried to embody in their designs. They also felt an intense sense of mystery—again, completely foreign to the modern mind—in the area of mathematics, which “was considered the link between God and world, the magical tool that would unlock the secrets of both.”8 Grounded in the numerical mysticism of Plato, Pythagorus and Augustine, the medieval architects created a kind of sacred geometry, imbuing their buildings with ratios and proportions that, to them, were expressions of the angelic harmonies experienced by blessed souls as they entered the heavenly realm.

While the use of geometry and proportion was the more or less invisible foundation of medieval design, the metaphysics of light became the most highly visible architectural element—the true raison d’être of the cathedrals. Abbot Suger, in his prototypical design at St.-Denis, introduced a series of alterations to the existing Romanesque structure, adding numerous windows, replacing interior walls with columns, and opening up the series of chapels surrounding the central core of the building—all of which were designed to allow more light into the interior. From front to back and top to bottom, the “outpouring light…spread throughout all the inner volume of the church with not one obstacle in its way, so as to make the entire edifice a symbol of the mystical creation.”9

Evans’s writings take a cautious and measured approach to the theological grounding of his work. When he explained the title of his picture In Sure and Certain Hope, York Minster, 1902, for example, he carefully danced around traditional Christian ideas about the afterlife.10 The image depicts a cathedral interior, apparently a crypt, with a recumbent figure staring upward, hands folded: “As I was studying [the scene], the sun burst across it, flooding it with radiance. There is my picture: Hope awaiting, an expectancy with a certitude of answer; and the title seemed defensible, if a little ambitious.”11 As with most serious artists, Evans felt much more freedom to give voice to his feelings in his work rather than his explications. While his words are circumspect, his photographs at times border on the ecstatic. In Provins, the camera stands in the shadows of what is apparently a basement area of the cathedral,12 pointing toward a stairwell. A shaft of light from an unseen window or door pours down the stairs, creating a pool of illumination on the floor that flows into the darkest areas of the room. Evans’s interpretation of this place is not harsh or melodramatic, but delicate, uplifting. The nondescript room has a magical glow; as George Bernard Shaw said about Evans’s handling of light and shadow, “the obscurest detail in the corners seems as delicately penciled by the darkness as the flood of sunshine through window or open door is penciled by the light.”13

Evans was famous for “stalking” his photographs over a period of weeks or months, returning with his camera at the precise moment when the light was where he wanted it to be and even demanding that chairs and other objects be removed so his view would be unobstructed. So this staircase of light is a carefully calculated depiction of a real place at a specific time. But the image also has the emotional intensity of a dream or vision. Where does the light really come from? A door or a window, yes, but there is a metaphorical layer at work here as well. There’s a dramatic movement from darkness to light in this picture. The stairs go somewhere—to a place shrouded in mystery, yet intensely desirable. They seem abnormally steep, so climbing them would not be easy, but what would you find if you were to try to get to the top? The phrase “stairway to heaven” is, of course, a cliché, but it’s not hard to imagine Beatrice leading Dante up such a staircase to the highest reaches of Paradise. This photograph is, in a sense, the embodiment of what von Simson tells us is the very goal and essence of the medieval notion of reality: “to ascend from a world of mere shadows and images to the contemplation of the Divine Light itself.”14 But that explanation, being verbal and theological, doesn’t do justice to this picture, which possesses the excitement of something newly discovered—as if this archetypal image of the spiritual desire to know and join with the Creator, which is at the heart of our culture’s religious tradition, is revealed here for the first time.

Frederick Evans  In Sure and Certain Hope, York Minister, 1902

In other words, it’s not enough to say that Evans understood the medieval mind. He knew it in his ligaments and corpuscles. Perhaps he loved these buildings in a manner that even Abbot Suger might have recognized. Evans would not have used the grand, euphoric language of Suger, but his photographs speak for themselves. Frederick Evans was an unashamedly spiritual artist, an artist who was committed to conveying something of the ecstatic, transforming, transcendent nature of the spiritual experience. He did not do this because he was some sort of proselytizing Christian soldier. His motives were much purer and more profound. He was excited to his core by what he saw in these places. The cathedrals—and the spiritual world they inhabit—were his great love. Just as Adams did with Yosemite, in pursuing that love through his photographs Evans was also learning about, and becoming, himself.

Evans’s cathedral photographs reject this conflict or, more accurately, ignore it. These pictures are beyond politics and ultimately even beyond theology. Evans uses the mechanism of photography to create images that express a single human being’s experience of that which is transcendent in our lives. As such, they are far more powerful than any philosophical argument for or against the existence of God. They are Frederick Evans saying to anyone who cares to listen: “I saw this. I felt this.” They stake no claim on absolute truth, yet they have the unassailable reality of lived experience. For those who have had similar experiences, these photographs are an affirmation. For those who see the world differently, Evans’s work is a gentle reminder that there is more to life than the practical and the mundane, that beauty and wonder are real, and that it’s good to be excited about such things and to follow them wherever they happen to lead us.There is something refreshing about Evans’s innocent expressions of spirituality, which seem so far removed from the endless conflicts about science and religion that characterize our age. So often the defenders of the faith—both scientific and religious—take up extreme positions as they do battle with each other. Religion in its most radical forms has become an oppressive force in our culture, and is actually invoked as a weapon to repress art and most other forms of individual expression. We hear religious leaders talk about God as they advocate assassination and bigotry, and religion appears to be nothing more than a form of neurotic zealotry, seeking a divinely imposed conformity that denies the healthy diversity of human experience. People on the other side of the argument often see only the excesses of religion, rejecting it entirely in favor of a rational and existential universe governed solely by chance and physical law. But these people also fall into extreme positions and even zealotry, brutally devaluing and debunking the whole spectrum of religious experience. They argue passionately that life and consciousness could only have been made by completely random processes, all the while creating an empty universe that is stripped of beauty, wonder and meaning.


1. From “Evans—An Appreciation” (1903), in Bill Jay and Margaret Moore, editors, Bernard Shaw on Photography (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1989), p. 96.
2. Shaw, p. 97.
3. For more on the spiritual underpinnings of Evans’s work, see Anne Kelsey Hammond, “Frederick Evans: The Spiritual Harmonies of Architecture,” in Mike Weaver, editor, British Photography in the Nineteenth Century: The Fine Art Tradition (Cambridge: the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1989), pp. 243–60.
4. I John 1: 5.
5. Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. xvii.
6. Von Simson, p. 8.
7. Georges Duby, The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 9801420, translated by Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 99–100.
8. Von Simson, p. 27.
9. Duby, p. 101.
10. The title of this photograph comes from a passage toward the end of the Burial of the Dead service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life.”
11. From Camera Work, No. 4, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Frederick H. Evans (New York: Aperture, 1973), p. 92.
12. The cathedral is located in the medieval city of Provins, situated just southeast of Paris.
13. Shaw, p. 100.
14. Von Simson, p. 53.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2006, Volume 23, Number 4