Ancient Lights

The right to light – what a fascinating concept. This right was passed into law in England in 1663 and stated that if a property owner has enjoyed light coming in through a window in the building for a period of twenty years, then their neighbor cannot build a taller house or wall, plant a tree, or do anything to diminish the amount of light that enters their property through that window. This law seems unique to England and was sadly not accepted in the US as it would hinder commercial and residential development. I can imagine the peace of mind that people living in these old buildings get from knowing that no new construction can block the light that comes in through those ancient windows.

In some of the older neighborhoods in London, windows bear an “Ancient Lights” sign next to them – which indicates, and lets the neighbors know, that they are protected by the Ancient Lights law.

And no one captured this glorious light that enters a room through ancient windows and illuminates everything in its path better than Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675).  In many of his paintings, he captures everyday domestic tasks that happen at different hours of the day in this natural light.  

The soft morning light is diffused over silken curtains as a woman reads a letter, it guides the milkmaid as she pours milk from her pitcher, the strong mid-day sun adds to the beauty of the woman as she flirts with the man in the dark hat, it lights up the globe for the cartographer as he examines the finer details in his maps, and illuminates the balance beam as the lady ponders her material and spiritual wealth.

Light is the main event in each of these works, and the reason why hundreds of years later we can’t get enough of Vermeer.

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