Visions of Heaven. The Domes of David Stephenson

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There’s an ethereal magic to standing beneath a dome, neck craned, looking up at a vision of the heavens created by some long-ago figure of genius. From the Pantheon to the Hagia Sophia, the power of the dome seems transcendent. Photographer David Stephenson’s magnificently kaleidoscopic images of dome interiors capture this evanescent drama, and make Visions of Heaven one of the most spectacularly beautiful books we’ve ever produced.Traveling from Italy to Spain, Turkey, England, Germany, and Russia, among other countries, and photographing churches, palaces, mosques, and synagogues from the second to the early twentieth century, Stephenson’s work amounts to a veritable typology of the cupola. His images present complex geometrical structures, rich stucco decorations, and elaborate paintings as they have never been seen before. Brilliantly calibrated exposures reveal details and colors that would otherwise remain hidden in these dimly lit spaces.

Visions of Heaven shows more than 120 images, including the Roman Pantheon, the Byzantine churches of Turkey, the great domes of the Renaissance, the decorative cupolas of the Baroque and the Rococo ages, and a nineteenth-century synagogue in Hungary.

Above: Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Brompton, London, 1997

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Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, 2000

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Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, 1997

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Basilica di Superga, Turin, Italy, 1997

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Parish Church, Villa Pasquali, Italy, 1997

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Salon des Embajadores, Alcazar, Seville, Spain, 1997

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Sala de las Dos Hermanas, Alhambra, Granada, Spain, 1997

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Madonna degli Angeli, Turin, Italy, 1993

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Sant’Andrea delle Valle, Rome, Italy, 1993

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Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoe, Moscow, 2000

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St. Jan Nepomuk, Zd’ar nad Sazavou, Czech Republic, 1997

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Kirche Maria vom Siege (Mary of Victory), Vienna, 1997

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Cathedral of the Assumption, Sergiev Posad, Russia, 2000

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Benedictine Monastery, Kladruby, Czech Republic, 2000

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St. Benedict’s Chapel, Plasy, Czech Repubic, 2000

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Little Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey, 1997

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Sanctuary of Valinotto, Carignano, Italy, 1997

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Ettal, Germany, 1997

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Stift Haug, Wurzburg, Germany, 1997

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Val-du-Grace, Paris, France, 1997

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Capilla Condestable, Catedral, Burgos, Spain, 1997

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Sala de los Abencerrajes, Alhambra, Granada, Spain, 1997

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Pantheon, Rome, Italy, 1997
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Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, Italy, 1997
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Duomo, Padua, Italy, 1993
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San Bernadino alle Terme, Rome, Italy, 1993
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Santa Maria di Carignano, Genoa, Italy, 1993
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San Lorenzo, Turin, Italy, 1993
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Great Synagogue, Szeged, Hungary, 2000

David Stephenson was born in 1955, and studied at the University of Colorado and then the University of New Mexico, completing an MFA in 1982. He moved to Australia that same year to take up a position teaching photography at the University of Tasmania, where he completed a PhD in Fine Art in 2001. A fascination for the vast in space and time has led him to travel and photograph extensively around the world, with journeys to Europe, the Himalayas, and both the Arctic and Antarctic. His second visit to Antarctica in 1991 motivated his first exhibited work in video, which has continued to be an aspect his practice.

Stephenson’s photographs and video have been exhibited extensively internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1993), the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (1994), the Paisley Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland (1995), the National Gallery of Victoria, (1998), the Cleveland Museum of Art (2001), and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (2001). His work is represented in many public and private collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A meditation on the sublime has sustained David Stephenson’s artistic practice over 30 years, which has evolved through long-term, interrelated projects of inquiry. His photographs of the sublime ceilings of European sacred architecture have been published in two monographs with Princeton Architectural Press: Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture (2005) and Heavenly Vaults: From Romanesque to Gothic in European Architecture (2009, and showcased worldwide in many exhibitions.While travelling for these projects Stephenson made his first photographs of cities at night, bringing together a number of his previous interests, including the idea of the sublime, environmental concerns, and the transcendental power of light. The glowing “light city” seems the perfect emblem of so much that is both good and bad in our industrialized culture: an extraordinary example of a monumental technological sublime, where awe, beauty, and human aspiration are tinged with the horror of potential environmental catastrophe, our engine of modernity seemingly running on empty.

A key aspect of Stephenson’s current Light Cities project is the explosion in growth of the modern city. The visible symbols of economic aspiration such as the skyscraper have spread across the globe. Every reasonably sized city contains a downtown area of high buildings, with urban sprawl often extending for hundreds of square miles, and all those buildings glowing with electric light from sundown through to the early hours. With the vast majority of this electric power generated by coal-fired thermal power stations, it is not difficult to see that this situation has a finite timeframe, before the fuel runs out or climate change has drastic effects on the world’s ecosystems, requiring major changes to take place in the entire fabric of our modern industrialized culture. That many of these cities were founded as ports and are located at sea level, making them highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, gives further urgency to a close scrutiny of the modern city.Stephenson has also been collaborating with Martin Walch since 2010 on the Derwent Project, which aims to create new immersive approaches to the representation of complex and remote environments. An overview of the project and samples of their multichannel video works can be viewed on their Vimeo site: vimeo.com/derwentproject. Stephenson’s other video work can be seen at vimeo.com/davidstephensonart.

David Stephenson lives and works in Hobart, Tasmania.

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