The Resurrection of the Stones

Rising stark against the night sky, spectral ruins recall the wealth and power of Britain's once-great monasteries

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Across the face of England and Wales, ecclesiastical ruins lie scattered like dominoes, toppled in a power struggle between church and state. To obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII broke with Rome and in 1534 declared himself "Supreme Head of the Church of England." Literally dismantling the opposition, while replenishing bankrupt royal coffers, between 1536 and 1540 Henry's agents seized several hundred monasteries and convents, systematically desecrating and plundering the properties in the name of the king. Most have been abandoned ever since; parts of others survive as parish churches.

At the hands of photographer Berthold Steinhilber, the once-magnificent buildings are reborn in ghostly grandeur through a technique called "light painting." After studying a structure in the daytime, Steinhilber sets up his field camera. Just before dark, the "blue hour," he calls it, he opens the shutter. Then, carrying a single light powered by a car battery, he walks from choir to nave to steps and so on, illuminating each separately. The exposure time can be more than two hours, depending on the building's size. As with a painting, says Steinhilber, you see only what its creator wants you to see.

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