The painter Claude Monet turned the play of light on the façade of Rouen cathedral into one of the most memorable achievements of impressionist art. The process has now been repeated, with a twist. Rouen cathedral is being turned, by a monumental trick of light, into a Monet painting.
Or, rather, the cathedral is being turned each night into a series of Monet canvases, followed by a series of Pop Art paintings by Roy Lichtenstein.
Before the eyes of startled tourists and art-lovers, the ancient stones of the building dissolve and soften at each night-fall until 18 September into an impressionist painting 200ft wide and almost 300ft high. A digital light show, projected from one of the rooms where Monet worked in 1892, does not merely illuminate the west façade of the cathedral; it transforms the elaborate gothic structure into a living canvas.
The 15-minute show, repeated four times, presents 12 different "paintings", mostly Monets but also two or three representations of the Pop Art versions of Rouen cathedral created by Lichtenstein in 1969. (The American artist achieved his effect by blowing up photographs of Monet paintings.)
If you ever ask what the European Union does for you, here, among other things, is the answer. The Rouen show is part of a hi-tech illumination of four cathedrals in southern England and northern France this summer, partly funded by an EU programme, Interreg IIIA, which promotes cross-border cooperation between neighbouring regions of European countries.
Apart from Rouen, in upper Normandy, 70 miles west of Paris, the other towns with EU-funded cathedral light shows are at Canterbury and Rochester in Kent and Amiens in Picardy. The aim is to promote tourism - to encourage visitors to prolong their stays or to visit towns such as Rochester, Rouen and Amiens that are somewhat off the normal tourist beat.
The Rouen show is far from being a simple projection of Monet paintings on to the west façade of the cathedral (built and extended between the 12th and 16th centuries). Monet was so fascinated by the play of light on the building that he painted it 27 times in 1892-93, from three different viewpoints, at different times of day and in different weather conditions. The resulting canvases, originally intended to be shown together, are now scattered around galleries and private collections all over the world.
The creators of the Rouen light show - Hélène Richard and Jean-Michel Quesne of the Paris-based company Skertz - tried to follow Monet's footsteps. They spent almost a year photographing and filming the passage of light and shadow over the front of the cathedral. They then condensed and digitised their film to "paint" the natural colours back on to the façade and create a series of Monet pastiches.
The effect, accompanied by eerie music, is stunning. The old stones seem to vanish and give way to a three-dimensional Monet, or Lichtenstein, canvas. The creators say that their intention is to "encourage the public to ponder their own perceptions" by "literally entering into the process of painting".
The light show is also a timely celebration of Rouen cathedral, which can now be seen in all its glory for the first time in 60 years. Restoration work, to repair the ravages of the centuries as well as the Allied bombardments in 1944, were finally completed in June last year. The scaffolding that obscured parts of the west façade for many years has been removed, revealing 70 statues, which are either restored originals or painstaking re-creations of figures damaged beyond repair.
The Rouen show occurs four times at 15-minute intervals from 10pm (9.30pm in September) and finishes on 18 September.Reuse content