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Here’s how you can see your own halo at Rievaulx Abbey

Published: 17 March 2017
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: Travel and days out

Throughout history a halo has symbolised sainthood, but what if you could see a version around your own head? Through a new light installation, artist Charles Monkhouse has devised a way to do just that. He will replicate Brocken Spectre, a naturally occurring phenomenon considered to be the origin of the halo, at Rievaulx Abbey next month.

The four-day event, Brocken Spectre – An Evening of Light and Sound, will take place during Holy Week (Wednesday 12 – Saturday 15 April) and there couldn’t be a more perfect setting than the spiritual ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. But what’s it all about? We chat to Charles and break down the science and symbolism.

So what exactly is a Brocken Spectre?

Think of Brocken Spectre as a magnified shadow of yourself (the ‘spectre’) surrounded by an iridescent spectrum around your head (the ‘glory’). The effect will resemble a halo and will differ from person to person.

Brocken Spectres are usually associated with mountains, low cloud and mist, but sightings are rare and few walkers have experienced more than one or two during a lifetime. However, you may have seen a similar glory around the shadow of a plane cast upon clouds.

What to expect from Brocken Spectre – An Evening of Light and Sound

Over eight hundred years ago, the atmosphere at Rievaulx Abbey was described as ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity’. Today the soul-stirring abbey ruins, in their sheltered valley, are still ideal for reflection.

Brocken Spectre – An Evening of Light and Sound will offer four sensory experiences within the setting of the abbey. In the infirmary cloisture there’s an interactive music installation produced by Michael Davies. There’s also the opportunity to play the illuminated aluminium chime bars, the Illumaphonium. Children from Helmsley Community Primary School will be reading poems and prose inspired by the life of monks at Rievaulx Abbey around the site too.

Along the nave you’ll watch projections on both the North and South Transept walls, which will be showing visual accounts of Brocken Spectre experiences. Once at the alter, you can stand on a platform with floodlights behind and witness your own, unique Brocken Spectre.

Charles has created his own mist-making machine to create the backdrop which your shadow will be projected against. With the full system running, about 160 litres of water is used to create the mist for one performance – enough for roughly 884 cups of tea.


Rievaulx Abbey in the sunlight. Brocken Spectre is a unique chance to experience the site’s atmosphere as the sun goes down.

Meet the artist: Q&A with Charles Monkhouse


Based on looking at halos in western and other cultures, the link to spirituality is a personal thing. My argument would be that the halo is common to several cultures, for instance Christianity and Buddhism and therefore is more likely to have a natural, rather than cultural, origin. Early halos, for instance in Fra Angelico paintings or statues of Buddha, surround the head like a glory. I’ve read that the Buddhist name for halos means ‘Holy light’.

I was also intrigued that you can only see the glory (and therefore halo) around one’s own head. All this is of course conjecture, but it is a role of the artist is to ask questions.


I was looking for a site to show Brocken Spectre that would draw attention to the sacred nature of the glory around the shadow of the viewer’s head. I thought an abbey would be good, so I contacted Carl Hutton, then Events Manager at English Heritage, who suggested Rievaulx Abbey. He was right. The abbey lines up with the tight valley sides and emphasises the light, the viewer, the shadow and the glory of the Brocken Spectre.


Similar effects of a rainbow can be achieved using a hose to generate water droplets or small glass beads. But normally with a rainbow there is no Spectre and while a rainbow is centred on your field of vision, this is not always obvious.

A Brocken Spectre is a more intense experience with the glory centred on the shadow of the viewer’s head, so it becomes far more personal than a rainbow. Another difference is the droplet size. Rain and mist droplets return the light differently so generating a spectrum that seems bigger and often more intense than the spectrum of a rainbow.


Each glory is unique in the sense that you can only see one own glory. The glories also vary depending on the size and consistency of the droplets in the mist, so another Brocken Spectre is likely to be different.

Everyone should have an opportunity to see their glory. Try and enjoy the experience – you may never see one again. Enjoy the colour, it can be wonderful. Think what it is like for someone meeting a Brocken Spectre without prior knowledge or expectation of one. What would they make of it?  How would they interpret it? Finally reflect on your own experience of the Brocken Spectre.  Is it like anything you’ve seen before? How do you interpret it?



Charles is an artist working in rural and public spaces to produce temporary installations and permanent sculptures. Light is his favoured medium as it allows the creation of large sculptures with no negative impact on the environment and because it allows the exploration of parts of the landscape that are hidden during the day. Charles’ interest in Brocken Spectre began when his parents returned from a walk in Walna Scar where they saw it for themselves.

Event details

Brocken Spectre – An Evening of Light and Sound
Rievaulx Abbey
Wednesday 12 – Saturday 15 April
6:30pm to 9:30pm



Member (Adult) £5.00
Member (Child) £3.00
Member (Concession) £4.50
Member (Family) £12.00
Adult £10.00
Child, 5-15 years £6.00
Concession £9.00
Family £23.50


Give our Ticket Sales Team a call on 0370 333 1183 (Mon – Fri 8.30am – 5.30pm and Sat 9am – 5pm) to book tickets to any of the shows. Tickets will also be available on the day if there are any left, but advanced booking is advised to avoid disappointment.

Visit our online events page, Brocken Spectre – An Evening of Light and Sound, for more information and to book tickets online.

PLEASE NOTE: Access to the event is only via the free shuttle bus service which leaves and returns to The Cleveland Way Car Park (at Helmsley Castle). Buses will run on a constant loop between Helmsley and Rievaulx from 6pm until 10pm. A limited amount of blue badge holder parking is available on site, this must be booked in advance through Customer Services. Unfortunately due to access, this event is not suitable for wheelchair users.