Jesus and the Gospel writers use metaphorical images throughout the narratives of his life. John opens with the comparison of Jesus to language, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus’ teaching was more important than lessons, for he was the Teaching. In the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus proclaims that he is Living Water. More than the liquid of fresh water that quenches thirst, he is water that satiate thirst forever. Near his betrayal and arrest, he serves a Passover seder, stating that the Bread is his body and the Wine his blood. In John 8, Jesus announces that he is the Light of the World.
Many of the paintings with Jesus use light as a visual phenomenon. This can range from 14th century altars in gold background, to halo’s around Jesus and his disciples, to Caravagio’s beams of light. At times the light is not directly seen, but implied by the part of the subjects that is illuminated and is in shadow. Below are several paintings that I passed on earlier, but which use light in a variety of ways, other than to let us see the scenery and people.
This gold-foil background alter panel in the Vatican, by the Florentine School, is typical of early Renaissance paintings. The entryway architecture suggests light and shadow, but the figures lack a light source. This results in colorful, but flat shapes. The scene is the Visitation, in which Mary greets Elizabeth. They share their realization of their miraculous pregnancies. We discussed this story in Part 2. Mary and Elizabeth have halos, which represent light.
Two considerations for why gold-foil was used, rather than blue for the sky. First, gold was actually easier for artists to obtain that blue color. The later at that time came solely from mineral formations in rather inhospitable mountains of Asia-minor (now Afghanistan). More important was the lack of light in churches. Prior to the French Gothic period of church building, in which flying-buttresses allowed weight-bearing to be external, church windows were relatively small. Thus natural light was limited. Candles were the other source of light. The gold-foil picked up this light, thus literally becoming the source of light for the chapels in which these works of art were displayed. Drop some coins in the box and light those votive candles next time you are in a church.
Francesco Mancini’s painting, Holy Family (Rest on the Flight into Egypt), in the Vatican, uses a spot light effect for light. The shadows on the angel holding the wreath of flowers over Mary’s head, and on Joseph’s back indicate that the light source comes in from the far left. Mary’s and Joseph’s faces are thereby strongly lit, allowing us to see their endearing expressions, not of exhaustion, but relief. The light falls directly on Jesus, his bear skin becoming the whitest element directly in the center of the painting.
The landscape in the background gives additional suggestions of light, not in the architectural composition, but in the structures selected. Behind the angel’s wing stands an obelisk. These dot Roman plaza’s, many brought back from Egypt after its conquest by Augustus. Many obelisks had images of Isis*, the Egyptian sun gold. And, guess what. Isis* has a sun disk over his head, much like a halo. At the tip of the angel’s wing is a circular, columned and domed temple. One such temple existed in Rome, that of Hercules, near a curve in the Tiber River. Hercules, being the son of a mortal woman, Alcmene, and a the top-dog god, Jupiter, may have been a pagan forerunner of Jesus. The final building in the background is of a grand structure in ruins, possibly one of the crumbling Roman palaces on the Palatine Hill, which would have risen above the temple to Hercules. To a 18th century Roman audience, these symbols would have been as familiar as our Empire State Building is to movie watchers of King Kong, or any other movie set in NYC.
(* Oops, one of my faithful readers clarified that Ra is the Egyptian god with the sundisk on his head. I had not fact-checked this thoroughly. I did not get Isis’ gender correct, either… I double checked and found some other intersting connections. Isis and Osiris had a son, Horus, who became merged with Ra in later Egyptian dynasties. The image of Isis nursing Horus may have become absorbed into the imagery of the Modonna with Child. Isis also have assisted in the resurrection of Osiris after he died, in a similiar manner to Mary being protrayed at the Cross, Disposition [Pieta], and Empty Tomb scenes… but we are not there yet in the Jesus’s life.)
Caravaggio uses light to slice through his paintings, as he does in the Borghese Galleries’ Madonna dei Palafrenieri. It was originally commissions for a chapel in St. Peter’s, but lasted only one week in place because of its controversial composition. You vote: the light illuminates Mary’s cleavage too much, or that slithering snake creepped out the viewers.
The light catches each figure sharply, but leaves the background nearly black. Symbolism, darkness and light; Jesus’s heel will be bruised, while Satan’s (snake) head will be bruised. Furthermore, remember the link between Jesus and Hercules? One of Hercules’ feats of strength was to kill two snakes as a child.
A final images is a little more sedate presentation of Mary and Jesus. This is much more cuddly pose of the two, The Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon, by Sassoferrato. Mary has a delicate lemon halo on a background of light blue. A ring of cherub faces circle the halo. A light source from the right gives them a soft sense of depth.
What about that crescent moon? The sun and moon, before electricity, were the primary sources of light. If you live outside a city, you may be familiar with how bright the moon can be when it is larger than a half-moon. However, the crescent moon is only a sliver of a moon that either follows (at dusk) or proceeds (at dawn) the sun. Yet, we usually think of the crescent moon as being on its side, not shaped like a bowl. This crescent moon is a reference to the Greek and Roman goddess Diana. She represented chastity. One of her stories is of her hunting. Again, if you live in the country, during the Fall hunting season in the northern hemisphere, because of the angle of the earth, the crescent moon is turned upward. Thus Diana’s crescent moon (usually on her head, like a hat) and her chastity are mixed in with the images of Mary.