The luminous haloes of Byzantine icons. The warm glow radiating from the skin of Renaissance masters. The Impressionists’ nebulous sunsets. Light, and all that it symbolises, can be found everywhere in the canon of art history, and artists have illuminated their works through a wide variety of methods ever since. Gold leaf gave way to meticulously detailed oils, which in turn led to broad brushstrokes, then to paint slapped onto the canvas with palette knives. The neon tubes, cathode rays, and uplit, nebulous clouds of light we see in 20th and 21st-century art installations may be imbued with the shock of the new, and yet they are at once the evolution of something truly ancient. Expressing both the light without and the light within have been parts of the modus operandi of artists since time immemorial. After all, enlightenment is both literal and metaphorical, and art is our greatest tool with which to cast away the shadows of mediocrity. Today, galleries act as beacons, calling us through the fog of reality and nurturing us by beams of light, bestowed by those who create.
In the centuries prior to the advent of electric light, the world was a shadowy place, and the studios of artists would have been illuminated by flickering candlelight and glowing embers. Light in art during the early and late Renaissance — and indeed, prior to this in early Christian art) — was rarely, if ever, used in a naturalistic fashion. Rather, it was used symbolically; the light depicted was invariably the light of God, either radiating from the souls of saints and deities or burning as a holy fire beneath the skin of men. This can be seen perhaps most enduringly in the paintings of Rembrandt. The subjects of this extraordinary portraitist, which frequently include peasants and workers, as well as the artist himself, glow with a golden light which comes from within. This was not just a stylistic flourish of the Dutch master, it was how he claimed to see humanity. The same can be said for Caravaggio, whose masterpieces show shadows broken with shards of Holy fire. For these exemplary painters and their contemporaries, paint was a medium which allowed the metaphysical into our lives. In an age of candlelight, the effect was doubtlessly awe-inspiring.