Fire begins in the presence of Oxygen, Heat, and Fuel: the encounter of these three elements creates fire, the destructive and regenerative force par excellence. Synonymous with energy and passion, humans used fire for millennia to warm themselves, cook food, forge tools and illuminate dark spaces. However, fire is the most mysterious of the four natural elements - water, fire, earth, and air - the most mysterious by far. Sparks, thunderbolts, flames... fire's violence frightens and fascinates at the same time.
Fire could represent destruction, but also the tabula rasa from which to build again. It embodies a dramatic situation of danger, but also the fireplace that gives warmth and conviviality. In its burning act lies a dichotomy between devastation and the desire for renewal -if you are curious about other dichotomies in art you can read light and shadow, order and chaos, and black and white-.
In this article, we will start to explore how art represented the four elements, focusing first on the fire itself. The natural elements are frequently depicted in art history, portrayed as allegories in paintings, frescoes, and wall art. Earth, water, air, and fire, have symbolic significations that vary according to different cultures. Connected to nature or psychological temperaments, their presence tells us about the environment but especially about harmony and balance between humans and the natural world.
We will immerse ourselves in the flames of three different representations of fire in visual arts: beginning with traditional religious iconography and ending with the natural processes ignited by contemporary art. We will undertake a journey with the flavor of alchemy in which the main protagonists will be the artists and their different ways of painting literal and metaphorical fire. Fire is passion, heat, and disruptive power: no one more than an artist can burn with it.
Fire in Christian Art. Passion and Faith
Have you ever noticed the large number of burning hearts and stylized flames that are often present in religious paintings? Fire is a very important symbol in the Christian religion: it is an element that burns and purifies. Linked to the action of the Holy Spirit and the church, it destroys evil and renews faith.
Flames burn atop fiery-red hearts -a color whose symbolism we have explored here. They are symbols of divine love and blind passion. Today, flaming hearts are also in vogue in home decor. Ex-voto-themed objects are popular, creating a bridge between the sacred and the profane. The symbol of the flamboyant heart, the propulsive organ of life and emotions, represents love, fidelity, and gratitude, transcending its religious significance.
However, fire in religious paintings also returns in other guises. In some biblical episodes, this element represents real proof to attest faith or innocence. One of the most famous depictions is found in the Stories of St. Francis of Assisi painted by Giotto in the Basilica of Assisi. Legend has it that the saint, to convince the Sultan of Egypt to convert to Christianity, walked into the flames. If he emerged from the fire untouched the sultan would have to embrace the Christian faith. The fire in this fresco thus becomes an icon of danger, but also courage and strenuous defense of the faith.
Finally, in religious iconography, fire often symbolizes revelation. In several episodes, God becomes visible not through a human body but in the very form of tongues of fire. According to the Bible, God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. The bush burned but was not consumed: it was a hint of the inexhaustible divine presence!
Fire as Burning, Fire as Warmth
Fire is also devastating destruction. Artists often depicted the dramatic fires that occurred in the history of their cities. Wildfires or city fires impress on canvas for their emotional and figurative power. From the destruction of Jerusalem to the very famous fire of Raphael's Borgo in the Vatican Stanze, fire and flame are distinguished in fine art by different composition and techniques.
Among the most famous painted fires is surely that of English painter William Turner, who in the 19th century documented, as in a photograph, the Burning of the House of Parliament in London. His masterful manner of representing fire is striking: an impressive natural phenomenon, highlighted by the spectacular use of color and light. The column of fire seems to come out of the boundaries of the painting, engaging the viewer. The reactions are twofold: there is fear, but there is also awe in front of the power of nature and its effects.
However, fire is not only scary. Artists also captured the comforting aspect given by the feeling of warmth and coziness. Gustav Klimt's symbolist painting, Lady at the Fireplace is a portrait with blurred outlines depicting a young woman lying in front of a fireplace. The almost unrecognizable face, the fuzzy touches of color, and the softness of the lighting and lines make it a smoky painting, mystical like the fire that surrounds it.
Fire also has power. The flame in many indigenous peoples is used in complex rituals in which humans seek to connect to their natural environment. Smoking ceremonies or burning dances are unique traditions that highlight the basic functionalities of fire: heating, lighting, and burning to promote productive ecosystems. Paul Gauguin in his series depicted in Tahiti represented the ritualistic dance 'upa 'upa. Dancers simulated sexually oriented movements around the fire, going to exacerbate even the carnal power of the element. Considered an immoral practice by Western explorers, Fire Dance was soon suppressed going on to extinguish even the joy of dance, so dear to Polynesian cultures.
Finally, if you want to immerse yourself in a work of art in which fire is both destroying and illuminating light, don't miss Anselm Kiefer's installation in Doge's Palace in Venice. Here one of the most important masters of the contemporary scene has re-enacted the devastating fire that destroyed the palace in the late 16th century. Kiefer with his gigantic fire paintings reflects on the possibility of something new and better emerging from the ashes of the past. These writings, when burnt, will finally cast a little light, reads the poetic title. It is a monumental commentary on the cyclical power of fire: which destroys the Old to light the way to the New.
Combustions and Fire Effects
There are not only artworks that paint fires, but some are also literally painted with flames! In fire art, flame effects become part of sculptures, performances, or three-dimensional paintings. For example, Yves Klein, a French artist of the post-war period famous for his blue, we discussed symbolism of Blue Color here, realized a series of fire paintings that display his fascination with the traces fire can leave on the matter. His experimental artifacts were made by exposing a painted wood board to a burning process. This seductive and flamboyant process absorbed an aura of the ceremony, almost as if burning became a ritualistic act in painting.
The artworks of Alberto Burri, an artist coeval with Klein, experiment with the same burning practice but with a more scientific and violent approach. Burri melted plastic and sheets of paper, realizing extremely tactile surfaces. Underlying his creative process was an attempt to control the element. His plastic combustions, particularly the red examples, look almost like skin flaps or scars on which the artist like a surgeon acts. Burri was indeed a doctor; his use of flames on these plastic works connects him to the flesh. Fire thus takes on visceral aspects in these contemporary art forms. The art shows how fire can be an element sometimes mystical, sometimes extremely bodily, sometimes dangerous disaster, and sometimes natural processes to be observed and controlled.
Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specialized in History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communication and Sociology. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin and wherever you can go with the power of the Internet. She works as guide in Museum Education Departments and as a freelance writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, mostly about them at the same time, in an inclusive, feminist, transnational perspective.