Through different periods in art history, artists have played with and variously manipulated symbolism in art, including the symbolism of light. Some used it as a symbol of an idea or an emotion. Others harnessed light to accentuate the message of their pieces, creating new art techniques that relied on exploring light's many forms. With the emergence of symbolism, a 19th-century art movement, light became the central motif of many artworks, used not only as a symbol but as a force that forms the piece.
In this article, we'll investigate the symbolism of light through various periods by examining different art pieces. We'll explore its many iconographic layers and demonstrate how artists utilized light to construct a story with their works.
Light as a Symbol in Religious Art
Every religion in the history of mankind is based on the same primal concept – the eternal fight of good and evil.
The two most basic natural phenomena, light, and darkness became symbols of these forces. Artists have been using them for centuries to emphasize the difference between natural and unnatural, divine and earthly.
The symbolism of Light in Ancient Egyptian Art
Creation myths of many ancient religions claim that the world began with the emergence of light from the dark. The same analogy is present when describing the end of the world or the apocalypse – the light will disappear in the final, all-consuming darkness.
This contrast is clearly visible when examining the pantheons of ancient divinities. The "good" gods dwell in the heavens, where there is light. The underworld, filled with "evil" divinities, is usually described as a place of eternal darkness. When a soul departs from Earth, it either goes to light, where it enjoys eternal life, or to the underworld, where it spends eternity in chaos and dark. In this context, the light becomes the symbol of life and immortality, a concept that many modern religions adopted in their teachings.
This duality of light and dark is what the Ancients explored in their artworks, using light as a symbol and a medium, to give them a deeper meaning.
The Egyptians were masters of manipulating natural light when building their architectural wonders. They used it to emphasize their religious beliefs. Great examples are the famous Abu Simbel temples, built during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century.
Photo by Ye Wang
The seated sculptures of the four gods in the Great Temple in Abu Simbel, showing how the god Ptah (the utmost left) stays in the dark while the sun illuminates the chamber.
In the sanctuary room of the so-called Great Temple, the Egyptians rock-cut sculptures of the four deities to whom the temple was dedicated: Amun, Ra, Ptah, and Ramesses himself. The architects positioned the axis of the temple in such a way, that when the sun penetrated the sanctuary, it would illuminate all but one figure – that of the god Ptah. This deity was connected with the underworld and duat – the realm of the dead in Egyptian mythology.
By not letting a single sun ray illuminate the statue of Ptah, Egyptian architects have accentuated his nature and symbolically separated him from the three other figures.
The symbolism of Light in Ancient Greek Art
The Greek civilization has always worshipped light, and it shows in their art. Such was their fascination with it that light became the object not only of their visual art but of their poetry, cosmogony, religion, and mythology. (Christopulous et al., 2010: 11)
The Bell Krater with Dionysiac scenes, ca. 440 BCE, showing Dionysus, satyr, and a torch-carrying maenad. The Walters Museum, Creative Commons.
Unlike Egyptians who preferred capturing natural light in their architectural works of art, Greeks loved to accentuate the religious symbolism of light through lighting equipment. In their time, this meant using torches, lamps, and the imagery of fire.
In the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and festivity, torches played a huge iconographic role. They're an integral part of scenes depicted on vases, dating from the late 6th century to the 5th century BCE.
The Dionysian mysteries took place at night. The presence of torches accentuates the debauchery of the cult, known even in ancient times. The cult's rituals, as intense and mad as they were, couldn't be performed by day. By using torches when depicting these scenes, the Greek vase painters have accentuated the nocturnal nature of the cult and emphasized the less-known aspect of Dionysus – that of a protector of light and fertility.
Light as a Symbol in Judaism
In monotheistic religions, the light remained the fundamental symbol of divine nature. As in the creation myths of ancient religions, light plays a central role in the genesis of Judaic and Christian God.
The phrase "Let there be light" found in Genesis 1:3, shows that the light serves as a symbol of God, from which all was created. The early Jews and Christians honored this symbolism in their sacred art, by using various architectural solutions on their temples and churches to emphasize the connection between light and their God.
In the Jewish temple of Jerusalem, the architects used the absence of light as a theme, to establish the relationship between the light and the divine. They left the most sacred space in the temple completely unexposed to light. The only source of it came from the menorah, a candle holder with seven branches, which stood in the middle of the room. The light from the candles penetrated the darkness, thus symbolizing God's presence. (Sokol-Gojnik et al., 2015: 610).
The Knesset Menorah, by Benno Elkan
Light as Symbolism in Christianity
Light is an integral part of Christian art, iconography, and symbolism.
The dome of the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. Photograph by Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons.
The Scriptures offer many references to God and Jesus Christ being the manifestations of light, which shows through various symbols, mainly candles, halos, and flames. In paintings and frescoes, the holy symbols were emphasized by using light colors, such as gold, yellow, and light blue.
Christian artists viewed light as a form of divine expression, and this is best demonstrated in liturgical spaces.
Early Romanesque Christian churches contained small windows and openings in the walls through which light modestly illuminated the worshippers.
This controlled use of light reflects the early Christian belief that only in the afterlife one can truly understand and sense God.
This idea changed over centuries, and by the time of the Byzantine Empire, Christian places of worship became monumental.
They were built in a way that reflected a new theological understanding of God. Divine transcendence, which used to await in the afterlife, was now present on Earth and given to a man.
This changed perception of the divine light is best shown in the new architectural addition to Christian churches – the dome. Painted in golden color, it represented light in its purest form. The dome stands over the altar, casting bright light from its big windows at the central place of worship, thus emphasizing the symbolic connection between the light and the divine.
During the Middle Ages, Western art took on a new approach to using light. Instead of using it as a symbol of the divine, represented by a certain object such as a torch or a menorah, artists started exploring the many forms of light, using it as a medium to accentuate a certain aspect of their pieces.
The rise of humanism and science in the Renaissance, especially physics and astronomy, allowed the artists to study the optical properties of light. The champion of this movement was Leonardo da Vinci. He experimented with light and optics, using knowledge of physics, biology, and anatomy, to determine how to create different perspectives in his paintings.
The crown of his explorations is The Last Supper, a masterful presentation of a game of light and shadow. Despite the Bible stating that the supper happened in the evening, Da Vinci chose to set his scene in the daytime (visible in the windows in the background), which allowed him to use sun rays to play with the light-dark contrast in the painting. The shadows on the floor, however, clearly show that there was another source of artificial light, a candle, or a torch in the bottom left corner, adding to the realism of the painting.
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498, via Wikimedia Commons.
Da Vinci also paid close attention to the spatial arrangement of characters, which was important in determining the reflection and refraction of light among figures and objects. He outlined the movement of the rays of light, and carefully chose how each ray caused illumination and shadow on the faces of the characters. (Bitler 2011: 32).
There was much discussion on whether Leonardo deliberately omitted painting a halo over Jesus's head. Some scholars claimed that the light from the windows behind him served that purpose, while others suggested that the missing attribute reflected the human nature of the Christ, which had yet to endure the Passion and ascend into heavens.
Light in Secular Art
The Last Supper is a great example of how Leonardo and other artists of this period, such as Caravaggio, infused art with realism and introduced "depth" in painting, along with new techniques that explored the usage of light and shadow,
Self-portrait in a Gorget, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1629, Wikimedia Commons.
This technique gives a strong lighting effect and projects the illusion of three-dimensionality, which makes the subjects look more real. Besides Da Vinci and Caravaggio, a famous artist that used the chiaroscuro was Rembrandt.
Called the master of light, shadows, and faces, he is praised for his masterful manipulation of light and dark tones. He popularized the so-called "Rembrandt triangle", a technique in which a small patch of triangular light appears under the subject's eye, on the side of the face opposite of the source of light. This small add-on dramatized the characters of his paintings, framing their expressions, and accentuating the physical characteristics of their faces.
Light in the Symbolism Art Movement
In the late 19th century, with the emergence of the symbolism art movement, light again became the subject of art. Jean Moréas, a French critic, coined the term in his famous Symbolist Manifesto.
Artists used symbolism to reject the realism of impressionism and naturalism and use symbols to create imaginary scenes. Though very different in their artistic expressions, they all shared a tendency to convey ideas and emotions through symbols, thus giving form to their dreams and visions.
Symbolist art is generally very dark, with a gloomy, almost morbid atmosphere. To accentuate the symbolic difference between light and dark or good and evil, symbolists harnessed the power of colors, creating rich color symbolism in their works. The Wounded Angel, a painting by Finish artist Hugo Simberg, demonstrates this perfectly.
The Wounded Angel, Hugo Simberg, 1903, Wikimedia Commons
It shows the procession of two boys who are carrying the central angelic figure. The bearers wear dark clothes, which separates them both symbolically and visually from the angel, who is dressed in bright white. She is wounded – there's a bandage over her forehead, and blood on her wing. To understand the symbolism of the painting, we must understand the artist's motive behind it.
Simberg suffered from meningitis, a disease that causes neck stiffness, lethargy, and light sensitivity, each of which is exhibited by the central figure. The wounded angel is clearly a representation of the artist, and the bunch of snowdrops which she carries in her hand, are a symbol of hope, health, and rebirth.
Another great example of how symbolists used colors to express their ideas is a painting called The Dance of Life, by the famous Edvard Munch.
The three female figures in the front represent the three biological stages of a woman. On the far left, we have a woman whose youth and innocence are expressed in the whiteness of her dress. On the far right, a woman in a black dress gazes longingly at the couple dancing in the middle. Her sunken cheeks and lines on the forehead suggest that she is the eldest of the three. The blackness of her dress clearly symbolizes death. Even the background of the painting plays a bit with the symbolism of light. The scene takes place in the sunset, which metaphorically represents death as the ultimate destination for all, and perfectly captures the gloominess of the symbolist movement.
The Dance of Life, Edvard Munch, 1899-1900. Wikimedia Commons.
We Are All Made of Light, an installation by Maja Petrić, 2019. Frameweb.
Looking Forward Into Light
Over many millennia, light has fascinated artists of all cultures. It has inspired the creation of some of the most memorable artworks in our species history.
Even modern and contemporary art continues to explore light's many properties with experiential light installations, architectural spaces tailored to interact with natural and electric light, the art of stage lighting...
Artists revisit this subject over and over again, challenging our sense of reality, expanding our sense of visual culture, and allowing us to explore the symbolism of light in new, inspiring forms.
Bitler, Nicole. "Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of Light and Optics: A Synthesis of Fields in The Last Supper", Intersect, vol. 4 (1), 2011: 26-34.
Christopulous M., Karakantza E.D., Levaniouk O., ed. Light and Darkness in Ancient Greek Myth and Religion. Lexington Books, 2010.
Sokol Gojnik, Z., Gojnik, I., Bojanić Obad Šćitaroci, B. Light as a Symbol of Sacred Architecture, in: Theory and History of Architecture Conference ARCHTHEO'15, Istanbul, 2015.
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Tea Fumić is a professional historian, writer, and an art enthusiast. She holds a Master's degree in Ancient History, and specializes in researching and writing about ancient civilizations, religions and mythologies. Her contagious passion for history and art prompted her to pursue a career as a museum curator and educator. She enjoys digging through old archives and manuscripts, wandering around museums and galleries, and hiking in the mountains of her native Croatia.