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The Defeat of Darkness

The symbolic meanings of light and dark throughout classical art.

Image Credits: The Raising of Lazarus - Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s incredibly easy: you press a button and CLICK! The room lights up, the dark corners of the house aren’t scary anymore, the strange, unsettling shadows are replaced by familiar furniture. A modern “let there be light” that nourishes mankind’s tendency  to think itself invincible, in this neo positivist era we inhabit. 

Defeating the darkness wasn’t always so easy. The value of light, therefore, has always been recognized and celebrated with symbolic meanings that have been renewed from century to century, while maintaining as a constant an extremely positive quality. In open contrast to the dark, then, which acquires, together with its synonyms, a meaning closely linked with death, oblivion, and sin. 

The goal of this exhibition is to reveal the symbologies that light and darkness have come to embody in the different contexts of mankind’s artistic creation.

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

One often hears about the light and dark sides of politics, and yet to render the dichotomy overt is this fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The juxtaposition is intended to educate about the consequences of the two forms of government, tyrannical and comunal. But the tones used in the fresco also speak volumes. The joyful city, sun-kissed and peaceful, sits in open contrast with the murky hues of the terror-stricken city, shadowed by the omen of war and death.

Image courtesy of Fondazione Musei Senesi (Public Domain)

Real lessons in civic education are hosted on the walls of this small room, used for the meetings of the Salon of Nine, Siena’s dominant government from 1287 to 1355. The fresco is didactic, there isn’t a single figure without an explanation of their identity written underneath. Tyranny sits on the throne of the Bad Government, flanked by Greed, Pride, and Vainglory and at their feet lies Justice, tied up and abused. The landscape that surrounds the scene is devastated by violence: the city is crumbling and war rages beyond the walls. The Good Government, on the other hand, seats the Township on its throne, with the cardinals and theological Virtues close by. The effects on the city are those guaranteed by an ideal administration: buildings under construction, a teacher with a class of children, and a carol of women in revelry.

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The Raising of Lazarus

In this piece the viewer is faced quite literally with the theme of the return from the dark towards light and life. Even being heavily damaged, the work by Caravaggio manages to represent the miraculous nature of the Raising of Lazarus. In this catacomb-like setting of funereal darkness, the figures emerge like lightning in flashes of white, through the powerful vibrato of divine illumination that floods the subject, bringing him back to life.

Image Credits: The Raising of Lazarus - Wikimedia Commons

In 1609 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was fleeing from the latest mishap he had gotten into. Passing through Messina, he was commissioned for a canvas by the Lazzari family, and inspired by their last name, Merisi suggested the theme of the Resurrection of Lazarus, an idea which was warmly welcomed. Here the darker tones that would characterize the latter part of his career first make their appearance. The body of Lazarus shows muscles by then gone soft, and he is placed at the center of the scene in a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion; in the Gospels this episode foreshadows the Resurrection of Christ. Differing from other works with the same subject matter, the protagonist of this canvas is not Jesus, but Lazarus himself: not He who works miracles, but he who experiences them. The episode seen from this point of view takes on more intimate, existential tones, and it’s not hard to imagine how Caravaggio identified with that body asking for salvation from death and sin.

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The Chapel of the Sacred Shroud

The passage from dark to light is sometimes closely linked with upward movement, as in the journey designed and realized by Camillo Guarino Guarini inside the Chapel of the Sacred Shroud. The route begins in two dark flights of stairs, made from shiny black marble. The many low steps recall the obstacles and trials of earthly existence. But already towards the end of the stairs one begins to imagine the promise of salvation that waits ahead.  Entering into the chapel one is immersed in gray marble, that through the geometry of the structure drives the eye towards the top, emanating with light thanks to the openings in the chapel and lantern.

Guilhem Vellut - 2019 Flickr Creative Commons

Camillo Guarino Guarini was not the first to work on a project on the chapel ceiling of the Sacra Sindone. Before him, the Savoys had commissioned Carlo and Amedeo Castellamonte and Bernardino Quadri, but finally it was entrusted in full to the architect-priest Guarini, who used it as an outlet for all of his devotion, imagination, ingenuity, and ardent love of architecture. 

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The Triumph of Death

A dark moment in Medieval history was the outbreak of the plague, that beginning in 1347-48 and through to the following decades touched many epicenters across Europe. The Black Plague takes its name from the dark marks (subcutaneous hemorrhages) that covered the bodies of its victims. That black of the infected and of the epidemic also conditions the tonalities of the painting. Art becomes dark and the light of salvation ever rarer. Soon the allegory of the Triumph of Death spreads, and the one conserved in Palazzo Abatellis is a precious example.

Image courtesy of José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro - 2015 Wikimedia Commons

The Triumph of Death was a widespread image starting from the late Middle Ages and has its origins in Franco-Germanic territory. Often connected to the theme of the Last Judgement, it carries a taste for the macabre that will characterize the years to follow, up until the Black Plague of 1348. The Palermitan work belongs to a historical period defined as International Gothic or court style, and it is this same noble court that is represented in the majority of the fresco. Death, embodied by a skeleton, rides astride an emaciated horse that tramples the lifeless bodies beneath it. The scene’s grim protagonist has just released an arrow at a young man (in the bottom right) who, pierced through the neck, falls to his knees. The arrow is particularly symbolic in this context: since the classical age, it has been used to represent the unleashing of a plague on the part of a divinity or divinities. For this reason San Sebastiano, always represented in this iconography, having survived being hit with the executioners’ arrows, became one of the protecting saints against epidemics.

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