Light is the first thing that God creates in Genesis 1. It exists even before the sun, moon and stars. Light without a source is a challenging concept to grasp, and (even more so) to represent visually.
Paul Nash’s The Division of Light from Darkness tackles this challenge directly by depicting an abstract mass of shafts of light. It is difficult to read the behaviour of the light in Nash’s image—it does not seem to conform to the laws of optics.
John Martin’s The Creation folds the first four days of Creation into a single image, which depicts the creation of light, the sky, land, and sea, and the sun, moon, and stars. Thus, light is cast from the lights of the heavens, but some of the light in the image appears to be without physical source.
John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens’s Baptistery window at Coventry Cathedral is not explicitly a response to the creation of light in Genesis—the blaze of light that it captures and directs into the Cathedral’s interior is intended to represent the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in its context in the Baptistery, surrounding the font that holds the waters of baptism, the window speaks typologically to the first light shining above the waters at the beginning of Creation.
Common to all three works is that light is their medium as well as their subject.
Nash’s woodcut carved light from the darkness of a woodblock. The technique involves carving lines into a block of wood to create an image to be printed. These lines become the white areas of the image when the block is printed. The first design in Nash’s series is a completely black print (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2001.45.1.1) representing the earth ‘without form and void’ (Genesis 1:2 KJV). By beginning the series in this way, Nash emphasizes that in the following eleven plates, he has carved light from darkness. In The Division of Light from Darkness, Nash’s technique and subject matter align with each other.
Martin’s work is a mezzotint. The technique involves roughening the entire surface of the printing plate so that it retains ink. If the plate were printed after this first step, it would produce a black rectangle. The image is created by smoothing parts of the plate so that these areas catch less or no ink, and therefore appear as lighter and white parts of the image. Like a woodcut, a mezzotint creates light from darkness.
While the techniques and effects are different, both Martin and Nash were dividing light from darkness in creating their prints and therefore echo God’s first act of Creation.
Piper and Reyntiens created a window in which the central subject of a blaze of light is fully realized by natural light shining through it. The light of creation illuminates this image of itself.
The window’s ‘image’ of light, harnessing actual filtered light, can also be seen in the context of how the design of the new Coventry Cathedral was conceived after the destruction of the old church in the Second World War. Piper had been an official war artist and had sketched the ruin of the old building the day after its destruction. As David Fraser Jenkins notes, in Piper’s painting of the ruined Cathedral, ‘the tracery is outlined sharply against white’, and therefore in making a bright light the focus of his window design, Piper created ‘an extraordinary echo from one of the lowest points of the war’ (2000: 33).
The fact that light is the first act of Creation is what initiates the cycle of day and night that structures the pattern of Creation in six days. But its priority in the sequence of Creation also represents light dawning from darkness as a moment of beginning. Light followed darkness after the war. Piper and Reyntiens made an image of light for a site that had suffered darkness.
Creation begins with a void in darkness (v.2). Light is the first entity to appear, and the first thing that God calls good (v.4). The Creation account in Genesis 1 is not science. Light cannot appear without a source. That it does so here represents God’s supreme creativity in a way that surpasses all laws of immanent causality.
An artist may identify his or her own process as participating in divine creativity. In representing Creation itself, that resonance is particularly profound, because the subject can suggest analogies with the artist’s act of creation. In the three images of light seen here, the correspondence extends to the mediums of the artworks in the ways that they align with their subject. Martin, Nash, and Piper and Reyntiens do not only depict light; they all in different ways create with light, by channelling the rays of sun, or pushing back the darkness of ink. Their images of light mirror the way that light sprang into existence at the dawn of Creation. These artworks do not merely represent but also embody these verses of Scripture.
Jenkins, David Fraser. 2000. John Piper: The Forties (London: Philip Wilson)
3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.