"The Division of the Light from the Darkness," illustration III, in the book Genesis from the Bible (Soho, London: The Nonesuch Press) by Paul Nash

Paul Nash

The Division of the Light from the Darkness, Illustration III, in the book Genesis from the Bible (Soho, London: The Nonesuch Press), 1924, Wood engraving on Zanders hand-made laid paper, Image: 113 x 87 mm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, Gift of John Flather and Jacqueline Roose, 2001.45.1.3, Image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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Light in Chaos

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What might light without a source look like? That scientific impossibility is the subject of this woodcut by Paul Nash.

The print is the third in a series of twelve designs by Nash relating to the Creation narrative in Genesis 1. Each image is accompanied by the text of the relevant verse(s) of Scripture, and has a title based on the subject. The Division of Light from Darkness is accompanied by the three verses that are explored here (1:3–5).

The work depicts multiple shafts of light emerging from the darkness. The division is marked in the delineation between very dark portions of the image to the right and top left, and sections that are dominated by shafts of light to the left and at top centre.

The roughly horizontal beams of light that predominate at the lower left echo the ripples in the waters in the preceding plate, The Face of the Waters (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2001.45.1.2). The suggestion, perhaps, is that these shafts of light are travelling across the surface of the water.

But other rays of light travel upwards, seeming to emerge from the upward-facing surface of the dark, angular form at the upper right of the image. This dark shape also seems to reflect some of the horizontal lines, perhaps suggesting that it is another mass of water.

Throughout the composition, the light beams vary in length, intensity and direction. There is no single point of origin for the rays of light, nor a pattern to how they behave. This chaos reflects the fact that the ‘lights in the firmament’ (KJV)—the sun, moon and stars—are not created until verse 15, so the light seen here is without physical source.

This inaugural moment of Creation manifests God’s unbounded creativity, which is not limited by the world’s laws of causation. The strangeness of the play of light in Nash’s design encourages us to reflect on the Creation account in Genesis 1 as an expression of the seemingly impossible becoming the very foundation of reality.

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