Museum Home Past Exhibitions Radiant Darkness: The Art of Nocturnal Light

April 24–July 22, 2007 at the Getty Center

Astronomer by Candlelight / Dou
Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou, late 1650s

For centuries artists have displayed their technical virtuosity by composing scenes in which light penetrates darkness. Nocturnal light—whether its source is divine, artificial, or natural—has held many symbolic associations beyond its functional role.

This exhibition demonstrates how artists from the 1400s to the 1600s represented light to convey a range of moods, from the poetic to the foreboding. Artists have invoked divine light to heighten the drama of religious scenes, depicted candlelight to render naturalistic details on an intimate scale, represented fire to symbolize religious punishment or political power, and used moonlight to imbue landscape scenes with lyrical intensity.

Adoration / Baciccio
Adoration of the Shepherds, Baciccio, about 1672
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Divine Light

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, light is a visible sign of the divine. The Gospels refer to God as "the Light of Men," and Christ refers to himself as "the Light of the World." When artists depicted the presence of God, they often relied on the contrast between darkness and divine light to heighten drama, elicit strong emotional responses from the viewer, and to symbolize the power of faith.

To create expressive contrasts of light and shadow, Baciccio depicted the Christ child as the only source of illumination in this drawing, and applied broad areas of brown wash to the figures of the shepherds at right. He used a dynamic, quivering line, to convey a sense of religious exaltation, inviting the viewer to witness the miracle of Christ's birth.

Moralizing Scene / van de Venne
Moralizing Scene with an Old Woman and a Man, Adriaen van de Venne, 1631
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In the 1600s candlelit night scenes became popular. Artists used candlelight to create the illusion of spatial recession through contrasts of light and dark. They also experimented with techniques to suggest the flickering of flame and depict textures in naturalistic detail. Candles also held symbolic meaning as emblems of vanity and faith.

In this scene lit by a faint glimmer of moonlight and an oil lamp, van de Venne depicted an old woman smoking a pipe offered to her by a bearded man. Although the subject remains unclear, the artist suggests that the couple's behavior is of a licentious nature, as depictions of pipes and bagpipes often connoted sexual organs. The oil lamp casts a sinister glow on the faces of the couple. Here the nocturnal light makes the encounter all the more intriguing.

Fireworks in Nuremburg / Troschel
Fireworks Held on the Schiessplatz of Saint Johannes in Nuremberg in 1650, Peter Troschel (after Michael Herr), about 1650
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Fire, traditionally associated with divine punishment and wrath, often appears in images of hell and the damned. Depictions of burning cities became popular in the 1500s, likely as visual commentaries on contemporary political, religious, and social conflicts. Displays of fireworks, on the other hand, often celebrated major political events. Thus, engravings depicting fireworks not only commemorated historical events, but also perpetuated the memory of ephemeral spectacles.

This engraving portrays fireworks held in the German city of Nuremberg to celebrate the restoration of peace within the Holy Roman Empire. The ornamental splendor of the fireworks and careful arrangement of mechanical devices, which the artist depicted in detail, are impressive demonstrations of power. Zoom in on the print to see letters with corresponding captions at the bottom of the page, which identify the main elements of the fireworks display, emphasizing the symbolic triumph of peace (D) over discord (E).

Moonlit Landscape / van der Neer
Moonlit Landscape with a View of the New Amstel River and Castle Kostverloren, Aert van der Neer, 1647


While 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters excelled at representing sunlit landscapes, they also developed the nocturnal landscape in which beams of silvery moonlight shimmer across clouds, rivers, and trees. In depicting moonlit scenes, artists explored the landscape's potential for drama and mystery through vivid contrasts of light and dark.

Van der Neer was known for his idealized, moonlit landscapes. In this image of Castle Kostverloren the rising moon, intensified by coloristic reflections in the water and clouds, commands the viewer's attention. A slightly thicker layer of paint on the moon and lining of the clouds highlights their radiance against the muted browns of the landscape. The silvery-orange moonlight, reflected in the clouds, eclipses the stars and imbues the landscape with poetic intensity.