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Chiaroscuro

by Tim O'Hearn

What do Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Vermeer have in common? These are three painters with very different styles. Two are from the Low Countries, but one is Italian. Nevertheless, they have in common that they are acknowledged masters of chiaroscuro. This is an Italian word (pronounced kyar-o-scu-ro) that means light-dark. Pre-renaissance paintings and drawings tended to be rather flat. Ancient Egyptian painting, for instance, tended to have no shadows and be drawn from two points of view (the body viewed from the front, but the head in profile) that gave rise to the phrase “walk like an Egyptian.” Chiaroscuro, on the other hand, may have a very dark background and the subject in brightness, as in Vermeer’s paintings. Or it may bring out the shadings within the subject of the painting, as in Rembrandt, who had a firm understanding of how shadows gave depth to his subjects. Chiaroscuro is, in fact, what makes paintings appear three-dimensional.

From the beginning of the Bible we get a view of God’s creation in chiaroscuro. Hardly does Genesis begin, but we get a passage that says, “And God divided the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:4) That he saw that the light was good also begins the good/bad, light/dark contrast that is so familiar. Toward the end of the writing of scripture we continue to see this contrast. “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.” (1 Jn 2:9) In between these passages we get a steady, chiaroscuro view of humanity.

The book of Job, which some scholars believe to be the oldest part of the Bible, is replete with contrasts between light and darkness, often signifying good versus evil. “When I looked for good then evil came; and when I waited for light, there came darkness.” (Job 30:26) This is only one of a dozen verses where the light-darkness combination appears in the same verse. It is found in Isaiah only three fewer times.

Amos puts a slightly different perspective on the combination. Where Isaiah predicted the Messiah by saying darkness will be turned into light, Amos takes a position that what some think should be a day of light will be darkness instead.

Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! To what end is it for you? The day of the Lord, is darkness, and not light.

The day of the Lord, in scripture, is any day of God’s judgement. Some people want God to come and bring judgement on their enemies. Amos says to be careful what you wish for; God’s day of judgement may turn out to be darkness for the one praying for it.

In Luke 11, Jesus continues the contrast. Speaking metaphorically of the eye, he says, “when thy eye is single, thy whole body is full of light; but when evil, thy body is full of darkness.” (Lk 11:34-36) We should view things that are in the light, not the darkness. One of the things that makes Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring so striking is that we are drawn to the girl rather than the totally dark background.

John frequently points out that Jesus was, and claimed to be, the light. Compare, for instance one verse about Jesus and one about God, implying that Jesus was in nature God. “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” (Jn 12:46) “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 Jn 1:5)

The world may be seen in chiaroscuro, but not Jesus and God. We tend to see things as black and white, or in shades of grey. If we are in Christ, the darkness is covered by light. Without chiaroscuro modeling, we appear before God missing a dimension. That dimension that shades our interactions here is wickedness. In God we are all chiaro, and no scuro.