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Light, colour and love

Do you remember any of your basic, introductory science lessons at school? For each of the sciences, whether it was biology, chemistry or physics, the most engaging part of lessons by far was when the teacher or lab technician performed some sort of experiment: lumps of sodium fizzing around exothermically on water; magnetic fields revealed through a scattering of iron filings; hair standing on head, hands wrapped round a van der Graaf generator; litmus papers changing colour to show the presence of acid or alkali solutions; the muscles in a frog’s leg twitching with electrical stimulation. I was filled with wonder and can remember feeling – most improperly given that these were science lessons – that this was a sort of universal magic.

One of my favourite experiments – probably because it seemed less messy and felt a lot less dangerous – was the use of prisms to refract and separate white light into the colour spectrum. But even more wonderful was the use of a second prism to reverse or ‘recombine’ the spectrum back into white light: immensely satisfying with or without Newton’s explanatory equation!

* * * * *

I’ve always liked that part of the ‘Nicene’ Creed which expresses the co-eternal nature of God the Father and God the Son by saying, Light from Light (Lumen de Lumine), drawing on the image in the Book of Wisdom [of Solomon] (7:26) from the Old Testament:

She [Wisdom] is a reflection of the eternal light,

untarnished mirror of God’s active power,

image of his goodness.

which is itself echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews (1:3) in the New Testament:

He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature.

The Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Old and New Testaments, uses the unusual word apaugasma - ἀπαὺγασμα (meaning ‘effulgence’, ‘reflected brightness’) in both verses, the only occurrences of this word in the whole of the bible. The word can be employed in the active sense of ‘radiance’, i.e. gives light to, or in the passive sense of ‘reflection’, i.e. receives light from.

The American Standard Version keeps that wonderfully evocative and poetic word, ‘effulgence’, in the translation of Hebrews 1:3, so does the ASV Apocrypha of the Old Testament for Wisdom 7:26. It always puts me in mind of that beautiful, haunting aria ‘The Sun, whose rays are all ablaze’, sung by Yum-Yum in The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan:

‘He don’t exclaim, “I blush for shame,

So kindly be indulgent”;

But fierce, and bold, in fiery gold,

He glories all effulgent.’

* * * * *

We considered various paintings of the Ascension in terms of light and the absence of light. When we think of Pentecost we can do likewise.

In a very non-scientific way, imagine the Incarnation as light breaking into darkness in an earthward movement; then add the prism of the Ascension in a heavenward movement; and what results is the dramatic, full colour spectrum of Pentecost:

‘… unless I go the Advocate will not come to you;

but if I do go, I will send him to you …’ (John 16:7)

On this occasion I want to consider just two artistic examples, one very well-known, the other much less so.

The religious paintings of the Japanese Christian artist Sadao Watanabe (1913–1996) have always been for me a visual experience of what the Church calls the ‘theology of inculturation’: the full and faithful expression of the Gospel both in forms and terms but proper to a specific culture. Through the traditional Japanese use of different papers, inks and paints, depicting stylised Japanese figures, the skill of this Japanese convert to Christianity presents the eternal truths of the Gospel message afresh in vivid and thought provoking ways. The heart of the viewer sings in response to Watanabe’s paintings, and the spirit is lifted in prayerful wonder.

Sadeo Watanabe's painting of Pentecost shows the disciples in prayer as the Holy Spirit descends

This is ‘Pentecost’ (1965), a hand coloured kappazuri (a print made with stencils, traditionally used in dyeing fabrics) on washi (a sturdy, handmade paper, usually from mulberry tree bark). The print is part of the extensive Bowden Collections. The use of coloured ink washes in contrast to the black and white print brings that sense of life, activity, and passion to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The eager, upturned faces, the long-fingered hands apparently open in the orans posture, mouths seemingly open to consume or be consumed by the fire of the Spirit.

Now look at the much more familiar (both in terms of the Western style of art and the fame of the painting) detail from the larger oil painting ‘Pentecost’ (c.1600) by El Greco [Domenikos Theotokopoulos] (1541–1614) which is in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

A detail from El Greco's painting of Pentecost shows Mary and the apostles gazing upwards as tongues of fire descend.

Again, colour, colour, colour; again, hands raised; again, upturned eyes and faces.

In the Church, we tend most often to associate Pentecost with the colour red, perhaps allowing occasional oranges, golds and yellows to appear in floral displays, but we should make use of the whole colour spectrum at Pentecost as we celebrate the diversity of gifts and fruits, and the wonderment of true inspiration. Remember that spectrum originally means ‘image’ or ‘apparition’: in English we talk of a ‘spectre’ and here we are celebrating the Holy Ghost!

El Greco, Watanabe, and many other artists, use the full colour palette to represent Pentecost: the white light of God’s love is revealed in all its innate glory, variety and wonder through the prism of his Risen, Ascended and Glorified Son.

Happy multi-coloured Pentecost!

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