Art for a Time of Light & Darkness

A New Day

Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647, oil on wood panel, 34 x 48cm, © National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Used with permission.

Each day this week St Paul’s Cathedral will explore a work of art.  “Along the way, we might recognize something of our own experience in this time of uncertainty and of fragile hope. Artists know the eloquence of contrasts, how the play of light and shade can make for great beauty, or for expression beyond words. Attending to them seems appropriate for our time of many stark contrasts – between safety and imperilment, enclosure and exposure, intimacy and loneliness, hope and fear.

“This small painting by Rembrandt is the only nocturnal landscape painted by the great artist of light, shade and of real life. Within it, there is a young family fleeing danger, seeking refuge. The darkness of this night is the setting for an imagined moment – known as ‘the rest on the flight into Egypt’ – that is only indirectly implied in the gospel narratives (Matthew 2:14), but which inspired a rich tradition in medieval devotional literature and in centuries of art.

“We step into the darkness with this little family. They are vulnerable, facing an unsure future as they gather together around the glow of the fire, with the tiny baby for whose sake all this is. It’s not the familiar hearth of home, but for now, it offers rest, warmth, light and protection. Fellow travellers are helping out, fetching, carrying, doing what they need to do to get through this night. The intimate little encampment contrasts with the looming shape of a high castle on the horizon with its candlelight in the windows – Herod’s palace, perhaps, seat of the power that cannot bear what this child might be.

Rembrandt’s painting is not just about the story. It’s also a study in landscape, and in different kinds of light: the cool, silvery moonlight filtering through the night clouds, and the warm flickering of fire, doubled in the water’s reflection. This darkness of nature and of their story will pass. A new light will dawn. The journey into Egypt will continue. The danger will persist, but it will be a new day and they will travel together, for the sake of what matters, taking it one day at a time.”

Dr. Deborah Lewer is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow and a regular speaker, consultant, author and retreat leader in many church contexts, including at her home cathedral of St Mary’s in Glasgow.

To see this work or find out more online, go to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

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