Festivals of Light - Christianity
Pre-Christian symbols of light
In the past the seasons and weather played a very important part in daily life, and people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped, the sun.
The Norsemen of northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. At midwinter they lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter. During this time they lit a log to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
The ancient Romans had a festival called Saturnalia that celebrated the re-birth of the year. It ran for seven days from 17 December. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas. In Britain the winter solstice, falling on 21 December, the shortest day of the year, was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity.
Light in Christian worship
The Gloucester Candlestick, one of the finest examples of medieval Christian art in the Museum, demonstrates the importance of light in Christian worship. Candles were an important part of medieval Christian ceremony. Cathedral Vespers, which took place in the evening, included a lamp-lighting ceremony and a hymn of light. The size of this candlestick suggests that it was used on the altar.
This elaborate metal candlestick reflects the extremely high level of skill of the maker, probably a goldsmith. The dense decoration is formed of wonderful figures and apes interspersed between thick intertwined shoots of foliage. Three long-eared dragons with outspread wings form the supporting feet. The central knop depicts the four symbols of the Evangelists: the angel of St Matthew, the lion of St Mark, the ox of St Luke and the eagle of St John.
There are three inscriptions in Latin. One on the stem, above and below the central knop (or knob) refers to the donation of the candlestick and reads:
'The devotion of abbot Peter and his gentle flock gave me to the church of St Peter at Gloucester'.This must refer to what is now Gloucester Cathedral, but which was then a Benedictine monastery where there was an abbot named Peter between 1104-1113.
Another inscription on the outside of the bowl reads,
'This burden of light is the work of virtue. Shining doctrine teaches that man be not shadowed by vice.'
This relates to the light of Christian goodness and the darkness of sin. The decoration of animals and figures, who struggle to be free from the foliage and darkness of the forest, appears to reflect this sentiment. As St John recounts in the New Testament, Christ said,
'I am come a light into the world that whosoever believeth in me may not remain in darkness.'
(John 12:46, Douay-Rheims Bible).
A further inscription around the inside of the grease pan rim indicates that it was given to the cathedral of Le Mans in France, where it remained until the French Revolution.
Coloured and stained glass
Perhaps one of the most prominent symbols of light in Christianity, Judaism and Islam in modern times is the use of coloured and stained glass within religious buildings. It was particularly important in the medieval Christian tradition, when imagery on the glass was used to enrich and enhance people's faith - it was seen as if the light of heaven was bathing the interior of the church with colour. The rays of sun would illuminate the Gospel stories depicted on the stained glass windows for the benefit of the congregations.
The visual arts played a more important teaching role than they do today. The glass had a didactic function, to explain the Bible stories to those who were unable to read. The V&A has some magnificent examples, including an early panel from France ('Temptation in the Wilderness - The First Temptation of Christ', right) shows Christ in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil, who holds a pile of stones in his left hand, saying 'If thou be the Son of God command that these stones be made bread' (Matthew 4: 3).
Like much other medieval stained glass, this particular window has been displayed in a number of locations during its history. It may have originally been produced for the Romanesque Cathedral of Troyes, which was destroyed by fire in 1188, but it is also possible that it could have been from another building nearby - the collegiate church of Saint-Etienne. By the 19th century the window had been installed in the Lady Chapel of Troyes Cathedral, which had only been built in the 13th century. The window is likely to have been removed from the Cathedral during renovations (1849-66) when much of the glass was dispersed.
'I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life'
(John 8:12, King James' Bible).
Other than Christ himself, the Nativity has various associations with light. The Three Kings, or Magi, who followed a star to reach the infant Christ were possibly Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism, a faith originating in Iran 3500 years ago, views fire as the supreme symbol of purity. Sacred fires representing the light of God, Ahura Mazda, as well as the illuminated mind, are maintained in Fire Temples and never extinguished. No Zoroastrian ritual or ceremony is performed without the presence of a sacred fire.
The last book of the New Testament is known as either 'Apocalypse' or 'The Book of Revelation'. Throughout the Middle Ages it was believed that the Apocalypse sets out Saint John the Evangelist's vision of the end of the world and the establishment of Christ's kingdom on earth.
St John was considered to have written this book when he was in exile on the island of Patmos. He describes Christ as the 'bright and morning star' (Revelations 22:16) and in chapter 21 he visualises heaven as a place of light and colour and lined with jewels.
In book 12 St John wrote that he saw 'a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown with twelve stars' (Revelations 12:16). Later verses mention that she was with a child who was to rule all nations.
Since the 13th century theologians have interpreted this as the Virgin Mary and the second coming of Christ - this imagery was very prevalent in the late Middle Ages. Four-lobed panels, or quatrefoils, such as this one (right) were a decorative alternative to roundels or square panels. They were quite popular in Nuremberg at the time this panel was made. It depicts the Virgin Mary as the woman of light as described in the New Testament (Revelations 12:16, King James' Bible).
Probably one of the most interesting examples of an object used as a symbol of Christ's regeneration and radiance is the monstrance. A monstrance originally contained a relic exposed to public view. Later it developed into a standing vessel with transparent centrepiece, in which the consecrated host - the bread which, when consecrated by a Catholic priest during the service of Mass, miraculously transforms into the body of Christ - is displayed.
The Host is placed inside the window in the crescent-shaped holder called a 'lunula'. Monstrances are used especially during the annual feast of Corpus Christi (meaning 'body of Christ').
The sun monstrance with a radiating sunburst surrounding the host was introduced during the Counter Reformation when much Catholic church silver, particularly in southern Europe, was designed to create powerful visual effects. The arms on the foot are those of the Discalced Carmelites. The design recalls a passage in the Old Testament which some people interpret as predicting Christ's role in the New Testament,
'But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings'
(Malachai 4:2, King James' Bible)