The evocative image of a flickering candle, celebrated by Joseph Wright and El Greco, is charged with spiritual power – we need it now more than ever
Why is candlelight so beautiful? At this time of the year candles burn brightly to celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, casting a subtle, ever changing light into the long, dark midwinter nights. We love this magic and ancient form of light – but why?
Art can illuminate that – take the French 17th-century painter Georges de La Tour, entranced by the complex poetry of candlelight. In his paintings people hold, gaze at or are revealed by pale white candles and burning lamps. The ethereal brightness of the candlelight painted by De La Tour suggests both time passing – as the flame gutters – and the light of holy truth. In his painting The Education of the Virgin (1640) a book is illuminated by a single candle flame. The Virgin Mary's reading is spiritual, as pure and luminous as that candle. In another painting by him, Job Mocked by His Wife, the candle reveals the timeworn body of an old man, and in another, a repentant Mary Magdalene sits contemplating a skull by the flickering light of a candle.