Chiaroscuro: The Art of Finding Harmony between the Darkness and the Light
We are living in dark times, seasonally, although recent events may make that darkness seem deeper and more all encompassing. Multiple incidents of horrific violence may produce an inclination to see only gloom in the longer nights and shorter days that surround us. The shadows are certainly longer of late. Yet the stories and festivals of this season, and the traditions of our creative arts, remind us that seeking, finding, and sharing light in the darkness is the older and grander story that runs through late fall and Winter all around our world.
Chiaroscuro describes the contrasting interplay of light and shadow, brighter and darker tones, used to create beauty in visual art, music, dance, and theatre and film. In art this interplay produces greater solidity and dimensionality.
Tears of St. Peter, Girl with a Brazier, Young Singer by Georges de La Tour
In music, chiaroscuro is the balance of open brilliant sounds (squillo) with a use of breath to provide a deeper timbre (scuro) as part of the Italian bel canto (beautiful singing) style. The beauty is in the balance of lighter and darker tones.
There seems to be no balanced chiaroscuro in the stark contrast of bright and dark human behavior. Violent tragedy rarely creates anything we would readily describe as beautiful, and yet there in each tragedy noble, humane acts of first responders, survivors, family, and community members stand out strongly against a backdrop of brutality. For a time all balance is lost as we seek more illumination. We want to understand how and why such things could exist that defy all compassion and reason. So candlelight vigils are held to remind us the of light and warmth each one of us can add, and find in each other, when the cold hands of night seem intent on choking away life and hope.
For thousands of years we have held celebrations and festivals of light throughout this time to remind us that the cold and the dark of both the season and the savage side of human nature do not have dominion over the world. We maintain the balance. The overwhelming blaze of candlelight, firelight, lamplight, and a dazzling array of electric decorations loosens the grip of darkness and makes it dance.
And what of the human lights of the season? We strive to continue to make active choices, and not allow bad news, events, or the weather to drive us into passivity and isolation. So we may join protests or vigils, or listen openly to those who are hurt and angry. We also go out simply to meet with friends or family, or go window shop, or skate (or watch others skate), or watch a live performance, or visit events such as the Christkindlemarket here in Chicago, or simply go out to watch the lights twinkle against the night sky. We make contributions of money, canned goods, toys, clothes and time to causes and organizations. We give complements and thanks to the people who have filled our lives throughout the year. We play party games; tell stories, share food, laugh, dance, sing, and shout. We knit, receive, or wear a colorful scarf or sweater. We get creative with cards and gift wrapping, and buying, finding, recycling, or making gifts to exchange. We pull up a bit more, or shovel a little extra, to leave a parking space for someone else behind us. By performing each of these acts, large and small, we add another blinking light to a growing string of color and brilliance, shining in the darkness, wrapping around our communities and stretching across our nation and our world, one light at a time. Neither light nor darkness completely holding sway, but swaying together, as the dance of chiaroscuro continues.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1965.
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
- Anton Wildgans, Helldunkle Stunde (Bright Dark Hour), 1916.
Keith Whipple is privileged to work with people who seek their own light to define themselves as more than the label of a disability or the scars of trauma and live in a better world. He is also proud to have written the above article without a single reference to Star Wars. May the force be with you.
Traditions of Light
St Martin’s Day (Sint Maarten)/ Holland: Saint Martin’s Day, when children walk the streets with lanterns and are given treats, was held November 11.
Diwali/ India: This important Hindu observance of Rama returning from exile, and light triumphing over darkness is honored by people of many faiths. It was celebrated over five days starting November 11 with thousands of lamps and fireworks.
Loi Krathong/ Thailand: Loi Krathong, when small lotus shaped floats of banana leaves lit by candles are taken to the nearest lake and launched to carry away bad luck and forward prayers, was celebrated November 24 – 26.
St. Lucia’s Day/ Sweden: On December 13th the Christian martyr St. Lucia is honored by feasting and processions of singers and girls dressed as St. Lucia wearing her candle-lit wreath crown
Hanukkah: This eight-day Jewish festival marks a historic victory when Jews drove off invaders, reclaimed their temple, and a one-day supply of oil miraculously kept the holy menorah lights burning for eight days. This time of lights, celebration, food, and gifts is held Dec. 6th to Dec. 14th.
Advent to Christmas to Epiphany: Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ through the lighting of Advent Candles, one each Sunday leading to Christmas when the Christ candle is lit. Lights adorn homes, trees, wreaths, and a real or recorded yule log may be seen afire to celebrate. Observed Nov. 29th to Dec. 25th to Jan. 3rd. Orthodox Christians celebrate around the Christmas date of Jan. 7th.
Kwanzaa/ USA: Began in 1966, this festival honors the harvest foods and traditions of Africa with family gathering, gifts and lighting of candles from December 26th to January 1st.
The Venice Carnival/ Italy. Lights, masks, masquerades and so much more, as gondolas and other colorful boats process in the canals of Venice and parties and entertainments are held Jan 23 to Feb 9.
Pingxi Lantern Festival/ Taiwan: Between February 4th and March 1st lanterns carrying messages of good health, good will, and good wishes will float upwards and light up the sky, carrying forward an ancient tradition that originally signaled everyone was safe from harm.