The art of darkness

    Nativities were always a nightmare to do — after all, how do you paint in the dark? But some artists have made it work.

    Christmas means different things to different observers. For most of us, it is a time of joy and plenty. But not for painters. Not, at least, for the good ones, the ones who really care. For these unfortunates, Christmas is the season of head-scratching — a time to worry and ponder and fret and glower. Why? Because, as the young Van Morrison complained early in his singing career, when he was still the front man of Them: “Well, here it comes. Here comes the night.” Van wasn’t actively thinking of Christmas, per se. But his psyche must have intuited its annual presence. And responded accordingly.

    Morrison is a singer, not an artist. Had he been an artist, he might have felt compelled to particularise his great lyrical lament on the arrival of the night by adding the lines: “Well, here it comes. That bitch to paint. That big, messy, complicated, man-testing, woman-testing dragon of a technical conundrum. Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Which the night certainly is. Most of us have never had to face up to it. We happily stick our starry Nativity scenes in their Christmas envelopes and send them fluttering off into the ether, without ever properly considering what the poor painter responsible for our Christmas picturings needed first to solve and conquer. Before electricity was invented. When painting a Nativity was a huge test of artistic resourcefulness.

    The first problem is the shortage of facts. Among the gospel writers, Matthew leaves no description of Christ’s birth. Neither does Mark. John ignores the event entirely. Only Luke briefly records that Jesus was born in a manger, because there was no place in the inn, although he does not state at what time of day the birth occurred. Four gospels, one tiny mention.

    Yet out of this profound lack of information, artists through the ages have excelled themselves in imagining, from scratch, the first Christmas, then painting it. Usually at night, the most difficult stretch of the day to paint. The whole silent night, holy night thing is, I suppose, the result of a confusion between the story of Jesus and that of the shepherds and the three kings.

    The kings, after all, were supposed to have followed a star in the east until it stopped over Bethlehem, where they found the baby Jesus in his stable. To follow a star, they must have travelled at night. Luke also describes how some nearby shepherds were woken from their slumbers by an angel of the Lord bringing them the glad tidings that Jesus had been born. Thus, the birth of Jesus has ended up being sucked into a big night of arrival and announcement, with all the technical problems this involves.

    Trying to paint the dark when you can’t actually see what you’re doing is certainly a challenge. A flick through the earliest painted Christmases confirms that the first Nativitists were visibly desperate to avoid it. The earliest nativities, dating from late in the 4th century, already half a millennium after the event, depict a peculiar cave scene with no Joseph in it, with Mary thrust to one side, and lead roles taken by the ox and the donkey. The manger has become an altar. No hint of the night, silent or holy.

    It actually took me an hour to find the earliest Christmas night scene at the National Gallery. Round and round the opening rooms I clumped, before finally reading enough of the small print on the labels to identify Jacopo di Cione’s Annunciation to the Shepherds, from 1370, as a night scene. Di Cione, who was from Florence, tries actively to disguise the night’s presence by filling most of his background with gleaming gold. You have to look very carefully at his pointy gothic altarpiece to spot the shepherds dozing on the hillside or discern a darker tone than usual to the underlying landscape.

    This is a night that tries hard not to appear nocturnal. Why? Because it isn’t only the physical difficulty of painting the night that persuaded a millennium and a half’s worth of artistic talent to avoid it. The second great obstacle to night-painting is the unfortunate complication that the night has, well, something of the night about it: symbolically, this is Satan’s territory, not God’s. That is a complication the entire Renaissance could not easily cope with. Having sided unequivocally with the spirit of enlightenment, it found itself in the tricky predicament of having to describe, in its most popular religious imagery, a condition that was antithetical to everything it stood for. Asking Piero della Francesca to paint the night is like asking Prince Charles to move into Canary Wharf.

    To locate the Nativity in the dead of night, two things needed first to happen. The religious world needed to cure itself of its satanic dread of the dark. And a revolutionary had to come along who was so enamoured of the night that he sought energetically to operate in it. Enter Caravaggio: the first nighthawk.

    I am of the firm view that Caravaggio’s love of the night was based on a recognition of its visual potency, its ability to bring intensity and drama to a scene, rather than the innate preferences of his tortured psyche. Indeed, all this racy Caravaggio-the-knife-loving-gay-murderer stuff that is so popular among our racier art writers today strikes me as a desperate case of backward projection. Whatever it actually was that attracted Caravaggio to blackness, however, there is no doubt that it led him to great things.

    To get round the problematics of painting in the dark, Caravaggio pioneered a new use of the studio. By using manikins as models, and by arranging them in his studio in lifelike tableaux, Caravaggio was able to light his scenes exactly how he wanted them lit. His studio became a kind of baroque Donmar Warehouse, in which the action takes place against a black background dramatically spotlit with torches and candles. A nocturnal Nativity, like the particularly fine one the mafia stole from Palermo in 1969, didn’t just fall within his artistic compass. It was right up his street.

    Once Caravaggio had revealed the dramatic potential of the night to the artistic world, the entire baroque age charged into the dark after him. Most of Velazquez’s art is set in the dark.

    So is most of Rembrandt’s, though not, interestingly, his famous Night Watch, which turned out, after cleaning, to be a day scene. Setting the Nativity in the dark allowed painters to exploit some excellent confusions between real and spiritual light by treating the glowing baby Jesus as a handy light source. Pulsing atmospherically at the centre of the picture, Jesus in his manger illuminates the saintly faces leaning over him like a chestnut seller’s brazier.

    Subsequent painters were able to borrow the language of the nativity and employ it elsewhere for dramatic effect. Thus, Rembrandt’s grisly Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is essentially a Nativity scene set in a mortuary, in which the place of the shining Jesus has been taken by a central corpse. Wright of Derby’s famous Experiment with an Airpump, meanwhile, replaces Jesus with a phosphorescent cluster of scientific gubbins.

    The overwhelmingly positive influence of the Christmas dark on the story of art did not actually make painting at night any easier, however. If you can’t see, you can’t work. The dark also does powerfully distortive things to colour. When you drive along a motorway with your headlights on, the motorways signs appear blue, right? Turn your lights away and they look black, right?

    It was the impressionists, deep into the 19th century, who finally taught themselves enough about the science of colour to begin painting confidently in the dark. Whistler would prepare for one of his lovely Nocturnes by staring at the Thames at night for half an hour or so, then turning his back on it to check his memory with a watching accomplice. It he got any colour values wrong, he would turn back round and stare again. Only when the scene was fully memorised in detail would he go back to his studio and paint it.

    The supreme painter of the pre-electric dark, however, was Van Gogh. Vincent was obsessed with the night and experimented with various methods of painting it. For his nocturnal street scenes, he would sit under the awning of a cafe, where the newfangled gas lamps threw throbbing light onto his canvas. His first Starry Night, the one painted in Arles before he went mad, was done with the help of a row of candles stuck to the brim of his straw hat. “I feel a tremendous need for, shall I say the word — religion,” he wrote, “so I go outside and paint the stars.” So, next Christmas, why not send Vincent’s Starry Night as your card, instead of a Nativity? It is, after all, the same thing.