the dark ages: christian imagery, atheist interpretation

The Dark Ages: Christian Imagery, Atheist Interpretation

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In addition to Veronica, patron saint of photographers (and, apparently, laundry workers), photography and Christianity share two important concepts, that of light and darkness.

In Christian symbolism, darkness reliably conveys the notion of evil, death and the unknown. In contrast, light conveys only positive aspects such as life, goodness and hope. For example, Genesis tells us that God not only created light, he also saw that it was good. The New Testament describes Jesus as the light of the world and the visionary revelations of John depict Heaven in terms of light. The medieval use of coloured and stained glass within European churches is probably the best physical example of Christianity symbolising the goodness of light; as if the colourful light of the heavens floods the interior of the otherwise dark church with goodness.

Although it appears as if Christian symbolism deals with light and darkness in rigid ways this is not always so. Some sects of Christianity view evil and good, not as polar opposites, but in relative terms, evil being the relative absence of good. This is not unlike how photographers see things. A dark scene can be illuminated but an illuminated scene is not made darker by adding darkness, only by reducing the amount of light. An underexposed scene can often be post-processed to reveal physical features but a grossly overexposed, blown-out scene has lost all such features to the light. Thus to the photographer, darkness is not a thing in itself, either physically or symbolically, but a relative, and eminently measurable, degree of light, or absence of light. And, of course, photography cannot exist without some light, for without at least some photons hitting film or sensor, no image is captured.

Photographers are able to manipulate the light and darkness in a scene in two ways. First, symbolically, they might purposely include a large amount of darkness within the frame (labelled, fittingly, as negative space) to convey the notions of evil, trepidation, unknown, horror etc. Second, they might also include negative space or relative darkness simply as a means of diverting attention to the subject of their image, such as via vignetting or lens fall-off.

As an atheist, I view Christian imagery and iconography wholly as depictions of mythology and consider them to convey stories and ideas and perhaps some abstract or metaphorical truths, but not necessary literal truths. This gives me much to play with in terms of interpreting the imagery as photography because I feel no onus to deal with the symbolism according to tradition, or to present Christian imagery in the ‘right light’. Consequently, although I freely use Christian imagery concerning itself with death, I do not always equate the symbolic use of darkness with evil. Rather, I also sense solitude and calmness, ignorance, or simply the unknown, all of which are able to be dispelled by the light.

Moody depiction of robed hand holding a large crucifix, reaching out and upward from a pulpit
A cracked stone depiction of Virgin Mary affixed to a weathered stone wall with a bare thorny shrub going upward
Artistic rendition of a cross with crown of thorns balanced on top leaning against the bare wall of an old church
Stone statue covered in lichen of the profile of robed figure on their knees praying
Silhouette of a ancient church belfry with hanging bell with a menacing sky in the background
Stained glass window with Christ on a cross lit from outside light and surrounded by blackness with the silhouette of a cross in front
A statue of Virgin Mary looking upward at the feet of Jesus on the cross
A statue of a monk holding a large crucifix, surrounded by blackness
Cross and open Bible dimly lit by available light in an ancient church
Tin roofed church in Taree, South Australia with three doves arranged in a straight line facing away from a cross
Dark interior of an ancient church with blurred light streaks entering through the windows
Semi-lit statuette of a kneeling angel in the wall alcove of an ancient church
Dark moody image of an old, unkempt graveyard with three lopsided crosses
Stone statue covered in lichen of a woman hugging a cross with a dark moody background
The shadow of a cross on the bare wall of an ancient church gives the illusion of being on fire
A stone graveyard cross photographed from below with bare trees and a menacing sky in the background
A statue of a preacher holds a cross in one hand and a Bible in the other with a shadow on the wall behind
A beam of light shines down upon a framed image of Virgin Mary
Silhouettes of church spires against a moody sky

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