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Metaphysics of Light

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

For the first time, this term was used by the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in his book “The Great Art of Light and Shadow”, written in 1646, as one of the chapters of his book was called.

The term “metaphysics” ( literally means "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural", and examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality.

This term is important because it is a starting point followed by questions that concern us all. Trying to get answers to those, we are getting closer to understanding what is the true benefit for us and thus we can improve

our life.


So, what is lite? Don't we know?

Physical science defines light as electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by the human eye. Within a broad spectrum, the wavelengths visible to humans occupy a very narrow band, from about 700 nanometers (nm; billionths of a meter) for red light down to about 400 nm for violet light.

Something is confusing about this definition... Here, light and color are considered only as an imposition on human abilities. But what if there are no humans there? Does it meat the light disappears as well?

Here an analogy arises with one of the philosophical questions related to the existence of the meaning of reality: if creatures capable of perceiving the meaning of reality disappear, does this mean that the meaning itself will disappear as well?

This is where we got closer to the questions that we would like to receive answers to:

Why are there so many metaphors of light and why they are so important in theology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Why light and color are the main means of expression in a significant part of art?

I. Theological, philosophical, and mystical

understanding of light.

Theological: Light as a symbol of divine presence. God, Himself is light.

Let's start with the very beginning:

“And God said: Let there be light. And there was light."

(Dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux)

(Genesis 1, 3).

What does it mean? Many commentators interpret this differently. What did God create?

The very first meaning is theological.

One of the medieval authors, an English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian, scientist, and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste ( c.1168 - 1253) asserts that initially, God created a certain point of light, where the primary form of all world content - primordial matter - is still united into some kind of inseparable primordial union. This point of light subsequently explodes and expands to generate all the diversity of the world. We can say that this first point of light contained all the information about the world, or all the meaning that we are talking about. This can be compared by analogy with light and colors (this is old teaching, which can be found even in the Pythagoreans and Aristotle): light makes colors apparent and is their source, refracting and showing them to our eyes. Likewise, the primal meaning (facta est Lux) as a point of light that generates a variety of colors in the world. If colors are understood as a variety of meanings, then light can be understood as the primary meaning.

Philosophical: Light as a fundamental property of true existence and cognition.

Plato understands true existence - the world of ideas - by analogy with flashes of light: "Edei (eidos) are light-like". And our spirit, containing this spark, can attune itself to this light reality (true existence). An analogy for Plato is the sun in the visible world and the good in the world of ideas. For Plato, light is a metaphor for true existence and cognition. It is very important that light acts as a metaphor for both true being and cognition. Because of light, we can distinguish things as well as meanings.


(428/427 – 348/347 BC) an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonic school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of high education in the Western world.

Later, the Platonic interpretation of light reaches Plotinus, Proclus, St. Augustine, Dionysius, Kant, and further up to the 20th century.

For Immanuel Kant ( ), everything we are getting to know is the light, appearance ("Schein" - German) - the same metaphor of light.

According Rene Descartes ( ), we must speak clearly and distinctly ("clairement et distinctement" - French).

Light as an ontological condition for human transformation.

(Theological, philosophical, and mystical studies)

The mystical ascent to the depth of one's spirit is described as maximum enlightenment and becoming something absolutely simple and unified.

Plotinus (VI, 15). "Whoever wants to have an approximate idea of the MIND (meaning world consciousness in its relation to a multitude of ideas), let's imagine a living transparent sphere playing with multi-colored rays, or a mass of living, transparent all kinds of faces connected into one whole. Or, it is a pyramid, the top of which is occupied by the mind and illuminates from here the entire space of this noumenal world".

Plotinus (V, 8, 9). “Imagine that in this visible world, each creature, while maintaining the peculiarity of its individual essence, merges with all others to such an extent that nothing separately in itself attracts your gaze, but everything is seen as a merged single; Imagine that it will then be like a transparent ball standing in front of our gaze, in which you can immediately see everything that is contained in it - like the sun, stars, earth, seas, all living beings, we will thus mentally imagine a glass ball ”.

Ideas are presented here as faces or beautiful divine statues - meanings that are absolutely permeable to Mind because Mind is interpreted as light.

Dante uses the same metaphor in the Divine Comedy, describing his transition from one sphere to another with Beatrice. God will be understood as an absolutely bright point of light. Creating and illuminating the world, He will penetrate through every single part of the spherical body of Paradise and the entire Cosmos.


(c. 204 – 270)

Neoplatonist, the major Hellenistic philosopher who lived in Roman Egypt

And here is his mystical image:

Plotinus (V, 3, 12)

"The One eternally shines, remaining unchanged beyond the intelligible."

“But how can you describe total simplicity? Smart touch is enough; but when it has happened, and this touch lasts, there is neither time nor opportunity to speak. Later, you should already believe in what you saw when the soul suddenly grabbed the LIGHT (he psyche eksaiphnes phos labe): for the light is from Him and He ”.

Plotinus (V, 3, 17).

“Touch His light. The soul must see that LIGHT because it is enlightened by it. How can it be? Renouncing everything! (aphele panta)”. - this is how mystical philosophers said that both sensuality and mind should interact with each other. The mind needs to cut off the excess from oneself to come closer to the beautiful truth. The TRUTH is presented in the form of a beautiful statue, which we create like a sculptor, cutting off the excess from the shapeless lump.

This idea is further introduced into Christendom by St. Augustine in his well-known way of ascending within himself. The same metaphor of the sculptor begins to operate in the Christian world and is associated with light analogies.

Man, turning inward (St. Augustine uses the phrases reditio and conversio in se ipsum) suggests an ascent to the light. That is, the light shines from within. This is our true self, our true identity. When we find it, inside we find a shining light, which is higher than the soul.

Augustine of Hippo also known as Saint Augustine

(c. 354 – 430)

A theologian, philosopher, and the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, Roman North Africa. His writings influenced the development of Western philosophy and Western Christianity, and he is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers of the Latin Church in the Patristic Period.

Saint Augustine (Confession. VII, X, 16)

“And enlightened by these books, I returned to myself and, guided by You, entered my very depths (intravi in ​​intima mea) ... I entered and saw the eye of my soul, no matter how weak it was, above this very eye of my soul, Light is unchanging above my spirit (supra mentem meam lucem incommutabilem): not this ordinary light, visible to every flesh of its own, and not related to it, only stronger, flaring up much, much brighter and flooding everything around. No, it was not that light, but something completely, completely different from such light. And he was not above my spirit as oil above water, nor as heaven above earth: he was higher, for he created me, and I stood below, for he was created by Him. Whoever recognized the Truth, recognized this Light, and whoever recognized Him, recognized eternity. Love knows Him. You blinded my weak eyes, striking me with Your rays, and I trembled with love and fear (contremui amore et horrore) ”.

A similar power of the effect of light on the physical state is repeated by Dante in the Divine Comedy when he lost consciousness after he saw the light of Paradise reflected in the eyes of his beloved Beatrice.

Saint Augustine (The true religion. XXXIX)

“Turn to yourself (in te ipsum redi); truth dwells in the inner man. Strive to where the very light of reason is kindled (tende unde ipsum lumenrationis accenditur) ” - (again analogy with internal sculpture).

Another "poet of light" who often speaks about this in his works is Dionysius the Areopagite. He understands Light as a force that gives unity, simplicity, and identity:

Dionysius the Areopagite (The Celestial Hierarchy, no. 2) “… Because this one never loses its inner unity, although by its beneficent quality it is fragmented to dissolve with mortal dissolution that uplifts their grief and unites them with God. He remains in himself and constantly dwells in a motionless and identical identity, and those who properly direct their gaze to him, to the best of their ability, erect grief, and their unity, following the example of how he is simple and one in himself ”.

Dionysius the Areopagite

1st century AD

A judge at the Areopagus Court in Athens.

A convert to Christianity, he is venerated as a saint by multiple denominations.

Here the mind (or soul) illumination has clear correspondences: simplicity, unity, identity.

Color is, as it were, a complication, “thickening”, compaction of light. Matter, in turn, represents the “solidification” of light, serving as a symbol and a step to light:

Dionysius the Areopagite (The Divine Names IV, 6) “For just as ignorance is something that separates the erring ones, the phenomenon of mental light (toy noêtoy phôtos paroysia) is something that collects the illuminated (henôtikê), unites, perfects and turns them to Truly Existing (pros to ontôs on), filling them with a single unifying light”.

Speaking of matter in this context, the clearest visualization of this statement is GLASS. This material was specially created for light, and like no other is capable of transmitting, accumulating, reflecting, scattering, creating an endless range of colors, characters, and meanings. THUS, GLASS IS A SOLIDIFIED LIGHT!

The basis of art

Here we move on to what will then become part of the art works. Author of the 9th century, Irish theologian, Neoplatonist philosopher, and poet John Scotus Eriugena, Dionysius's translator into Latin, creates a commentary on the treatise "On the Celestian Hierarchy". The matter here is represented as a step to ascent to God (Truth):

We can only ascend to the immaterial by being guided by the material (materiali manuductione)".

Then, Mens hebes ad verum par materialia surgit - the human darkened (unenlightened) mind rises up to the Truth, thanks to the influence of material things. That is, material things (and everything related to art) are understood as the environment for the ascent of the spirit.

John Scotus Eriugena

(c. 800 - c. 877)

Irish theologian, Neoplatonist philosopher, and poet

This ascent is possible because all visible things are “material clots of light”: “Every being, visible or invisible, is a light called to life by the Father of all light ... This stone or that piece of wood is light for me.”

For example, let's take a piece of glass. It is a solid transparent material that has a shape and possibly a color. When glass is illuminated, it comes to life in three ways:

- passes light through his body, revealing objects behind him as reflected light from them,

- reflects light from its outer surface, creating wonderful reflections,

- reflects light from the depths of its own inner facets in the most delightful way.

In fact, it becomes a reflection of many meanings, including structure, mathematical proportions, facets, color, sensations, and our perception. That is, the glass comes to life, it becomes a "lump of light" permeated with meaning.

John Scotus Eriugena: “When I discern all these and similar things in this stone, it becomes a light for me, in other words, it floods me with the light of knowledge (illuminat)”.

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