Painting with the dark

Caravaggio knows the dark; don’t we all?
For him, it’s Rome’s seething underside:
scarce-cooked horsemeat, stench of dung,
tallow candles spitting like cats. Fillide’s
hard face and her soft tongue, the shudder
of his blade as it skewers his rival’s life.
Banishment. David with the head of Goliath
is a cry for grace but what light is there in Rome?

Van Gogh lived the brittle days of Dutch winters,
of peeling potatoes without taste and sharing
the gospel to waxed-up ears. Later, in France,
the sun threw open the shutters on his palette
so that it blazed. But, in his last self-portrait
vibrant cyan, turquoise and lilac form agitated swirls.
His eyes look fixed and bitter. Death could enter
through those windows. The light has not reached within.

Rembrandt’s too old to run. His Portrait
as the apostle Paul reveals that life has flowed,
with grit, across his face. A ridged forehead,
sagging cheeks, dull deep eyes. They show
a man who’s been spurned by art’s fickle fashion,
has pawned his painter’s props for soup and
placed a rose and tears on the grave of Saskia,
his wife. And yet, the background is dark earth tones,

not just bone black, and there’s warm light falling
on his head. It highlights white and yellow-gold
spun in his swept hat. The artist shows his face,
as vulnerable as ours. Rembrandt’s mysterious
depths have said things for which there are no
words in any language. He paints the Bible
like it’s true: full of washerwomen, beggars, the blind
and a God who hugs a wayward son.