The Birth of Light, 1794
Carbonpencil hightened with white on brownish paper. 485 x 425 mm
Inventory number: D814
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Asmus Jacob Carstens’ The Birth of Light, can be seen as the ultimate picture of a happy family: father, mother and child – emblematic, removed from surroundings of any kind. However, this absence of surroundings is significant. For if we examine the sources on which Carstens bases himself, it emerges that they go back to a shadowy Phoenician creation myth from before 1200 BC. The scene portrays an early cosmological stage in which the surroundings have simply not yet been created. All that exists is the primeval male power Phtas and the female state Neitha (Night). She has given birth to their child, Phanes (Light), who in the drawing – standing between his parents – is triumphantly holding up a torch above his head, and the primal embryo of all creatures has been born from the breath of Phtas. When this egg, which can just be seen in the drawing to the left of Phtas, has been hatched, heaven, the ocean and all other things arise. The little core family is as it were encapsulated in a cloak-like shell; the magnificent sweep of the elliptical outline also suggests something in the shape of an egg. So here we have two egg-shaped stars floating weightlessly. In the light of art history, the cloak and Phtas’s muscular physique echo Michelangelo’s portrayals of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And in the light of art history, too, the woman and child point the way forward to Thorvaldsen’s relief Day: Aurora with the Genius of Light from 1815. Like the speculative, charismatic Schleswiger Carstens before him, Thorvaldsen was a pupil of Abildgaard in the Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen, and immediately after his arrival in Rome in 1797 he quite naturally came to form part of the circle around Carstens, who, however, died rather a little over two years later.