Sometimes simple objects, just with their presence, can change the atmosphere of the places they occupy and influence our mood in a positive way. Lanterns and candle do this to me, they release very positive vibes. When I am around them I feel pampered, relaxed and at peace with myself. The rooms look nicer, they are a tonic for the soul.
And lately everyone is making a big fuss about Hygge and its philosophy of life; it's said that shaded lights have a great influence on our mood and well being.
But I started creating hygge atmospheres and buying my first lanterns way before this new trend was even known, in the years when I was living in a shared student flat in Rome. In the late '90 there were some cool novelty shops who started to sell ethnic home decorations and there were also some Chinese shops where we used to go to buy our uni books, where we could find nice peculiar stuff. I always went back home with some decorated paper lantern. The one with the "Ai" (love) character was my favourite. But after a while they become popular, easy to find, accessible to everyone and having one in my room wasn't particularly cool anymore. So I started selecting more refined ones, metal ones, with coloured glass or retro shapes. I managed to keep some of them throughout my many moves, others went lost, others broke. But 20 years on I still feel drawn to lanterns and representations of lanterns in paintings and prints and I constantly try to get a good bargain when visiting a market or an ethnic shop.
Thinking about it, this love for light started after one of my early teenage summer trips to London when, for the first time, I saw "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" by John Singer Sargent (1885-86)** at the Tate Britain. It's a quite big canvas, which captures the attention from a distance and draws you in. The setting is an English garden at twilight, moments before the sun disappears, in which two little girls dressed in white, light Japanese paper lanterns surrounded by lilies, roses and carnations. (The title, however, comes from the refrain of a popular song of the XIX century, not from the flowers depicted). It captures a magical moment, frozen in time, ephemeral without being sappy. The power of those lights and lanterns is mesmerising, the sense of peacefulness, the perfect and studied balance of the dusky evening light in contrast to the subtle brightness of the lanterns is just magical. Sargent worked 2 years on this canvas, to capture the exact shades and lights, painting for short periods of time every evening to capture just the right moment, before it flew by. And he did succeed in the task! Every time I go to the Tate Britain, it’s as if I’m seeing the painting for the first time; I feel stupid to say it out loud, but I find it moving and being in front of it is always very emotional for me. It’s a delicate work of art, but it’s powerful in its own way. The light emerges from the lanterns as if they could come to life any minute. When I was planning my wedding, I dreamed a similar setting, with the very same magical glowing atmosphere, barefoot on the grass and surrounded by hundreds of lanterns.
I didn’t manage to have a themed wedding like that, but I haven't stopped looking for paintings or prints representing lanterns. And, being a student of Asian cultures, I was never short of interesting material on the subject. While studying the basics of Japanese and Chinese art and culture, things acquired more significance and depth of analysis. Nowadays we use lanterns and light for their beauty and as decor, but traditionally they had purposefulness and meaning. Japanese inherited the tradition of using lanterns from China and, just as they did with their writing system, Buddhism and figurative arts, they took the Chinese lanterns and “nipponised” them. Nowadays the tōrō itself is a symbol of Japan. We see one of these imposing stone lanterns and we immediately associate it with Japan.
Initially and traditionally lanterns were only displayed for the Chinese Emperor and his court, but with time they were then used in temples and in occasion of lanterns festival, when the common people started to hang them around their houses with the belief that the light would help to keep the evil spirits away.
In Japan the lanterns were used by tea masters to decorate their gardens and were made of metal or stone, or used in temples and shrines, where the act of lighting them was considered an offer to the Gods.
The paper lanterns were used during festivals and are still used for this purpose, for example during the Hanami evenings (when the cherry trees are in bloom, people gather under them to admire the blossoms while having a picnic) for example, and they can be found as signs for restaurants and takeaway places.
Needless to say, when I visited Japan I was in ''lanterns paradise''! I can not even count the pictures I took to the different shapes, shades and designs!
A proper symbolism originated around metal and stone lanterns in Japan, to the extent that they started being produced comprising 5 parts, each one of these components having a particular meaning: the bottom part symbolising the earth, the part on top of it as a symbol for water, the section containing the flame representing fire and the top 2 parts representing air and spirit, with the highest portion pointing straight to the sky. Just like the pagoda and its symbolism, recalling the 5 elements of the Buddhist cosmology.
But Buddhism apart, isn’t light itself the most spiritual element in every religion and belief? Think about the Diwali in the Hindu tradition, Hannuka for the Jews, the ritual votive candles in Christian churches, the candle presented to the newly baptised children in Catholicism, symbol of new life, the life of Christ, the light that overcomes darkness.
Ideologically all this is not that far away from the believes of thousands years ago of the ancient Chinese: essentially light is everywhere a symbol of hope and of the fight of good over evil, across all continents, across the centuries and cultures.
Spirituality is with us even when we light a candle for the mere pleasure of it!