Bioluminescence

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moon jellyfish

Bioluminescence is simply light produced by a chemical reaction within a living organism. These chemicals (called luciferin and luciferase) react with oxygen, causing light. Primarily it’s a marine phenomena, and is the main source of light in the ocean. (Because it occurs in so many different species, we assume it must serve many functions – like luring prey or mating – but we do know it can serve as both defensive and offensive tactics within the same organism.)

It can also occur on land, namely in fungi and bacteria, but also in fireflies.

It has been speculated that the 16th century Baroque painter Caravaggio used modern darkroom techniques to create his masterpieces more than 200 years before the invention of the camera. He may have prepared his canvases with a luminescent powder of dried fireflies to create a photosensitive surface on which he projected the image to be painted. He would then use white lead, mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity.

Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, painted 1599-1600

This hypothesis, by art teacher Roberta Lapucci who teaches at the Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy, was made in collaboration with research by British artist David Hockney, who wrote in his 2001 book “Secret Knowledge” that many old masters used optical instruments to compose their paintings.

In the spring of 1985, while a sophomore in college, I saw the Caravaggio show at the Met in NYC. It left an indelible impression on me, what with his incredibly effective combination of boldly intense subject matter and dramatic chiaroscuro contrasting light.

I look forward to sharing works of art in the upcoming 5050LIGHT show that are based on bioluminescence and also on artist David Hockney’s work. 

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