Spain’s ancient Luminaries Festival, Las Luminarias, breathes fire into the lens for this shot by Marcos del Mazo. An age-old human obsession, artists have always experimented with how to paint fire, from Britain’s Turner to Jackson Pollock.
Above: A horse rider jumps over a bonfire on January 16, 2023, in San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain. Horse riders jump over bonfires during the traditional ritual in honour of San Antonio Abad (Saint Anthony the Abbot), patron saint of domestic animals known as Las Luminarias, which is meant to purify the animals with the smoke of the bonfires and protect them for the year to come. (Photo by Marcos del Mazo/Getty Images)
Nothing photographs quite like fire. The heat, the intensity, the dancing flames, the sparks and embers filling the air like a shower of golden rain. Captured under the right conditions, photographs of fire could almost persuade a physicist of the existence of magic. How could anything worldly look this ethereal?
Marcos del Mazo’s image of Spain’s Ancient Luminarias Festival (Las Luminarias) in San Bartolomé de Pinares, taken on Monday, is one such photograph. It depicts a horse and its rider leaping through a bonfire in honour of San Antonio Abad (Saint Anthony the Abbot). According to a centuries-old tradition, the smoke and flames of the bonfires are said to purify the animals for the coming year. After the ritual, a long night of drinking, dancing and general revelry unfolds through the cobbled streets of San Bartolomé.
So there’s no sleight of hand in this photo: del Mazo really has captured a horse riding through a forest of flame, and the result is spectacular. Look at the perfect posture of the horse, its front leg lifted as if in dressage, its silhouetted shape sharply picked out against the orange flames. And then there’s the fire, which frames the animal, licking up at the edges to create a cradle of light before gently radiating out into the dark night beyond. It’s as if the fire has made its way into the photograph so that the image itself smoulders with its own mesmerising glow. It has all of the penetrating beauty of a painting – and yet, few paintings have captured fire as dramatically as the camera lens.
It’s strange but true: there aren’t many great paintings of fire – though it seems like something that would cry out to the artist, begging to be painted in gorgeous licks of red and orange. Of course, it has been done: Lieve Verschuier’s iconic depiction of The Great Fire of London in 1666 and Turner’s glowing painting of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1835). Both are powerful and brilliant works of art, but both depict a distant fire, its faraway flames casting orange smoke into the sky.
Jackson Pollock made one of the few and most evocative paintings of close-up flames in 1938. Created years before the development of his purely abstract drip technique, The Flame captures the intensity of staring into the heart of a glowing fire: thick strokes of red against hard black, white, and orange. The painting feels hot and intense as the flames leap and cast their shadows. And the longer you look, the more shapes those shadows assume: Are those twisted trees or merely wisps of smoke? And isn’t that an animal – a horse perhaps? – in the extreme foreground, rendered in the naive style of a cave painting?
The association of animals and fire is prehistoric: not only were the hunting of game and the creation of a fire essential to survival, but the image that comes to mind when we picture ancient art is (as it would have been then) always lit by a soft, orange flame against a cave wall. This ancient subtext is surely at play in Pollock’s early painting – as it is in Spain’s Luminarias Festival, which, revellers believe, dates back thousands of years. That’s why, whether painted on a cave wall, on a canvas or captured through a camera lens, the image of the horse surrounded by flames strikes a deeply primaeval chord.