Conversion by Candlelight: LaTour's Four Magdalenes

The Lenten season will be heralded at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with a month-long exhibition opening on Feb. 10 of all four known full-length versions of the "Repentant St. Mary Magdalene" by French artist Georges de La Tour, displayed view together for the first time. In each picture the saint is seated before a mirror, her profile illuminated by candlelight, renouncing the vanities of worldly life. The earliest of these austerely beautiful compositions, "The Repentant Magdalene," belongs to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, and will return home after the show closes March 15. A second, "The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame," is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The Magdalene with Two Flames" is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s own collection, while the "Magdalene with a Lamp" is from the Louvre in Paris. The pictures are joined in the show by another LaTour in the Metropolitan Museum, the Fortune Teller, recently identified as an illustration for the Spanish novelist Cervantes’ most famous short story, "The Little Gypsy Girl." LaTour, who worked in the Lorraine region of France, was largely forgotten after his death in 1652, but has been rediscovered in this century, because, as Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello put it, "his works speak strongly to modern tastes." Indeed, LaTour’s paintings bear witness to the spread of homelessness, poverty, and disease which, together with the contagion of heresy, made physical existence as fragile as the flame of a candle, and threatened the life of the spirit — conditions which, as Pope John Paul II has underlined, are multiplied in our own day especially in countries which have emerged from communism, only to fall prey to the excesses of western materialism. The Lorraine, ruled by a staunchly Catholic duke, bordered on Protestant strongholds in Germany and the Low Countries. The fighting of the Thirty Years War ravaged this region, driving peasants and craftsmen from their lands and livelihoods into occupations which are abundantly represented in LaTour’s secular canvases: mercenaries, cardsharps, musician-beggars, prostitutes, and fortune-tellers. As Cervantes had observed in The Little Gypsy Girl, "It takes all sorts to make a world, and hunger can drive clever people to do unheard of things." By peopling his religious works with similar types, LaTour showed the redemptive power of penance. He never wallowed in the degradation and despair, nor did he merely "objectively" record such conditions, as artists of our own era might. Mary Magdalene, identified by tradition with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was a favorite theme in Catholic art, because she had been a direct follower and witness of Christ, and because of the sinfulness of her former life, matched by the intensity of her spiritual love after conversion. Luke refers to her as "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out," and who followed Christ in Galilee after He pardoned her for her seven deadly sins. Mary was depicted at the feast of Simon the Pharisee washing Christ's feet with perfumed ointment, kneeling at his feet in the house of Martha, mourning at the foot of the cross, visiting His tomb, and recognizing Christ in the garden of Gethsemane on the day of the Resurrection. In the period after the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant denial of the sacrament of penance, the repentant Magdalene was a particularly sought-after subject by Catholic patrons of the arts, as the paradigm of the redeemed sinner. LaTour was the first artist to set the theme of Mary Magdalene’s penance in darkened interiors. The surrounding obscurity could have several meanings. It could set a mood conducive to meditation, and it could symbolize the contrast between the spiritual darkness of this world, and the light of the divine. The candle could be a metaphor for a life which consumes itself in love and service to others — how appropriate for a woman whose sin had been in misdirected, sensual love. In the Washington version, Mary rests her chin pensively on her hand, and her hair is pulled back to reveal all of her face. The skull, symbol of the ephemeral character of mortal life, rests on a closed book, hiding the oil lamp and most of the flame. The book and skull are reflected in the mirror, an allusion to vanity but also to the light which Mary surely sees reflected in it, as in St. John's description: "In Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (Jn 1:4-5). In the end, such contemplation leads to spiritual enlightenment, as St. Paul tells us in 2 Cor 3:18: "But all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." The Los Angeles and Paris versions both show the saint with the skull on her lap, while the scene is illuminated by a simple oil lamp from which the flame emits curls of black smoke. A Jesuit commentator of the time compared such smoke to renunciation of the mortal life and aspiration for the beyond. The light reveals on her table a simple wooden cross and a knotted rope used to mortify the flesh in emulation of Christ's agony. LaTour’s last known full-length Magdalene, the New York picture, shows her at an earlier point, the moment of her conversion. The saint is still clothed in the finery of her earlier life of sin, and she has just abandoned her jewelry, strewn on table before her. The "two flames" are the candle and its reflection in the mirror. We can see both sides of the candle, and the far side best, because it is illuminated by the reflected light. Only the skull on her lap suggests her repentance. The mirror evokes St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016