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French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour depicted the famed conversion of Mary Magdalene in four different works.
Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) produced many religious-themed paintings throughout his career, using a realistic yet heightened style that gave the works a universal quality. In his beautiful and evocative series centered around the convea universalary Magdalene, the significance of moving past prior sins toward a holier way is integral. Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, followers of Jesus Christ, and Mary Magdalene herself would later be referred to as the companion of Christ. Mary Magdalene was reported to have once led a wayward life, but her relationship with and absolution by Christ led her to repentance and devotion.
La Tour’s Magdalen series included at least four depictions of Mary Magdalene, produced by the artist within the timeframe of 1638-1645. The paintings focus on the primary figure of Mary Magdalene, along with repeating elements to show different moods and aspects of her spiritual transformation.
The Smoking Flame and Night Light
In The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, Mary Magdalene still looks like the legendary woman of fleshly pleasure — yet she seems to be questioning her present existence. Her shoulders and legs are bare, and she holds a human skull on her lap. Skull symbolism was frequently used in art of this era to indicate mortality and the inevitability of death. Here Mary Magdalene contemplates an oil lamp, the flame of which might further symbolize enlightenment and purification. This flame, however, is smoky and not burning with clarity. A similar positioning and composition makes up Magdalen of Night Light, only the flame now burns evenly. In both paintings, a wooden cross rests before Mary Magdalene on the table.
The Penitent Magdalen does not show Mary Magdalene’s actual features, but instead has her face turned toward a mirror. Rather than looking at herself, she seems to stare at the candle before the mirror, reflected within the glass. This dual candle image again possibly indicates an increasing spirituality, as the flames burn high and clearly upward.
La Tour was known for his skill in depicting candlelight, with illumination often rising from murky darkness. In The Penitent Magdalen, Mary Magdalene is perhaps beginning to turn toward something greater than her own reflection and what her earthly beauty has attracted. Her hair is smoothly gathered, her shoulders are covered and a long red skirt conceals the lower half of her body. She has allowed some jewelry to fall to the floor and she again holds the skull upon her lap, her hands folded over it what appears to be an almost tenuous attempt at prayer.
In The Repentant Magdalen, La Tour shows Mary Magdalene in a pose of solemn reflection. The skull is included again, but it rests upon a book and is illuminated by the candle. The skull is also reflected within the mirror. Mary Magdalene touches the skull in a more connected manner, as if she has a keener realization of her own mortality at this point. The skull partially obscures the candle’s flame, but we can see the light glowing through and casting itself upon Mary Magdalene’s face.
Finding The Magdalen Paintings
The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame is one of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art‘s most popular and revered paintings. Magdalen of Night Light resides at the Louvre Museum in Paris, The Penitent Magdalen is at New York‘s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Repentant Magdalen can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Cea.