The Penitent Magdalene

Georges de La Tour • Painting, 1640, 133.4×102.2 cm
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Style of art: Baroque
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1640
Size: 133.4×102.2 cm
Artwork in selections: 26 selections
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Description of the artwork «The Penitent Magdalene»

We can see two favourite subjects of Georges de La Tour in The Penitent Magdalene painting. The first is the candle: a rare painting by La Tour did without it, the candle has become an identification mark that allowed the artist to be found among other tenebroso artists. Well, the second is, of course, the repentant biblical harlot herself. 

The fact that Mary Magdalene was the subject of the artist’s creative meditations is seen at least from the fact that four (not including the copies) of La Tour’s different, though very similar compositions have come down to us. In all four of them, Magdalene, sitting in a dark room, reflects on the mortal in the presence of two invariable attributes — a local source of light and a skull.

The most famous is the Mary Magdalene from the Louvre – the one where the candle is replaced by the most skilfully painted glass lamp. It is also called "Magdalene from the Turf collection”. A nearly identical painting  is on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. They are like twin sisters with the Louvre Magdalene, only facial features slightly differ. In the National gallery of art (Washington) The third "Mary Magdalene" by La Tour is kept in the National Gallery of Art (Washington): it has a mirrored composition compared to all the others, but it is difficult to determine the source of light here: it is half-closed by the skull in front of it. The Washington Saint also got its name from the collection it previously held: the Fabius Magdalene.

And finally, the fourth Penitent Magdalene by La Tour is in the New York Metropolitan Museum. Her distinctive name is the Wrightsman Magdalene. It is also titled Magdalene with Two Flames.
 
The 16th and 17th centuries were the time when the Catholic Church fought intensely against Protestantism, which was gaining its strength. Protestants refused to worship anyone other than Christ himself. In contrast to this, Catholicism persistently preached the veneration of saints. Naturally, it came to excesses. Visionary and ecstatic religiosity has come into fashion. Mary Magdalene was one of the first to experience this “fashion”. For example, some medieval theologians claimed about the daily Assumption of Mary by the angels, whereas in the texts of the 17th century, we can read about seven Assumptions per day. The Saint herself (the former harlot) is often depicted in an ecstatic religious frenzy, not too different from the sensual frenzy from her past life.

Many people remember the Magdalenes by Titian, Leonardo da Vinci or Agnolo Bronzino: their hands are pressed to the heaving chest, despair and passion in their eyes. This is a visual stereotype.

La Tour is extremely far from such interpretations of the image. All his Magdalenes do not demonstrate any insane affectation. On the contrary, they are fixed in their state of unhurried and calm contemplation. What is it about? Of course, about the frailty of things — the skull, symbolizing the vanity of everything earthly, is quit unambiguous item.

Latour even avoids emphasizing his subject as a harlot. The Louvre and Los Angeles Magdalenes have bare knees, calves and shoulders, but they do not give the picture any shade of undisguised animal sensuality — La Tour’s Magdalene looks so detached everywhere. About the Magdalene of New York, we can not even say for sure if she is beautiful. Her face is deliberately turned away from the viewer: the Magdalena from the picture repented and no longer intends to seduce anyone with her appearance. It is in this version that an interesting motive of the mirror arises: it has long been considered an allegory of temptation, female sinfulness. A candle with a high flame crosses the mirror vertically. This should symbolize that the fire of faith that flared up in the soul of Magdalene crossed out her sinful past.

Written by Anna Vcherashnia


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