Yesterday, I mentioned the use of colour in art to evoke a painting’s mood – today, as my advent offering, I’ve chosen an artist whose use of shade – light and darkness (or chiaroscuro, to use the proper term) – makes his paintings, in my mind, simply beautiful. French Baroque artist Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) is best known for painting religious and biblical figures in scenes that are illuminated by candlelight. I love all his works, but the one I’ve chosen to share today is his depiction of New Testament figure Mary Magdalene, titled Magdalen with the smoking flame (c.1640).
In this painting, Mary is sitting quietly at a table, deep in thought, seemingly staring at the candle flame. On her knee, she holds a skull, a common symbol of mortality. Her dress is plain, her hair loose, her feet bare, suggesting she is alone, content with her own company. Candlelight illuminates her bare neck, shoulders, and legs – perhaps hinting at the latent sexuality of this woman – the woman so commonly misidentified as a prostitute throughout Christian history. Upon the table lies a cross and some books, suggesting that she has been engaged in study and prayer. Jarring the peaceful mood of this scene, we can also see what looks like a scourge, used perhaps by Mary for self-mortification. This, it seems, is a penitent Magdalene – a fallen woman redeemed by her repentance and her adoption of an ascetic life of quiet contemplation. Yet it is also a Magdalene who can still fascinate us with her quiet beauty, whose many cultural afterlives are such a mix of light and darkness that we cannot help but want to find out more about her.