Art Explained: The Repentant Magdalene

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) was a French Baroque painter best known for painting religious and genre scenes. Influenced by the work of Caravaggio, La Tour relied on the stark contrasts of light and dark (chiaroscuro).

Unlike Caravaggio, who usually placed his source of light outside of the frame, La Tour placed it within, frequently using candles or lamps.

La Tour, like many of his contemporaries, relied on famous religious figures for his paintings; one of his favorites being Mary Magdalene. In the gospels, Mary Magdalene is identified as an early follower of Jesus who had “seven demons cast out of her,” and who financially supported the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:2-3; cf. Mark 16:9). She was also one of the two women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection and is charged to inform the disciples (John 20:1, 18). Tradition in the church has also identified her as the prostitute who wept over, kissed, and washed Jesus’ feet with her hair before anointing him with costly perfumes (John 12:1-8; Luke 7:37-39).

La Tour was fascinated with Mary. From 1630-1645, La Tour created four (arguably, five) paintings of Mary Magdalene in almost the exact same scene. Here are the three best known

Notice the similarities: in each painting we see Mary absorbed in thought, a flickering candle, and a skull. In the first and last, there is a mirror. In the first and the second there is a large book(s). In the second and third, Mary is clothed in red and the skull sits upon her lap.

Now, notice the differences. Look more closely at the first, and in my opinion, best painting:

The Repentant Magdalene (c. 1630)

Mary’s bottom half is barely visible. She emerges from the darkness, disheveled and unkempt, looking as if she just left bed (perhaps even one of sin), and sits at her candle-lit table. Her face is colored with knowledge, a quiet tempest of guilt and contemplation.

Her fingers delicately explore the surface of the skull like antennae, giving a visual depiction of what is taking place in her mind. Similarly, the mirror reflecting the skull that absorbs Mary’s line of sight shows us what she is reflecting upon: death. The skull rests upon an enormous book, perhaps a symbol of the Book of Judgment (Rev 20:11-15) or the Law whose ministry is one of death (2 Cor 3:7). Paul reminds us, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law,” (1 Cor 15:56). Notice her arm does not rest upon the table as she touches the skull, but hovers precariously. She is not settled, but just beginning to reflect on her sin, the Law, and death.

The candle symbolizes knowledge, revelation, and light. While her face is still partially darkened, the light of knowledge has dawned upon Mary. What does the face of a condemned sinner cresting the hill of repentance look like? Like this. But notice that the light is blocked to us, the viewer. Here lies an important lesson: the light of repentance will only be cast upon us once we face the reality of our own sin, guilt, and death similarly.

Now, consider the next painting.

The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame (c. 1637)

Right away we notice a number of key changes: first, we see much more of Mary. She no longer is shrouded in as much darkness as before. Second, Mary has turned around. The first painting was titled The Repentant Magdalene. “Repentance” literally means to “turn around.” Here La Tour has literally turned Mary about-face to demonstrate this. Further, the skull has moved from off the desk onto Mary’s lap, her hand resting upon it. Death is no longer something she is beginning to reflect upon, but is something she has become familiar with.

And yet, her eyes are troubled. She is not transfixed (as before) by the skull, but looks instead to four items upon her desk: a crucifix, a whip/scourge, and two books.

Mary’s face is more illuminated than before, yet is still absorbed in contemplation; unsettled, even. Her repentance is real, yet it has also opened her eyes to the enormity of what it cost. Christ was whipped, beaten, and scourged before He was nailed to a Roman crucifix. All to absorb the penalty of the condemnation of the Law, symbolized by the two books looming behind the cross and whip–Mary’s repentance hasn’t lessened her guilt, but has only made her more aware of how substantial it is. Yet, they stand behind the cross. Mary must look through the cross to see the Law and its condemnation, must reflect on Christ who died in her place to take her guilt.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed,” Isaiah 53:5. Could it be true? is written upon Mary’s face. This arrests Mary’s mind and troubles her heart, but Mary is now clothed in red, a picture of the blood of Christ which can make scarlet sins white as snow (Isa 1:18).

Now, finally, consider the last painting in La Tour’s series.

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1645)

“Penitence” differs from “repentance” in the way a disposition differs from an action. A “penitent” sinner is one who now feels as well as acts in repentance. Mary continues with her about-face and similarly is clothed in a cascading red skirt. The skull continues to rest upon her lap, but now both hands rest upon it, comfortably folded together. Her concern for death and sin has matured. The mirror, unlike the simplicity of the first, is rich and ornate. Yet it does not catch Mary’s eye. She looks above it, beyond it. Similarly, notice the costly jewelry carelessly cast upon the floor and table. Worldly temptations which may have once ensnared her do so no longer.

In this final painting there is no shadow whatsoever on Mary’s face, nor is there a single strand of hair out of place. The symbol of revelation, the candle, is doubled by the mirror. This is intended to be the picture of a fully illumined saint, no longer troubled by doubt or uncertainty. Yet, Mary looks away, mysteriously hiding her face from us. The most compelling elements of the previous paintings have been the way in which La Tour has been able to subtly paint the complex emotions on Mary’s relatively placid face.

Perhaps Mary’s turned head is an attempt to avoid the sin of vanity. Or maybe La Tour was himself perplexed as to what the face of one so sanctified would even look like. The look of sin, of doubt, of guilt? With these he is familiar.

But the absence of them? What might a face like that look like? For that, we can only guess, can only wait.

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