Candlelit Repentance with Mirrors, and Skulls

The first (nearly a hundred already, wow!) postings of this blog have shown a lot of different things in the mirrors – the saints and the devils, pretty faces and deadly skulls, all sorts of bodies (dresses, half-dressed and not dressed at all), weapons and jewelries, even unicorns. Funny enough, but during almost two centuries since the first depiction of mirror in the artworks in modern Europe no artist managed to portray in the mirrors what seems to be most obvious, and best suited a subject: the light.

Georges de La Tour (Georges de La Tour) was, it seems be, the very first master who decided to do it, and he did it so splendidly, that he basically went into history as the Master of Candlelight (in the mirrors, I should add in the context of this blog).

De la Tour was born God knows where in a small town of the province far, far away    Lorraine, in 1593. To quickly descrive the context of this time and place, I would refer to my own posting about the School of Fontainebleau n2… but I didn’t write it yet; I write the one about the School of Fontainebleau n1, but didn’t translate it either 😦

As an alternative, I’d recommend to read about Belle Gabrielle (otherwise known as Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeur)… but it’s not translated; oh, well.  Let’s skip this stage for a moment, than.

It is not quite clear where he studies and who was his teachers; he could be trained in one of the Northern workshops (e.g., in Utrecht or Antwerp). It’s very likely that he also travelled to Italy at some point, or perhaps met one of the Italian masters who came to France at that time. His early work is distinctively manneristic, but it is the style of the Northern, and not authentically Italian mannerism.

Here are a couple of examples of his typical (and famous by now) genre scenes:

The Fortune Teller (1630)

There is a very interesting story about this painting on the book Masterpieces in Details, its detail even went to the cover, but alas, it doesn’t depict any mirrors, so I skip it for now.

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (1934)

These are very well-known works, that have been often seen as the bizcard of the artist, but in fact they represent only a very small part of his oeuvre. De la Tour (sometimes De Latour) was much better known as a master of religious scenes; these were not necessarily strictly religious art works (such as altarpieces in the churches or cathedrals), but more ‘household’ works, religions paintings that could hang in the houses of his townsfolk.

This Adoration of the Shepherds could be a good example of such works:

This is also a more later work, made 1645. It is noticeable that the style became quite different: instead of the bright, polychrome palette of the earlier works we see a monochromatic color scheme, with the sharp contrast between lights and shadows. The light source is placed inside the picture (a fairly novel way, since the usual location of the light source before De la Tour was outside the canvas, either at the side or on top of the scene). All these features are very characteristic for the works of Italian Caravaggio and his followers, of whom De la Tour is one of the most famous examples.

Google Image Search shows well this general style of this works:

I’ve highlighted here the works where also depicted mirrors; De la Tour painted  several similar paintings, elaboration the same story, of the Penitent Magdalene.

I started the posting with a fragment of this work:

Because of the magnificent candlelight the painting is is sometimes called La Madeleine aux Deux Flammes, Magdalene with the Two Candles, although it’s official title is ‘just’ Penitent Magdalene.

There is beautiful movie on YouTube about this painting; it’s in in Italian, so I can’t really follow the story, but I do like the way they display the details of his work, as if  they are snatched from the complete darkness by a flickering light a candle:

Before talking about the mirror itself, a few words about the content and the message of the painting, so to speak.

The main figure here is Magdalene herself, of course. But this it does not explain much, because the whole story of the Magdalene is terribly confused.

When I was in school, we’ve been taught (well, “taught” would be perhaps too strong a word to use, rather there was some sort of information around available, in form of hints and vague references) that Mary Magdalene initially was a terrible, terrible sinner (the euphemism ‘a fallen woman’ was used, the word ‘prostitute’ wouldn’t be used. Even today on the MOMA’s website she is described a ‘courtesan’). Than she met the Christ…. and then PORFIT!, meaning that she repented in her sins, and eventually became his most faithful follower and favorite pupil.

As it turnes to be, Magdalene might well be ‘the most faithful’ and ‘the favorite pupil’ from the very beginning, without any involvement in the first profession before. And that this ‘fallen woman’ slant was added much later, mixing in one heap a number of different persons (e.g., St. Mary of Egypt, who lived much later in the 3rd-4th century AD).

There is a fairly elaborate description of this confused story on wikipedia, including its various interpretations in art).

It’s hard to say exactly what version of this story prevailed during the time of La Tour, but most likely it was leaning toward the classic Catholic take, with the fallen woman and subsequent remorse. We see a lot of traditional markers of the ‘sinfulness’, and in particular, the ‘female sinfulness’: jewelry, a common symbol of vanity, and especially the broken chain on the floor, the skull, and yes, the mirror.

However, one could also interprete these symbols from a much more universal, more human, and humane, side, as the signs of death and its inevitability, the beauty, yet also of fragility and ephemerality of life, expressed so powerfully with this lighting candle.

Or more precisely, with two candles, since we see not only the candle, but also its reflection – which, as I said already, is apparently the first example of the reflection of artificial light source in mirror in Western art. (By the way, it is also a very interesting example of the so-called ‘dark’, or ‘black mirror’; but this a large theme itself, and I am planning to write a separate posting on it later).

As often happens with La Tour, he painted several versions of this theme. Here’s another Mary Magdalene, again with a candle and a mirror.

As they say, the same cactus, only in profile; both the plot, and the whole atmosphere are very similar, although there are some slight differences here, too. In the mirror we  see not the candlelight bu the skull, which makes the whole scene hanté, both terrifying and attractive, in the same way obsessive pursuit of pyromaniacs.

Worth noting is that this is a different mirror – it is a flat one, as in the first painting,  but it’s much smaller, and it has much more basic frame. Mary is also dressed in more simple gown – yet she’s much more alive, more humane here (and we also see more of her face.)

Apparently dissatisfied with the fact that the mirror does not reflect the candle this time, some Alice777777 created a funny homage where it does:

We see even more of Mary in another version of this painting  the so-called Magdalene with the Smoking Flame (c.1648).

There is no mirrors here, so technically speaking I shouldn’t even put it here; but I think it helps to understand the take of La Tour on the subject better. Without a doubt, here we see a classical “fallen” and repentant Magdalene (with a slight BDSM hint). But the smoke is excellent!

I came across another version of this work, perhaps an earlier version (the smoke is not mastered here yet).

There are many more excellent works with candles by La Tour – but they don’t have mirrors (or more accurately, I haven’t found those yet). In my classification he would be a singer of not one mirror, but of one story, of Mary Magdalene.

Because of this narrow focus, I had at some point a plan to also include ‘other Magdalenes with mirrors” … but then I killed this idea, or rather postponed it to another posting.

As a preface to this posting you can also see another movie by the same Alice777777, with many penitent Magdalenes:




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