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Tour, Georges de la - VM - Irena Tippett

Georges de la Tour: The Penitent Magdalen

A Monument to God’s Love

by Irena Tippett

When we are forgiven, our lives become a living monument to God’s love.
Ben Roberts, Ash Wednesday sermon, 2022

There are few women as iconic as Mary Magdalene. Her reputed wealth and beauty combined with her humble and penitent heart attract both saint and sinner. She is the woman in red in Crucifixion scenes and she is the first to behold the Risen Lord early on Easter morning. For this reason Mary is a natural subject for artists exploring the full range of womanhood from sensuousness to quiet godly beauty.

It is evident that Georges de La Tour spent considerable effort meditating on the Magdalen’s inner life and transformation and he does this in a remarkable and specific way in his painting The Penitent Magdalen, also called Madeleine aux deux flammes. Fully engaging the two sides of Mary’s persona the artist brings us to see, beautifully and without sentimentality, their resolution in her soft and penitent heart.

The peace and calm of this painting in the soft glow of the candlelight sets the tone. One can imagine it as a meditation piece hanging in a special room itself lit by candlelight. It does not demand attention but waits for a thoughtful moment and a longing heart.

In Luke 8:2 it is said that Mary was a woman from whom the Lord had cast out seven demons. She also followed the Lord and provided for him out of her own means, as did other prominent women. In this painting Mary is seated by a beautiful gilt mirror, her skirt is a rich red, striped with golden embroidery from top to bottom, and she possesses sumptuous pearl jewelry. Her wealthy position is well established.

But it is not just wealth we see. Artists have often used Mary Magdalene as an opportunity to display female sensual beauty and our Magdalen is certainly full-fleshed and beautiful. Remembering that Mary was early on identified with the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), the intense vermillion skirt, open blouse, and loosened hair could all plainly suggest uncontrolled sexual passion. To heighten this thought, common vanitas symbols are found throughout the painting: the mirror for self-admiration, the opulent jewels for self-adornment, the candle to imply that life is fleeting and the skull for the certainty of death. De La Tour teases the viewer with these thoughts and then he powerfully turns them on their head.

Beginning with the very symbols of jewelry and skull he leads us into Mary’s heart. Fairly quickly we notice that the rich jewelry has been rejected outright, scattered across the table and ground at her feet. Precious pearls have no present value. Upon the skull, which retains its ability to shock, Mary’s hands rest fully relaxed in a manner suggesting prayer. O, death, where is your sting?!

One would expect a coquettish Magdalen to engage our eye, but Mary turns away. Is it to gaze at herself in the mirror? Her face is not seen there either. By now we realize that we have been given a privileged view into a private and solitary moment. We do not look at her; we look with her. Soon we find ourselves driven to reflect on the empty—or not so empty—mirror. It now becomes the focal point as the black rectangle of the mirror and the two candles, one a reflection of the other, engage in a dramatic optical play of darkness and light.

From this focal point the duplicated and spreading light of the candle becomes something of a protagonist in the painting, actively pushing back the darkness and gathering within its borders the red skirt, the open blouse, and the bare chest in which her heart beats. In a final tour-de-force the light finally catches with precision the elegant line of the Magdalen’s neck and the turn of her head. Here we behold the actual instant of her conversion, her turning to God, as the forgiven Magdalen passes from darkness to light, from death to life.

Who better than Mary Magdalene to demonstrate in her person the thing we all long for in our heart of hearts? By the seventeenth century her persona had grown to incorporate the stories of many penitent women: Mary the sister of Lazarus who evangelized Provence; Mary the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears; Mary who anointed her Lord for his burial; Mary who beheld her Lord’s death and was first to behold his resurrection. The gathering of all these women into the person of the Magdalen is a monumental tribute to the Lord who says to those who turn to him ‘Your sins are forgiven.”


Georges de La Tour: The Penitent Magdalen, ca. 1640, oil on canvas, 133.4 x 102.2 cm.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Georges de La Tour (1593 -1652) was born in Vic-sur-Seille, Lorraine, while it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire and he died, along with his family, in 1652 in Lunéville, France during an epidemic. De La Tour ran a busy workshop, providing paintings for the Dukes of Lorraine but more often for the local bourgeoisie. During his career he also received the title “Painter to the King” of France. He is known for his nuits, night scenes utilizing a Baroque technique called ‘tenebrism’, like that developed by Caravaggio and the Utrecht School. There are no records to show how he encountered ‘tenebrism’ or even that he travelled to Italy or to the Netherlands. After his death in 1652, the artist and his works were increasingly forgotten. The importance and success of Georges de La Tour were not again recognized until an exhibition of his works at the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris in 1934. Today he is considered one of the greatest and most popular painters of the seventeenth century.

Irena Tippett has a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Toronto, Canada, but it was during studies at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that she discovered the beauty of her field in relation to her faith. While most of her energy is presently spent in women's ministry at St. John's Vancouver, she continues to lecture from time to time out of this newly found passion. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation March 27, 2022