Sunday, August 25, 2013

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalene


Influenced by Caravaggio's chiaroscuro technique, Georges de La Tour made it his own, creating religious themed works of great depth and power (in addition to his more light-hearted but still psychologically revealing genre paintings). The subject matter of The Penitent Magdalene makes its connection to the Christian contemplative tradition clear. Mary Magdalene, in the words of The Cloud of Unknowing, "stands for all habitual sinners truly converted and called to the grace of contemplation" (ch. 22).

Incidentally, this view of Mary Magdalene has its origin in Luke 10:38-42: "Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’" The "one thing" was later interpreted as God; Martha became a symbol of the active life, Mary of the contemplative life.

The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous 14th century English text which contains advice for Christian contemplatives, also makes use of the mirror imagery which can be found in de La Tour's piece: "God's word, whether written or spoken, is like a mirror. The spiritual eye of your soul is your reason. Your spiritual face is your consciousness. And just as your bodily eyes cannot see where the dirty mark is on your bodily face without a mirror, or without someone else telling you where it is, so with your spiritual faculties. . . . It follows, then, that when a person sees in the bodily or the spiritual mirror, or knows by the information he gets from someone else, goes to the well to wash it off--and not before" (ch. 35).

Students of Zen Buddhism will recall the use of the mind as mirror metaphor, which originates in Laozi's Daodejing, but which is taken up in Zen works such as Hui-Neng's Platform Sutra. However, in Zen, the mirror stands for the mind itself, which must be cleansed through meditation so that it reflects the world and one's true nature more clearly; in The Cloud of Unknowing, the mirror represents the word of God, not the mind, though it performs the similar function of enabling one to see clearly into one's true nature (in this case, for the purpose of sussing out sin).
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