The Washington Post
She was a saint
I delighted in Sebastian Smee’s many interesting observations about “The Magdalen With the Smoking Flame” by Georges de La Tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) [“A masterful mash-up of sex, death, spirituality and Mary Magdalene,” Arts, Aug. 21]. As an abstract artist and docent at the National Gallery of Art, I enjoyed thinking about the similarities and differences between that work and the de La Tour in the National Gallery’s permanent collection.
The National Gallery’s Magdalene is heavily shadowed, sitting and surrounded by a dramatic tenebrism light, contemplating her life in side profile. In this work, the viewer must work a bit harder to discern the source of the flame, the item used to elevate the skull and figure out what is the object on the table she stares at so intently. The low-cut V-neck design of her off-white blouse contrasts nicely with the skull’s round form. The LACMA Magdalene’s blouse falls off her shoulders, forming a horizontal line across her chest that repeats those of the top edge of the candle container, books and other assorted objects stacked on the table.
To my eye, this de La Tour series of paintings is ever so modern and compositionally restrained from any prior depictions of Mary Magdalene. They undoubtedly presented a fresh, exciting style of Christian Baroque art.
My major curiosity in the piece Smee wrote about is the artistic decision by de La Tour to put a rope around Magdalene’s waist. Is there a symbolic message there? It brings to my mind the countless paintings in Western art showing rope used to torture or restrict Jesus in flagellation scenes.
Margaret A. “Nan” Morrison, Arlington
I greatly appreciate Sebastian Smee’s weekly Great Works In Focus columns. I am a long-serving docent at the National Gallery of Art. Smee’s columns add to my knowledge and understanding of art.
This focus on Georges de La Tour was especially interesting, but Smee overlooked another de La Tour work at the National Gallery: “The Repentant Magdalen,” (c. 16351640), painted in a similar vein to the Los Angeles work. I found Smee’s allusions to sexual yearning interesting but misguided in the context of de La Tour’s works.
De La Tour was painting in Lorraine, a region located in present-day France, in the early 17th century, which was part of the strong Catholic counterreaction to the Reformation that occurred just to the north. Lorraine became saturated with convents. As patron saint of contemplatives, Mary Magdalene was an appropriate subject and became an overwhelming favorite for painters in Catholic Europe. In Lorraine, special devotion to her was associated with the new order of Notre Dame du Refuge and the Augustinian order of the penitence of Magdalen. The symbols in the National Gallery and Los Angeles paintings have to do with various religious themes and not the sexual themes that Smee emphasized. In particular, the candle or light source is a symbol that Mary received the light and thus poured out the light — she was light-giver and enlightened with heavenly glory. De La Tour often used nocturnal settings for his devotional paintings, heightening the sense of contemplation. De La Tour was working in a time of religious conflict, especially as the Catholic Church strongly countered the emergence of Protestantism in Northern Europe. His symbolism was purely religious, not sexual.
Leonard L. Coburn, Washington
In his Aug. 21 review of a Mary Magdalene painting, “A masterful mash-up of sex, death, spirituality and Mary Magdalene,” Sebastian Smee labeled Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Even the Catholic Church admits that the prostitute label was not correct.
Margaret Stroebe, Battle Ground, Wash.
Masterful mash-up, indeed!
The story of “The Magdalen With the Smoking Flame” could have been solely about art, about the depth of the pigmentation and masterful way the artist manipulated the realistic flame and the light it casts around the room. Instead, the writer chose to write about the subject, and right from the start he got it wrong. Former prostitute? For nearly 2,000 years, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as a whore or an adulteress, never, ever as the disciple she really was. The most maligned character of any story, to some the greatest story ever told — and the female lead, of course, is a prostitute.
Caridad Gelineau, Fairfax