De La Tour’s Magdalen

Strange that Georges de la Tour’s heroic Magdalen has not been chosen for the cover of one of the many books about her which have multiplied in recent years. Here is a woman worthy of the title ‘apostola Apostolorum.’ The artist moreover, like his subject, is the object of current enthusiasms: after nearly two and a half centuries of near oblivion, he is now a highly regarded figure in the history of French painting.

The Caravaggista to end all Caravaggisti uses the techniques of the master in his own distinctive ways. This Magdalen is dignified and statuesque – far from the frenzied neurotic of Luke’s account and the Isenheim Altarpiece. Like Jerome in his study, she has turned away from her books in deep thought, her hand on a skull to show her concern with human mortality. Her head is viewed obliquely and supported by her left hand, so that her face is strangely anonymous. She is everywoman, looking from thoughts of death towards the light.

Her bare shoulder, which recedes suddenly into dense shadow, is not fleshly. It has the texture of marble. Walk four hundred yards through the French galleries of the Louvre and you will encounter this shoulder’s opposite number: that of Ingres’ Valpinçon Bather, as erotic as the former is classically chaste. De la Tour has managed to strip away the Magdalen of legend in order to present to the spectator Woman as Hero of Faith: an icon as dense with significance and as visually unforgettable as Caravaggio’s own youthful Baptist.