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The Work of Art as Religious Enactment. Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene

L’œuvre d’art comme acte religieux. La Madeleine repentante de Georges de la Tour
David Jasper
p. 435-441


Cet essai porte sur La Madeleine repentante qui appartient à la collection de la National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.. Le tableau est abordé ici dans la tradition théologique du personnage de Marie-Madeleine et examiné en tant qu’œuvre où se joue le processus liturgique de repentance, confession puis expérience de l’absolution, ce qui permet à l’observateur de participer à ce processus. C’est une œuvre très personnelle et en même temps ancrée dans la vie commune de l’Église.

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1One of the most important books for the understanding of later medieval art and literature is that extraordinary, perverse, beautiful and persistently influential work by Jacobus de Voragine entitled The Golden Legend (c. 1260). It portrays the lives of the saints in stories both factual and fictional that range from the preposterous to the profound, from the shocking to the theologically acute, and its influence was often greater than the official voice of the Church itself. Indeed, although the work was intended as a source-book for preachers, it met with a lukewarm response from the author’s own order, the Dominicans, even as its popularity with a wider audience grew. Translated many times, still over one thousand medieval manuscripts of the Latin text of the Legend survive, indicating its huge influence on popular religious thought.

  • 1  Luke 10:41-2 (New Revised Standard Version).

2The Legend presents Mary Magdalene as the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. In the episode recorded in St. Luke 10: 38-42, Jesus is welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary, after which Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” while Martha distractedly busies herself with domestic chores. In what was to become a key passage in the traditional Christian distinction between the vita activa and the vita contempliva, Jesus upbraids Martha and commends Mary with the words, “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.”1 This ‘best part’ is described in TheGoldenLegend not as contemplation but significantly, in view of the Magdalene’s previous life, as the virtue of penance, or penitence, the end of which is the attainment of holiness. Thus of Mary, the greatest of all Christianity’s repentant sinners, Jacobus writes:

  • 2  Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, Volum (...)

Before her conversion she remained in guilt, burdened with the debt of eternal punishment. In her conversion she was armed and rendered unconquerable by the armour of penance: she armed herself the best possible way – with all the weapons of penance – because for every pleasure she had enjoyed she found a way of immolating herself. After her conversion she was magnificent in the superabundance of grace, because where trespass abounded, grace was superabundant.2

3Jacobus’ complex account of the life of Mary, an important figure in the Church’s liturgical calendar, is fabulous and almost entirely unscriptural. It consists of a collection of stories which by the 13th century were already many hundreds of years old, handed down largely through an oral tradition, and which portray Mary, together with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus (who by this time is portrayed as elected bishop of Marseilles!), as the evangelist of Provence in southern France. She is presented as a formidable preacher and a penitent whose customary pose in countless paintings and sculptures was in a cave with a skull (symbol of the transitoriness of life and wealth), a crucifix (a combination of images which she shares with her fellow saints St. Francis of Assissi and St. Charles Borromeo) and an open bible from which she is often seen reading, together with a jar of perfume (reminiscent of her sinful life before her conversion) and, always, abundant and flowing red hair. Jacobus recounts that in 769, in the time of Charlemagne, Gerard, Duke of Burgundy, devoted himself to works of religious charity and moved Mary’s relics from Aix to the Cathedral of Vézélay, which, by the 12th century, had become an important site of pilgrimage. His narrative in the Legend concludes with a series of miracles associated with Mary’s remains in Vézélay.

  • 3  Canon of St. Mary of Egypt, in The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (...)
  • 4  Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, London: Harper Collins, 1993, 240.

4Not only was this utterly fabulous medieval Mary Magdalene a conflation of three biblical women (the sister of Martha, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and the Mary of John 20 who at first mistakes Jesus for the gardener), but she has also become confused and partly conflated with her namesake, the probably entirely legendary St. Mary of Egypt, another reformed prostitute who became, in her own right, a liturgical icon of repentance as her life was celebrated in the Western liturgy at matins on the Thursday of the fifth week of Lent.3 Like her namesake of Egypt, Mary Magdalene, at least from the thirteenth century onwards, has a complex and various history in art and iconography, portrayed sometimes as a beautiful young woman either elegantly or simply dressed, or more often naked but for her long hair, or else frequently as an ancient woman,  drawn and haggard after years of harsh penitential living in the wilderness, her former physical beauty remaining evident only in her long flowing hair which now serves as a covering over her body to preserve her modesty. By the 16th century in Italy, Mary Magdalene, bathing in the glories of Renaissance humanism and art and with a glance back to her old profession, combines the vocabulary of Eros and Christian love to become the “Venus of Divine Love”, above all in the many paintings of her by Titian, and most famously that which is now in the Pitti Palace in Florence. Here her generously revealed beauty led the flamboyant and often extravagant Neopolitan poet Giambattista Marino in 1620 to become rather carried away and begin to wax lyrical about her “flowing mane which makes a golden necklace around the naked alabaster breasts.”4

5But it is to a slightly later and perhaps more sombre moment in Mary’s varied ecclesiastical and artistic history that we now turn, yet one which still carries with it many of the complexities and paradoxes of the medieval legend. The movement in the Roman Catholic Church which is broadly known as the Counter-Reformation derived to a large extent from the definitions and reforms laid down by the Council of Trent (1545-63), which, among other things, reasserted the doctrine of seven sacraments, including that of penance as one of the liturgical rituals which were deemed to have spiritual effects in virtue of their proper performance (ex opereoperato). It was at Session 7 of the Council (3rd March, 1547) that the institution of all seven sacraments by Christ and their necessity for salvation was affirmed. Further discussions on penance and extreme unction took place later in the Council at Session 14 (25th November, 1551), and Protestant teachings were repudiated. Although the primary meaning of penance is “punishment” (poena), stress was laid upon the ascetic practice of the penitent in various forms of retirement from the world as means of controlling and forsaking the passions which resulted in sin. In such teachings and the encouragement of penitential practices, Mary was a significant figure.

  • 5 See Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Dictionary of Christian Art, Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1994, (...)

6In the world of art, southern European Counter-Reformation baroque painters like Caravaggio in Italy and Velásquez in Spain developed new iconographic motifs in defence of the teachings of the Council of Trent and against the criticisms of the Reformers. In particular under such influences, the iconography of the penitential Mary Magdalene, long having forsaken her lascivious past, flourished afresh as she became a powerful and particular symbol for devotion to the sacraments, above all the sacrament of penance.5 Furthermore, Mary’s traditional iconographic accoutrements, above all the skull, fitted well with the Catholic reformers’ preoccupation with death and the transitoriness of life. Amongst the newly established Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and through the Spiritual Exercises (1541) of St. Ignatius Loyola in particular, a preoccupation with death and the contemplation of skulls went as far as actual skulls being made readily available from cemeteries as aids to devotion. In art, death’s heads were often depicted with the addition of the cheerful reminder, Hodie mihi, cras tibi (“My turn today, yours tomorrow”).

7The deeply enigmatic French realist painter Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) lived all his life in Lunéville in the Duchy of Lorraine which, at that time was experiencing a religious revival largely associated with the Franciscans. His corpus of work, of which only some thirty-five paintings survive, falls neatly into two categories: there are rather flamboyant and energetic daylight episodes, and then the (more important for us), mysterious night scenes, in all cases except one illuminated by candle light. These latter paintings clearly show the influence of Caravaggio and his dramatic use of lighting on La Tour’s work, probably learnt directly from Utrecht artists such as Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), since it is unlikely that La Tour ever visited Italy himself. Of these paintings the art historian Anthony Blunt has remarked:

  • 6 A. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France. 1500-1700, [1988], quoted in Hugh Brigstocke (ed.), TheOx (...)

The forms are generalized to their greatest simplicity and all violence, all movement even, are eliminated, so that the picture takes on the quality of stillness and silence rarely to be found in the visual arts.6

  • 7  S. Haskins, op. cit., 269-70.

8They are works, in short, of profound and profoundly still meditation. Among them there are at least four versions of the penitent Magdalene, featuring the motifs of the skull, the traditional flowing hair, the candle and a mirror. The one which we are particularly concerned with here is a rather late painting by La Tour, executed in about 1640, and now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C.. Here Mary Magdalene is portrayed as seated and pensive, her head supported by her right hand, while the fingers of her left hand, thrown into relief by the candle behind them, gently touch the eye sockets of the skull that is placed on the bible, the book of life, and one of Mary’s customary symbols. But in this instance she is not reading the bible. Mary is finely if simply dressed, yet the light draws us not to the beauty of her form, rather to her contemplative face which looks at the mirror that is set before her. In it we, the viewers of the painting, see reflected not Mary herself, but rather the reflection of the skull. Thus the mirror serves two functions: we, the viewers, see in it the skull, while Mary simultaneously contemplates there her own face which her right hand touches, even as her hand left touches the skull. In the words of one critic, Susan Haskins, “The senses, sight and touch, are united with the emotions and intellect to meditate upon death and upon what lies beyond.”7

9In the art of the Counter-Reformation, Mary Magdalene, like other saints, could sometimes be enlisted as an instrument of ecclesial propaganda in the celebration of the sacraments: in Francesco Vanni’s painting The Last Communion of Mary Magdalen (c. 1600), for example, the legendary Bishop Maximim (who was, according to The GoldenLegend, one of Christ’s original seventy-two disciples to whom St. Peter had particularly entrusted Mary), administers communion to the dying woman in a visual affirmation of the triumph of the Eucharist and of the Catholic faith over the incursions of Protestantism. But the clear implication is that the artist La Tour gives us something other, and far more than mere religious propaganda. In looking at this picture we literally join with Mary herself in her act of contemplation. Together we look into the glass, seeing, respectively, her beautiful face and the death skull, each of which she is touching. Life becomes death and death becomes, in Mary, beautiful. Through our commonality with Mary in the watching, we also touch the skull as it literally rests on the very pages of scripture, a real presence though the skull is in shadow, while her face is beautifully illuminated. Thus, to see the picture is to enter into it, and as we respond thereby to Mary’s beauty it is not, as it might have been in her former life, with the erotic gaze fuelled by aspects of the sensual, but with a sense of her human beauty already transformed and transfigured in life and through death. Mary herself, in her bodily presence, has taken us through the history of her life, which is ours also in the journey towards salvation and righteousness, and if we see in the mirror the sign of our passage through this fallen life into the next, we see in Mary’s face the overcoming of death in her ageless beauty which is her real presence amongst us. In La Tour’s art, the woman of scripture and of fabulous legend has become a reality which we know and respect, and all anecdotal and extraneous detail is eliminated in that universal stillness which Blunt so well describes. Such still-looking and profound contemplation is itself, I suggest, nothing less for us than a liturgical act.

  • 8  Walter M. Abbott, S. J. (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966, 161.
  • 9  Ibid., 158.

10By way of a very brief conclusion to this brief essay, I make a reference to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which was, like the Council of Trent in its day, a watershed in the Roman Catholic Church for the renewal of the sacraments. In its documents on the Sacred Liturgy Vatican II expresses the need to revise the rite and formulas of the sacrament of penance “so that they give more luminous expression to the nature and effect of the sacrament.”8 But what could be more luminous for us than this Mary Magdalene of Georges de La Tour? Here, and long before the rather ponderous and churchy language of the Vatican Council sought to define the purpose of the sacraments, this artist, with infinite courtesy and gentle privacy, has shown us why Mary has for so long been the gracious symbol for us that she has been. For if the act of contemplating this picture is itself a celebration, and the work of art is then, in its “proper performance”, truly a religious enactment, then it may be that the truth is revealed here that is said of the sacraments by the Council: “They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.”9

The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, Georges de La Tour

The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, Georges de La Tour

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.52.1

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1  Luke 10:41-2 (New Revised Standard Version).

2  Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, Volume 1, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 375.

3  Canon of St. Mary of Egypt, in The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, London, 1979, 447-63. See also Benedicta Ward SLG, Harlots of the Desert: A Study ofRepentance in Early Monastic Sources, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987, 26.

4  Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, London: Harper Collins, 1993, 240.

5 See Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Dictionary of Christian Art, Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1994, 51-3, 237.

6 A. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France. 1500-1700, [1988], quoted in Hugh Brigstocke (ed.), TheOxford Companion to Western Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 408.

7  S. Haskins, op. cit., 269-70.

8  Walter M. Abbott, S. J. (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966, 161.

9  Ibid., 158.

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Table des illustrations

Titre The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, Georges de La Tour
Crédits National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.52.1(​exhibitions/​caravaggio/​fig2a.htm)
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David Jasper, « The Work of Art as Religious Enactment. Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, 435-441.

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David Jasper, « The Work of Art as Religious Enactment. Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, mis en ligne le 19 mai 2009, consulté le 17 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.129

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David Jasper

Professor, (Glasgow, UK)David Jasper is Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. He holds degrees from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Durham and Uppsala. He has lectured and published widely in the field of literature, the arts and religion. His publications include The Sacred Desert (2004) and The Sacred Body (2009). He was the founding editor of the journal Literature and Theology.

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