A masterful mash-up of sex, death, spirituality and Mary Magdalene

Georges de La Tour’s painting is a consummation devoutly to be wish’d

I love, in this picture by Georges de La Tour, the seemingly effortless, elemental coming together of sex, spirituality, violence, death. It’s all there, just so. The painting is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (there are other, subtly different versions at the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). It shows Mary Magdalene in a dark grotto in Provence. It was to here that the former prostitute supposedly withdrew to pray and do penance after her extraordinary period of contact with Jesus, whose violent crucifixion and subsequent resurrection she is said to have witnessed.

In de La Tour’s imagining, she sits at a table supporting books of scripture, a candle and a whip or scourge (which Mary has been using on herself), and she stares into the candle’s flame. Cast mostly in strong shadow, she appears in the slightly hypnotized condition common to fire watchers.

One hand props up her lovely, pensive face. The other holds a skull, which gleams with reflected light. De La Tour is inviting us to make a connection between the two pairings of head and hand. The tenderness of the hand on the skull in her heavy-skirted lap (the skull seems to be throwing itself back in ecstasy) suggests shades of meaning more arrestingly sensuous than the pro forma device of the skull-as-memento mori.

Observe, too, the way other forms in the painting seem subtly mirrored, or inverted: the sinuous swathe of rich, glossy hair on Mary’s head is pinched at her shoulder before it swells, as in a warped hourglass, and cascades into the shadow running down her arm and right side. The forms of her legs are similarly distilled, one crossed in front of the other in a way that subtly repeats the movements of the plumes of smoke coming off the exquisitely realized flame.

De La Tour was a painter from Lorraine who was influenced, indirectly, by Caravaggio. Adopting the Italian’s signature tenebrism (dramatic contrasts of light and dark), he purified his intense and gritty realism, focusing instead on rounded, elemental forms in a manner reminiscent of the early Italian master Piero della Francesca.

Here, instead of showing the penitent Mary Magdalene as an old woman, as was often done (most famously by Donatello), he has emphasized her unblemished youth, letting the light pick out the bare skin of her chest, her soft forearm and the outlines of her legs, from the knees down.

Of course, from a religious point of view, the candle is a symbol of spirituality. The 16th-century mystic Saint John of the Cross spoke of the “living flame of love” that draws believers out of the “dark night of the soul.”

But flames have long been associated with sex and yearning, too. Aside from being phallic symbols, they have their own intimate life and powers of generation. A marriage is said to be consummated after sex has occurred; the usage is clearly connected to the way flames “consume” oxygen. “Flames of desire” and “licking flames” are just some of the innumerable cliches that reinforce the connection.

Certainly, flames are unusually potent stimulants to the human imagination. They have the power (as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote) “to warp the minds of the clearest thinkers and to keep bringing them back to the poetic fold in which dreams replace thought and poems conceal theorems.”

As our bedtime faces are set aglow by the screens of our phones, a painting like this reminds us of the secret persistence of a more basic idolatry — the idolatry of fire — and of consummations (be they poetic, sexual or spiritual) “devoutly to be wish’d,” as Hamlet put it.

The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, c. 1635-1637
Georges de La Tour (b. 1593). At Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.