by Julie Schauer | Dec 5, 2011 | Art Appreciation: Visual Analysis, Baroque Art, Caravaggio, Christianity and the Church, Georges de la Tour, National Gallery of Art Washington
Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598, shows the saint at the moment of her conversion. It is from the Detroit Institute of Arts, but is currently on view in Caravaggio and His Followers, at the Kimbell Museum of Art
In Caravaggio’s remarkable version of the Mary Magdalen story, he painted the moment of her transition from sinner to saint. As much as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized the idea that the Church demonized Mary Magdalen, more commonly she was idealized in art as a saint who turned her life around. The painter Michelangelo Merisi, who is nicknamed Caravaggio, was demonized in his lifetime for his shockingly realistic paintings and his own “sinful” life. (He was charged with murder and often on the run.)
The inclusion of Martha with Mary Magdalen and other objects requires the viewer to interpret the symbolism. Martha is seated with her back to the viewer, with only one shoulder and her hands hit by Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting. On the table are a comb, powder puff and mirror, symbols of vanity. Mary points to her chest holding a flower, while her other hand points emphatically to a diamond square of radiant light on the edge of the convex mirror.
The naturalistic light, seemingly projected from a window, is also a divine light, the ray of God which has inspired the worldly Mary Magdalen to “see the light.” In the moment that Caravaggio highlighted and caught in paint, as if on camera, we witness spiritual transition. From this point on she will give up her luxury and prostitution to follow Jesus. By using models who resemble contemporary people in Rome, rather than Biblical characters, the viewers were supposed to identify with the personal nature of the conversion process.
Light is concentrated in a few important places: Martha’s hands, Mary’s face and chest, the hand and patch of light on the mirror. Sister Martha’s hands are lit because she is pleading for Mary to change (and perhaps counting her sins and/or the reasons she should convert). Mary answers by pointing precisely to that light on the mirror.
Perhaps because Mary Magdalen was seen as an instrument of change, and as the most loyal companion of Jesus in his death, she was greatly idolized in the Middle Ages. The church of Sainte-Madeleine, Vezelay, in Burgundy, was a site of her relics and one of the most important of all pilgrimage churches. However, in the late 13th century, a 3rd century Christian tomb discovered in the crypt of a church in Provence was connected to Mary Magdalen. The site of her devotion then moved to this church and another site in the delta of the Rhone, where legend claimed she had relocated after Jesus’ death.
After seeing Caravaggio’s painting of Mary Magdalen, I thought differently of Georges de la Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen at the National Gallery. Like Caravaggio, he used a contemporary young woman as his model. Yet this contemplative scene omits symbols of vanity and the light-dark contrast comes from candlelight hidden behind a skull. As Mary looks in the mirror, the skull is reflected rather than her face, as de la Tour has artfully manipulated perspective. Life as a sinner leads to a spiritual death. Death is inevitable, but if she chooses to follow Jesus she will die of the self and be reborn in new life.
Here Mary Magdalen may either be pondering her fate before conversion, or thinking of her wish to be reunited with Jesus in eternity later in life. Oddly, she caresses the skull as if wanting to die, perhaps because death for a person at peace with God is ultimate goal and preferable to life on earth. The shape of the skull mimics, in reverse, the shape of her sleeve, arm and hand, showing her intimate connection to thoughts of death. In his view, we are also encouraged to ponder our actions and/or sins and consider our life in eternity. Personal faith is in important factor of both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation at this time, although only the Catholic artists would portray saints. De la Tour leaves the meaning ambiguous, unlike Caravaggio who shows a transitional moment.
Georges de la Tour, The Repentant Magdalene, c. 1635, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, shows her in a contemplative mode, perhaps thinking of death.
In the 6th century, Pope Gregory gave a sermon suggesting Mary Magdalen had been a prostitute before following Jesus. (Of her past, the Bible refers to the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, a vague description.) Although the church usually portrayed her to show that salvation is possible to all who ask for forgiveness, the model for Caravaggio’s Mary Magdalen was Fillide Melandroni, one of Rome’s most notorious courtesans. Neither she nor Caravaggio–who revolutionized art in his time–seem to have undergone a spiritual revolution. Caravaggio was frequently in fights and in 1606 he appears to have gotten into a fight with another man over Fillide, this remarkable woman.
(Note: Caravaggio’s more famous paintings of religious calling/conversion are The Calling of St. Matthew and The Conversion of St. Paul, both in Rome and done around 1601. This artist’s life is always a fascination to the public. There is a new biography about him by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, which may try to explain the contradictions of his life. A biography I read a long time ago is Desmond Seward, Caravaggio: A Passionate Life.)
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
by Julie Schauer | Nov 27, 2011 | Art Appreciation: Visual Analysis, Baroque Art, Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour, Kimbell Art Museum Ft. Worth, National Gallery of Art Washington, Paintings of Deception
Valentin de Boulogne, Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice, c. 1618/20
A magnificent exhibition of Caravaggio and His Followers at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth features the Washington National Gallery of Art’s Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice by Valentin de Boulogne. The painting tells a story of deception. Caravaggio had also painted Card Sharks with fewer figures. Boulogne, a Frenchman working in Rome, may have known of his composition.
Boulogne’s painting is a tight, close-up composition with masterfully chosen areas of light. Two simultaneous episodes are taking place: dice throwing on the right and cheating card players on the left. The card sharks are the first to demand our attention, as they look startlingly real. Behind the central figure, who is in the process of cheating, another drama is happening. A man on the right looks down and covers his dice, perhaps hiding something while his adversary with the red hat seems about to erupt in anger. Although not a traditionally religious painting, Boulogne suggests two of the deadly sins, deception and anger. He warns of the hazards of gambling, exactly what these two vignettes represent.
The dice player with downcast eyes can be variously interpreted.
The sinister scene is set in a dark room. The well-dressed young man in front left is being duped by two soldiers, while two men cross behind them playing dice. The compact composition and the forceful use of diagonals heighten the tension, connecting the men who otherwise would be seen as individual character types. Colors are primarily earthy for these ruffians. But other colors fight for attention: white, scattered touches of blue clothes and the brilliant red hat in center (symbol of anger?), which is replicated in less vibrant red stockings on bottom facing the other direction.
A dark, sinister man in the upper left corner startles with his realistic presence. The details of faces come from a blog, Head for Art, May 24, 2010.
Eye movements and gestures pull us around the painting. At first glance, I am attracted to the white face and dark staring eye of the man in center (see below). His gaze goes past his competitor, to the man in shadow behind. Though the face of this man on the far left is darker than the others, his expression is so real as his fingers signal the number two (above). The shadowy compositions suggest that more than cheating is going on, something very dark, sinister and deceptive. Boulogne warns against taking chances in life. Intense light- dark contrast is a legacy of Caravaggio.
Viewers note the intensity of this soldier’s stare and his slow, careful choice of cards pulls the viewer into the story.
Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, of 1594, comes from the Capitoline Museum of Rome. The aristocratic young man falls in love as he is being duped.
Another allegory of deception Caravaggio painted is The Fortune Teller, 1594, a startlingly realistic depiction in the Kimbell’s exhibition. An alluring young gypsy and fashionable aristocrat look at each other with an intense hold. Her face suggests she is attracted to him, or at least feigning an attraction. His puffed sleeve, puffed cheek, elbow, sway of hips and sword express confidence, but caution is thrown to the wind. As the girl reads his palm, she slyly slips off his golden ring. The viewer, captivated by the couple’s loving gaze and beautiful clothing, is also tricked. We only see this detail by close inspection. The colors are primarily earth tones, black and white.
The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de la Tour, 1630-34. The cheat, who slyly looks at us and shows his deck, is a “shady” figure, both literally and figuratively. The shadiness of the story is in contrast to the highly polished figures and their clothes.
Georges de la Tour’s scene of card players, in the Kimbell’s own collection, rounds out these tales of deception. Some elements of The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs are familiar– its close-up view and dark background. But the colors are brilliant oranges, pinks and reds. The youngest boy will get duped, and everyone else knows they are taking advantage of him. Cheating begins with the large woman who glances sideways at the woman bringing wine, who in turn casts one eye towards the “shady” cardplayer. In shadow on the left, he holds out the cards for us to see and looks at us outside the painting, bringing the viewers into the drama. The boy on right is innocent, but flirting with a world beyond his experience. The background is completely black behind the evil threesome, while the young boy is still halfway “in the light” of the painting, midway between good and bad. He can choose to stay on the right side, both literally and figuratively.
Certain Baroque painters could visually portray situations comparable to the dramatizations of Shakespeare from the 1590s and early 1600s. Carefully calculated figure placements and compositional angles let the human drama unfold before our eyes. They moralize and forewarn viewers of evil. Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller and de la Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs also are also comedies, because the well-dressed young men, possibly aristocrats, do not realize their susceptibility to trickery.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016