Faith through Art: Praying with the first witness of the Resurrection

“The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame” was painted by Georges de La Tour in the 17th century. (Public domain photo)

By Sandra Martin

St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is July 22, is a Gospel figure both revered and controversial. While there is no scriptural basis for it, in the tradition of Western Christianity Mary has been viewed as a ‘woman of ill repute,’ and it was only in 1969, that she was finally cleared by the church of this notoriety. Nevertheless, throughout the Christian centuries Mary Magdalene has been depicted in art –– and our spiritual imagination –– as a prostitute, a hermit, a penitent. 
A more accurate portrait of Mary Magdalene is of a woman who was among the most beloved and faithful disciples of Jesus and who is cited in Scripture at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles. Indeed, in all four Gospels Mary Magdalene is identified as having been the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection. In John’s account, Mary discovers the empty tomb, and runs to inform Peter, who along with “the beloved disciple,” rushes back to the tomb and finds the grave clothes scattered. The disciples depart and Mary, left weeping at the tomb, is greeted by the Risen Christ and given the charge of conveying the Good News of his resurrection to the disciples (Jn 20: 1-18). 
Because of this unique and powerful encounter with Christ at the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene earned the title “apostle to the apostles.” Not only was Mary first witness to the resurrection, she was also a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as to his burial. In a desolating and poignant scene in Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea wraps the body of Jesus, lays him in the tomb, rolls a stone across the entrance, and departs, “But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb” (Mt 27:61).
In this 17th century painting by Georges de La Tour (French, 1593-1652), “The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame,” we see the contemplative figure of Mary at its most idealistic. In its attention to detail, its dramatic contrast of dark and light, its many symbolic elements, and its complex yet unified composition, this is a painting that is deeply spiritual and meditative. Mary becomes a model for how to be in relationship with Christ through the practice of prayer.
The painting depicts Mary in deep reflection on the smoking flame of the lamp. Her left hand cradles - and brings our attention to - her face, shown in gentle concentration, while her right hand rests on a skull. On her desk are two books, most likely scriptures, along with a wooden cross on which lies a blood stained scourge, no doubt a reference to her witnessing of the crucifixion of Christ: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala,” (Jn 19:25). Perhaps in reference to the attention at that time in church history to her purported sinful nature, Mary Magdalene is depicted with bare shoulders and legs. The detail in the various textures in the painting - among them the diaphanous smoke, the gloss of the skull, the fabric of the blouse and the skirt, and the smoothness of Mary’s skin - all contribute to the complexity and richness of this work.
The skull which rests in Mary’s lap not only reminds us not only of our own mortality, but also of Mary’s witness to the crucifixion at Calvary, also known as Golgotha: “They brought him to the place of Golgotha (which is translated Place of the Skull),” Mk 15:22. 
The paramount importance of the Passion in the experience of Mary Magdalene, as well as in the Good News of the kingdom of God, is affirmed in this painting by the presence of the wooden cross and the scourge. Surrendering to the mystery of the cross, without which there would have been no resurrection, becomes the challenge of the Christian who seeks to truly heed the words of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Mt 16:24.
The catalog of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to which collection this work belongs, states, “…this painting emphasizes Mary’s state of mind and heart rather than time and place.” The state of her mind and heart are rendered through the beauty of the composition, as, amidst the darkness surrounding her, our focus follows Mary’s to the smoking flame. The inner spiritual beauty of Mary reflects the light of Christ, as her flesh seems to glow from within with a divine luminosity. The radiance of this light, reflected so beautifully in Mary’s face, her skin and in highlights on the skull, cross and books, leads us to reflect on Jesus’ words in Scripture, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” Jn 8:12.