The Magdalene at the Mirror (Fabius)

How strange! There is nothing in this painting. The lower half is black, done in dark bitumen paint. Nothing but, in the upper part, a partial view of a woman's face. Her fingers graze the skull set before her.

And yet! It is as if the dark backlit skull were seeking to extend itself into the fingers. As if its opacity were infiltrating the fingers, the hand, the arm; as if it were insinuating itself into the very figure: the skull's inert humility sweeps through Magdalene.

All that remains alive is the fragment of a face, with its eye, set above the light source. Magdalene is entirely lost in her thoughts, and these themselves are almost palpable. Her gaze is frozen, unmoving, and her hand caresses and explores the skull, as if plumbing death. Her fingers are like antennae, capturing the mystery of beyond. And while her sense of touch, a feel for the material, explore death, her feel for matters of the mind, as accomplished by her gaze, questions what is hidden (by the skull/death), namely the flame, symbol of revelation. The hidden flame - light, revelation - is opposed to the dark skull, inert matter. Magdalene ponders over this, cupping her chin in her hand, in the vast and so poorly lit darkness. The mirror facing her reflects her questioning back to us, suggesting that we as well should meditate on the opposition between the skull and Magdalene's face.

The spatial construction here is again masterfully built up, with the skull and arm serving to cut us off the painting's depth: death acts as a barrier to our curiosity and hides the light from us. Perpendicular to this frontal axis at the work's entry, another alignment brings to light a direct encounter between Magdalene and the skull's strange mirror image. Shadow and light are used to more subtle ends than mere aesthetic effect here. It is with consummate mastery that La Tour transforms a scene of the greatest sobriety and economy of means into a most intensely poignant reflection on life and death.