The Magdalene with Two Flames (Wrightsman)

Mary Magdalene gazes out beyond the mirror, beyond the painting, thus past former reality as revealed by the mirror, and past that very object of vanity/vanitas, which is illuminated by a candle. Yet the mirror stays put; it is set precisely to face us and, by the same token, it questions us as well as Magdalene.

In addition to this object of luxury, other items bear witness to the past Magdalene now renounces: the pearls and earrings she - or La Tour - has set down in front of us are no ordinary jewels. Perhaps you recognize them from preceding works? Indeed, they are the same as you saw in Caravaggio's Magdalene. They also adorn a certain courtesan of our acquaintance! We thus have reason to believe their appearance is far from random and that, rather, they are a mark of fate, a sign of destiny. And now, here they are on display for blind contemplation by empty eye sockets.

Enclosed within the gilt frame of the mirror, the flame illuminates this sort of still life. Yet notice how the candlestick is reflected in the mirror: the real candlestick and its real candle are seen in black, which is only natural since they are backlit. But the illusory candlestick and candle reflected in the mirror, situated and represented to perfection, are far more visible. In other words, reality here has less consistency than the illusion, or reflection, thereof.

A second duo exists in parallel to this amazing dialogue between an unreal double imbued with greater reality than the real original, namely that between Magdalene and the skull. These also are bathed in light, offering an alternative of rare poignancy. To all appearances, Magdalene has however already accomplished a choice. Not only has she elevated her gaze above the flame, above the black abyss of the mirror, but she sits set back, pushed to the left of the composition. This brings her almost entirely behind the diagonal demarcated by her arm and leg, as if to create a border of light between two worlds. Magdalene is in the process of drawing herself up, bringing to a close the pathos-filled moment of choice between two lives: between the real candle - reality - as depicted in dark shadow, and the reality - far more alive and authentic - of the mirror image.