De La Tour: The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame
Days get shorter in winter, and will continue to do so for the next week as we hit the solstice. We’re in our wilderness period of the year, reaching towards a dichotomy of the danger and wonder within this state. Which is why I’ve become increasingly more dismayed at the false binary of darkness and light that we’ve turned to around holiday messaging and the construct of right and wrong (see: Michael Cohen). The echoes of colonialism and overtones of the white savior complex aside, darkness isn’t always a negative.
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki describes the potential darkness has, in his book In Praise of Shadows, to be a "repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow… a 'visible darkness,' where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering.” Expanding on this book in a post for The Paris Review last year, author Nina MacLaughlin notes that darkness “edges one up against the vast, the frightening, the nonunderstandable. The candlelight makes one better know the dark, the shadows, the spaces unseen. And the dark—the hollows and corners behind the curtains, above the rafters, the places where dimness pools — helps one better know the light.”
One of my favorite maestros of shade, Caravaggio, exemplifies darkness as a fertile ground for intimacy, growth, and wonderment across his works. He also became an influence for today’s artist, Georges de la Tour and his early 17th-century work, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame. He shares Caravaggio’s sense of realism, of the power in the proletariat. I think about this painting a lot this time of year, when the sun sets at 4pm and we find an almost synesthetic balance in the darkness, against the flicker of a flame. We’re all waiting for illumination, but we also find that illumination through this rich, lush downtime.
What I love too about this particular painting is its subject matter. Mary Magdalene is often painted as a prostitute who was “saved” by Jesus Christ. In fact, Mary was a smart, well-educated woman who independently chose to follow Christ (getting painted as a prostitute is what you get for being that way in the BC world — or, really, in 2018). Could the dimly-lit shade of winter give us a sense of seeing past the binary, the black-and-white, into a richer haze of grey? Can we notice all of the textures and details of a moment, can we fall in love with each rainbow-like particle of a room lit only by candlelight? Can we nurture this pregnancy of tiny particles?
“There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet. As you move through this day, this week, this lifetime, notice when you start to label things as good or bad. Can you take a step back and understand these situations and observations in their full spectrum of visible darkness? Can you contemplate them as Mary of Magdala contemplates the flame in De La Tour? Can you embrace the vast and nonunderstandable and love the question versus the answer?