According to the tenets of the 17th–century Catholic church, Mary Magdalen was an example of the repentant sinner and consequently a symbol of the Sacrament of Penance. According to legend, Mary led a dissolute life until her sister Martha persuaded her to listen to Jesus Christ. She became one of Christ's most devoted followers and he absolved her of her former sins.

In Georges de La Tour's somber canvas Mary is shown in profile seated at a table. A candle is the source of light in the composition, but the light also carries a spiritual meaning as it casts a golden glow on the saint's face and the objects assembled on the table. The candle light silhouettes Mary's left hand which rests on a skull that is placed on a book. The skull is reflected in a mirror. The skull and mirror are emblems of vanitas, implying the transience of life.

The simplification of forms, reduced palette, and attention to details evoke a haunting silence that is unique to La Tour's work. La Tour's intense naturalism rendered religious allegory accessible to every viewer. Although his work is deeply spiritual in tone, the solidity and massing of the forms reveal the same emphasis on clarity and symmetry that pervaded contemporary history painting and was a hallmark of French baroque art.


  • Title: The Repentant Magdalen
  • Date Created: c. 1635 - 1640
  • Physical Dimensions: w927 x h1130 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Theme: religious, saints
  • School: French
  • Provenance: Marquise de Caulaincourt, by 1877; by inheritance to his sister, comtesse de Andigné, by 1911.[1] art market, Paris; André Fabius, Paris, by 1936;[2] purchased 1974 by NGA. [1] On the back of the stretcher is the stencil of Etienne François Haro (1827 1897) and his son Henri (1855 1911), important Parisian restorers and vendors of art supplies, as well as artists themselves. An entry in the Haro account book for 9 October 1877 provides the early provenance, information that was first published by Pierre Rosenberg and Jacques Thuillier, "George de La Tour," Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 22, no. 2 (1972): 161, followed, with slightly differing details, by Pierre Rosenberg and François Macé de l'Épinay, Georges de La Tour: vie et oeuvre, Fribourg, 1973: 140, and Benedict Nicolson and Christopher Wright, Georges de La Tour, London, 1974: 175. [2] The three references to the painting that discuss its provenance (see note 1) provide differing accounts of when and where Fabius acquired the painting: Rosenberg and Thuillier 1972 say 1936; Rosenberg and Macé de l'Épinay 1973 say a public sale in 1936; Nicolson and Wright 1974 say the Paris art market before 1936.
  • Artist: Georges de La Tour

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