By Candlelight

By Candlelight

Georges de La Tour’s Magdelen and the Smoking Flame. 1640

I’ve always been fascinated with high contrast. Baroque painters, building on the legacy left them by Da Vinci, among other Italian Renaissance heroes, experimented with cast light and its effects in a way not yet seen before the 17th century. The best of them was Caravaggio, and he had many followers, among them one Georges de La Tour.

The painting above is a meditation on mortality, on life, on death, on the miracles one witnesses with or without a messiah in the picture. It is one of La Tour’s finest, and shows a tremendous growth from his early, rather clumsy and derivative work. In this painting he demonstrates his mastery of shadow and light, of the human figure and the drama a simple candle can create. He makes us think of opposites, the play of opposites — eternal conflicts and their necessity. Black needs white and vice versa. The present needs the past to push it into the future. We can contemplate those opposites as never joining, never merging, never flowing within and without, or we can hold old paradoxes in our minds at the same time until we burst into fire that never dies. The mind as fire that does not consume itself. The mind as the ultimate synthesizer.

Our mind’s infrastructure makes the resolution of paradox extremely difficult. We seek order. We seek the arrangement and composition of opposing, irreconcilable things, and do not want this order disturbed. So it takes a leap — a leap of faith in our capacity to imagine and move beyond the basic fit and finish we impose. It takes a kind of magical thinking to start us off, to get us to run out of the logical, rational, tidy and harmonious buildings we place in front of us. But we must run out from them, at least on occasion, if we are ever to see what may be on the other side of chaos. We must battle through that chaos to find the place where all colors, the deeds of light, converge.


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