My Daily Art Display offers up a painting currently in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille. It is an oil on canvas painting entitled The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene by Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens completed this work around 1620 as an altarpiece for the Church of the Recollets in Ghent. Art historians now believeg that this painting by the Rubens was done as they put it “perhaps with some help from assistants”.
The subject of the painting is Saint Mary Magdalen, in ecstasy, being supported by two angels. Rubens’s inspiration for this painting came from Jacques de Voragine’s book of the saints entitled Légende dorée (The Golden Legend) in which is written:
“… The saint, desiring to contemplate celestial things, withdrew into a mountain cave which had been prepared by the angels’ hands and there she remained for thirty years unknown to everyone……each day, the angels lifted her into the skies and for an hour she heard the music; after which, replete with this delicious meal, redescended into her cave, and had not the slightest need of body aliments….”
The setting for the painting is a rocky ledge at the mouth of a cave. Rubens conveys a deep mysticism in this painting. Look at the expression on Mary Magdalene’s face. Her eyes are slightly open but appear somewhat lifeless. Her face and upper body have been lit-up by a shaft of light. She appears to be in a trance-like state. Her face and body are as pale as white marble. Rubens has beautifully and skilfully painted the folds of her white robe which clings tightly to her body. The robe has partly fallen away from her upper body exposing her left breast. Her body is in a state of collapse and the angel on the left supports her as he looks down at her face with an expression of concern for her well-being. The angel to the right supports her wrist as he looks upwards in awe at the divine shaft of light which has penetrated the mouth of the cave. The art historian Baudouin points out that the ecstasy which transfigures Mary Magdalene is surprisingly reminiscent of the detailed descriptions that the Spanish saint, Teresa of Avila, wrote about in her biography entitled Vida. She recounted her experiences at the height of her moments of mystical union and wrote:
“…While it [the soul] thus searches its God, it experiences, amidst the deepest and sweetest delights, an almost total collapse, a sort of fainting fit which gradually takes away one’s breath and all one’s bodily strength….”
This is a beautifully painted picture and the skilled portrayal of the three characters with their varied expressions by Rubens, is superb.