When the Conversion Narratives team went to Fort Worth, Texas for the Sixteenth-Century Studies conference in October last year, we were lucky enough to catch an incredible exhibition, ‘Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome’ at the magnificent Kimbell Art Museum. We particularly enjoyed the chance to spend some time face-to-face with Caravaggio’s potent image of Martha and Mary Magdalene, often called ‘The Conversion of Mary Magdalene’.
The image, which is usually housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, where you can zoom in to see much of the fine detail of the painting, depicts an earnest Martha persuading a lavishly-dressed Mary of her sins. For Roman viewers, the scene would have gained a particular frisson from their knowledge that the sitter who portrayed Mary was a well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni (Martha may have been another courtesan, Anna Bianchini) — so that the dynamic of the painting is frustrated by the non-conversion of the real-life counterpart to this ambiguously pious figure.
Indeed, for many viewers, the luxury and sensuousness of the painting must have been at least as much, if not perhaps more, of the attraction than its overtly religious content: it offers a genre scene of two Roman women arguing, with the curves of Mary’s face and body echoed in the bulges of the convex mirror on which she rests her left hand (unlike flat steel mirrors, convex mirrors, made from thick, green-tinted ‘forest glass’ blown into globes and lined with lead, did not need to be polished frequently — but nor were they as desirable as crystal mirrors: a fashionable novelty manufactured in Venice, Antwerp, and Rouen). As Andrew Graham-Dixon puts it, Caravaggio’s paintings possess a ‘sensually charged, magnetic attraction’, next to which other paintings ‘appear by comparison to recede, to retreat from the gaze’. (This is not one of Graham-Dixon’s favourites, however: he suggests that Mary is ‘pop-eyed’, ‘puffy’ and ‘distorted’!)
The tension between richness and religious contemplation operates at every level. It is thought that the painting — Caravaggio’s first use of the half-length format, which allows for a greater immediacy and sense of physical presence (we can imagine ourselves seated across the table from the two women) — was commissioned by a noblewoman and sole heiress to a vast family fortune, Olimpia Aldobrandini, since it is first listed in an inventory of her collection, made in 1606. It is itself an object of conspicuous consumption, displayed to show off Aldobrandini’s taste and wealth among the elite of Rome.
The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.
As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).
Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.
Kalas’s recovery of a material mirror altered by its contact with the divine seems especially interesting in the light of a seminar discussion I had yesterday with a group of MA students, who pointed out how significant the materials of mirrors seemed to be across a range of texts. In this instance of a resolutely Christian materialism, the mirror is transformed by its contact with the divine, and acts as a charged physical memory of spiritual illumination. Mary’s mirror, then, is no longer an object in which to view herself, but an incarnation of divine revelation, pregnant with spiritual meaning.
The tension between the sacred and the profane which haunts so much of Caravaggio’s religious painting — and which arguably haunted his colourful life — is captured in the way the dramatic light he painted at once offers a ray of divine illumination striking the mirror, and caresses Mary’s face and bosom. It also draws our attention to Martha’s expressive hands: their arrested motion is central to the narrative quality of the painting, as we are presented with a conversion in motion, which draws the reader in to the conversation and makes them part of the dynamic of Caravaggio’s subtle work. Martha is engaged in a recognised rhetorical technique, frequently used by preachers — counting on her fingers the reason for conversion.
Mary’s own fingers are intriguing: her left hand, though it appears casually draped across the mirror, points to the diamond of light, indicating — like the orange blossom — that she has already committed to her conversion, whilst a wedding ring prominently displayed on her finger establishes her as the bride of Christ (in a figurative, rather than a Dan Brown conspiracy-style sense!). Graham-Dixon, however, notes that the odd angle of Mary’s finger — which we might assume to be a technique to show off the ring — reappears in a later portrait of Fillide as St Catherine, suggesting that she had a slight deformity of the hand. Is this, as Graham-Dixon argues, part of Caravaggio’s ‘militant naturalism’, his determination to make the Christian past present and vivid through the recognisable incorporation of contemporary (and famous) flesh? If so, it offers yet another invitation to the reader to see this biblical scene not as a part of a remote past, but as a lively debate and a recurring transformation, played out on the streets and in the salons of Renaissance Rome.
David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze (eds), Caravaggio & his Followers in Rome (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2011)
Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2010)
Rayna Kalas, ‘The Technology of Reflection: Renaissance Mirrors of Steel and Glass’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32 (2002)
Debora Shuger, ‘The “I” of the Beholder’: Renaissance Mirrors and the Reflexive Mind’, in Fumerton and Hunt (eds), Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 21-41
Lots of Renaissance Mirrors here.
And the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library has digitised the entire Trevilian commonplace book