In the 1620s and ‘30s, the conceit of staging a scene around a single candlelight was employed to great effect by Gerrit van Honthorst and his fellow northern Caravaggisti. One of its key exponents, and the author of this unpublished picture, was an artist whose true identity has for many years been the focus of much scholarly debate, and is still not satisfactorily resolved. In essence three names have been proposed as the artist behind this body of work: The Candlelight Master, Trophime Bigot, and a Maestro Jacomo, or Jacomo Massa. In unpicking the tangled issue of who is who, one can only start with Benedict Nicolson. It was Nicolson who, in 1960, first identified a cohesive group of stylistically homogenous pictures and, for want of any documented evidence or signed works, gave the artist the evocative title ‘The Candlelight Master’ (B. Nicolson, ‘“The Candlelight Master”, a follower of Honthorst in Rome’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1960, pp. 121-64). Nicolson subsequently identified this painter with a documented artist, Trophime Bigot, a native of Arles but known to have worked in Rome between 1620 and 1634, where he was recorded as a painter of nocturnal, half-length figures. However, questions were raised over the marked stylistic differences between the works initially grouped by Nicolson, and other signed works by Bigot that were known in Provence. It was briefly suggested that the Provence pictures may instead have been painted by his father, also called Trophime Bigot, but later documentary evidence proved that there was, in fact, only one artist by that name (J. Boyer, ‘One and Only Trophime Bigot’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXX, no. 1022, May 1988, pp. 355-7). Opinion remained divided on the Bigot hypothesis. Then, thanks to Olivier Michel in 1978, another name came to light in the archive of Santa Maria in Aquiro, Rome. In the church are three altarpieces, one of which Nicolson had included in his original group; the archival document revealed the artist of the pictures in the church as ‘Maestro Jacomo’. This opened the question as to whether the whole corpus ought to be then be given to Maestro Jacomo, a question complicated by the fact that Nicolson himself believed different hands to be responsible for the three pictures in the church. More information on this name has been gleaned recently, with an article from 2012 suggesting the three pictures be attributed to a certain Jacomo Massa (‘La cappella Fig. 1 Trophime Bigiot, The Penitent Magdalene Museo de Arte, Ponce della Passione in Santa Maria in Aquiro: il vero nome di maestro Jacomo’, Bollettino d’Arte, no. 16, Oct-Dec 2012, pp. 77-85). Research continues towards achieving scholarly consensus over the identity of
Nicolson’s ‘Candlelight Master’.
Stepping back from the minutiae of this debate, there is no question that this picture can be added to the same entirely cohesive group first recorded by Nicolson. A closely comparative work, also depicting a Penitent Magdalene, is held in Ponce, Museo de Arte (fig. 1; B. Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Turin, 1989, II, no. 839). The compositional elements of the two pictures are strikingly similar: the crucifix, seen almost in profile, appended upper left; the candle held in a glass jar; the long straight hair of the half-length Magdalene, and the golden tonality. Although in this picture the Magdalene is turned fully towards us: her features illuminated by that single candlelight, she is revealed as pensive and beguiling, less given to pathos, and more to sensuality. She gestures to the crucifix but absent-mindedly gazes elsewhere: one cannot quite be sure if she is lost in penitent thought, or in a state of melancholic, existential reverie. Staged with a controlled simplicity that belies its psychological depth, the composition encourages comparison with the celebrated treatments of the same subject by the artist’s contemporary, Georges de la Tour.