de La Tour, Georges: The Dream of St Joseph (c1640)

We know you saw something, says the scientific investigator to the haunted heroine in the classic scary film. We know you had some kind of experience. We don't think you're making it up. But as to whether what you saw was a genuine visitation, or all in the mind, or a trick of the light, we're not going to jump to conclusions. After all, we are living in the 20th century.

But, as every cinema-goer knows, such cautious scepticism is always unfounded. The hard-headed rationalist is just blind to the obvious. The credulous hysteric is the trustworthy witness. And the wildest possible explanation will turn out to be the true one. It wasn't a delusion, a misperception. It really was a ghost, a demon, a monster - and any minute now it'll be back with all its friends.

There are films, of course, and books that refrain from this straightforward trajectory. They genuinely don't know. They raise the idea of the spooky or the holy, and then suspend both belief and disbelief. They accept "unexplained" phenomena as truly unexplained, without resorting to natural or supernatural answers. There are pictures, also.

On three occasions in St Matthew's Gospel, an angel "suddenly appears in a dream" to Joseph. The first time, the angel tells him to marry Mary' the second, to take Mary and the newborn child off to Egypt' the third, to return home. And any of these dream appearances could be the subject of Georges de La Tour's painting called The Dream of St Joseph.

Or at least, that's one guess at this picture's subject. Other stories of angelic intervention have also been proposed - and modern-art scholarship, like modern cinema, prefers a supernatural explanation where possible. Yet in old catalogues, the picture has a more neutral title: An Old Man Asleep, Woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle. That description finds nothing miraculous here, just an everyday nocturnal incident. There is room for doubt, in other words. We see something - but what do we see? The image requires some psychical research.

Stick to the facts. De La Tour shows, in medium close-up, a child and an old man by candlelight. The candle is set between them on a small table. The old man sits, head in hand, an open book on his lap. He has nodded off. The child, probably a girl, stands in front of the sleeper, and makes a gesture of invocation. The old man's eyes are closed. The child gazes at him, but he does not look back at the child. He may be dreaming.

The child has no halo or wings (angels are, traditionally, male). And there is no sharp disjunction between man and child. They look as real and solid as one another. They're in the same space, the same light. They both have their feet on the ground. There's no suggestion that they belong to different zones of reality, or different levels of existence. There's nothing to mark the child out as a supernatural visitor, or as a dream figment (the old man's thought-bubble). The visible facts of the matter allow a wholly naturalistic account.

Up to a point. But these plain facts, as so often, leave out almost everything. They fail to convey what is solemn, visionary and numinous in this scene. The child's gesture hardly passes for everyday. It is a conjuring, spellbinding gesture, one of weaving or perhaps harp-playing, by which the child seems to be putting the man to sleep, or communicating with him in his sleep, sending him dreams. What's more, it isn't really true that the child and the man inhabit the same space and light. The spatial relationship between them is weird. At first glance, the child seems to stand nearer than the man. But check the man's knees: he now comes nearer. The child's right hand hangs uncertainly. Is it held out in mid-air? Is it almost touching the sleeper's wrist? The figures seem to occupy not quite congruent spaces.

Above all, there is the light. This is where the scene works its most ambiguous magic. It creates both the highest realism and the deepest mystery. The candle casts a soft, even, flickering glow over the old man's body, bringing out its solid forms. It turns the child into a kind of apparition. Its body is pure dark silhouette and sudden bright fragments - the raised hand, the radiant face. (The flame is carefully hidden from our sight, so that the light looks not like light from a source, but light emanating.) The child becomes a dream-vision or a visitation, half-dematerialised, gleaming out of the night into the dreamer's consciousness.

Yet, at every point, the painting keeps stressing its amazing powers of observation. See the curling backlit page, the translucent fingertips, the licking peak of the flame. As the mystery is conjured up, its mechanism is also made clear: tricks of the light.

What's remarkable about this picture is that, whether its subject is meant to be religious or secular, it stays completely equivocal about the supernatural. It shows an everyday incident and fills it with an overwhelming sense of holiness. Or it shows a miraculous incident, but includes nothing that can't be given a natural explanation. Even that strange gesture might be child's play - a child playing at being an angel? It can go either way.

Maybe this equivocation is a perfectly Christian attitude. The divine comes down to earth, becomes homely' the humblest human action is exalted, sacred' it doesn't matter if it's an angel or a child. Or maybe De La Tour's visionary picture points towards scepticism, a psychological understanding of religious experience. We have intimations of the beyond, the sacred, the spiritual, but whether these glimmerings reveal transcendent reality, or only the mind's own susceptibilities, who knows?

THE ARTIST

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) is a shadowy figure. Not much is known of his life. He worked in Lorraine, and, somehow or other, picked up the influence of Caravaggio. He painted first daylight scenes of mainly lowlife characters, and then dramatically candlelit scenes of mainly religious subjects. His observational techniques are miraculous. His scene-setting is brilliantly calculated. But he keeps his distance from his human models.

Like Caravaggio, like Vermeer, De La Tour fell into obscurity until the late 19th century. There is no certain likeness of his face. His signature, however, is the most distinctively calligraphic of all the old masters.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick