Archive for Mary Magdalene
oil on canvas, c. 1514
oil on canvas, c. 1548-60
Palais des beaux-arts de Lille
This serene, studious and saintly Magdalene, attributed to the great Piero di Cosimo, has the look of a portrait from life.
One of my favourite depictions of Mary Magdalene appears in this magnificent Deposition of c. 1480-1510 by the anonymous “Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece”, which also happens to be one of my all-time favourite paintings and a work that abundantly rewards contemplation. Like Carlo Crivelli’s Magdalene the figures in this tragedy appear in a shallow illusionistic space, like actors before a stage curtain. The appearance of such vivid anecdotal and naturalistic details in the simulated theater of the picture frame lend this scene a very startling sense of heightened reality. The Madgalene here is an ambiguous presence. Opulently dressed in chaste white, her beautiful young face shows genuine sorrow. With one hand she fondles the leg of the dead Christ while with the other she clutches and proffers her ripe bosom. One can’t help feeling the artist might be winking at us here, showing by the subtlety of his art a Magdalene both saucy and sad.
Carlo Crivelli’s sublime Magdalene stands in a simulated niche like a sculpture suddenly brought to life. The illusionistic tricks and embossed and gilded details are perfect examples of Crivelli’s individual melding of late Gothic and early Renaissance styles and techniques. This is the unredeemed Magdalene, gorgeously arrayed in damask and gold and still with a sly, appraising look in her eyes though she carries the jar of perfume (a gift from one of her admirers?) with which she will anoint the feet of Jesus. The painting resides in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and it is worth visiting the museum’s superb website to view Crivelli’s details in high resolution. The Magdalene’s hair, for example, is an extraordinary combination of naturalistic detail and formal pattern, quite unlike the conceptions of any other painter. This is the most exquisite Mary Magdalene I know, and the work of a unique artist.
Domenico Tintoretto, Magdalena penitente, 1598-1602
The character of Mary Magdalene was a particular inspiration for generations of European painters who seemed to have found the opportunity to depict a beautiful, even alluring, woman in the context of Christian piety quite irresistible. There are many wonderful paintings of the Magdalene as imagined both before and after repentance and I will be posting many of them in the weeks ahead. Tintoretto’s version is particularly striking. Surrounded by Christian regalia and with hands clasped in prayer his Magdalene shows a face and figure that would not look out of place on a Hollywood movie poster of the 1950s. The artist has perhaps gone a little too far in emphasising the, ahem, fallen side of Mary’s nature and it is somewhat difficult to imagine that this image could ever have been an object of simple worship, but it is a wonderful performance whatever Tintoretto’s intentions may have been.