Circa 1750 Rome

Circle of Anton Mengs – The Penitent Magdalene – Oil on Canvas


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Height 24 1/2 inches (62.5 cm)
Width 31 inches (79 cm)
Depth 2 inches (5 cm)

Circle of Anton Mengs circa 1750

The Penitent Magdalene

Oil on canvas; held in period carved and giltwood frame

Provenance: The Dukes of Norfolk, possibly Norfolk House, London.

Her legendary beauty and the important role that she played in the life of Christ have ensured that Mary Magdalene has retained a prominent position in Christian art. The sacrament of Penance had important significance in Counter-Reformation spirituality and artists frequently portrayed penitent saints as exemplars of religious fervour. Such images were intended to inspire greater devotion at a time when Catholicism was being challenged by Protestant reforms.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the story as professed by Pope Gregory I, that she was a sinful rich prostitute, gathered momentum in artistic circles who played with this concept of religious devotion and implied sexuality.

The story of her living the remaining thirty years of her life in a cave in the arid wasteland of Provence as a penitent ascetic half starved and emaciated as depicted by the sculptor Donatello was replaced by Baroque curvaceousness. Her passive gaze and partially naked body appealed to male viewers for whom such paintings offered a moralising context through which to engage with the sensuality of the female form.

Depicted lying at the entrance to her cave she leans full length, in a pensive mood., gesturing to the Crucifix and resting her other hand on a skull the symbolises the brevity of earthly life.  Mary’s hair is long but it does not quite cover her breasts. She is at once ascetic and sensuous, admirable for both her piety and her beauty.

The style and manner of this depiction of the Magdalene is influenced by the work of Anton Mengs. A German who settled in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century, he was engaged in both portrait commissions and religious works and executed a number of different versions of the Magdalene in penitence.

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