18th-Century Austrian School

The Penitent Magdalene

18th-Century Austrian School

The Penitent Magdalene

This 18th-century oil painting depicts the penitent Mary Magdalene before a cave dwelling and mountainous scenery.

She’s kneeling, as if in prayer, and looks directly at the viewer. It's an allegory of repentance.

The story of Mary Magdalene stems from the Gospels but it’s been embellished over the centuries. Celebrated as a Saint, castigated as a sinner, condemned as a prostitute - the mystery of her true character continues to intrigue.

The notion of her penitence is not directly discussed in Biblical texts yet it’s often been the subject of artworks. In these, she’s repenting for a sinful lifestyle, often living alone in a wilderness landscape. In one version of the story, she’s described as living destitute in Provence, France, for 30 years, where angels would visit to show her glorious visions of the afterlife.

Here, in this Austrian work from the 18th century, we see a perfume bottle, skull and cross. The bottle represents the moment she anointed Christ’s feet with perfume, while the skull is a reference to mortality.

The painting is inscribed but the second line is illegible. The partial inscription reads ‘Huius ad exemplum non Solum Crimina fietu’, which translates from Latin as ‘For example, it is not just crimes’. One can imagine that this is designed to encourage sinners to repent and turn to God. It’s not just crimes… that require us to repent.

Housed in a later gilt frame.

Medium: Oil on canvas laid on board
Overall size: 27” x 21½” / 69cm x 54cm
Year of creation: c. 1760
Condition: Scuffing around the periphery. Craquelure but the paint is stable. Areas of in-painting. Frame with some light wear.

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