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Caravaggio's Penitent Magdalen, circa 1596

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalen, c. 1596-97, Doria Pamphilij Gallery 122.5 x 98.5 cm

An evolved Baroque Mary Magdalene is curiously seen in Caravaggio’s uniquely sensitive Penitent Magdalen of 1596-97, now in the Doria Pamphilij Gallery in Rome. Caravaggio’s treatment here is both sympathetic and idiosyncratic but visually correct only in regard to iconographic traditions of the Magdalene, This tradition, however, conflates four gospel texts that may have nothing to do with one composite woman nor do they necessarily all refer to the persona of Mary Magdalene, who is often said in modernity to be degraded into a sexual object of male fantasy.

The iconography Caravaggio employed here is both clever and innovative in many respects for its adherence to biblical text. In Caravaggio’s warm-colored tones bespeaking both her passion and Christ’s Passion, the Magdalene’s most typical visual attribute is the unguent vessel containing nard (Greek ναρδος from Hebrew or Aramaic נרד ) with which she is associated in tradition (rather than clearly supported from text) as having washed Christ’s feet with her sensuously long and lustrous reddish hair – and red is the color of sanguinity - after sacrificially pouring out its precious perfume (although here Caravaggio may be painting in advance of that biblical narrative moment). The same perfume nardus in Latin known from Pliny’s Natural History XXI.70 is probably from the Indian or Near Eastern desert plant Nardostachys jatamansi and is also called spikenard, its liquid color being golden red or orange like the Magdalene’s hair and the golden perfume hue seen here in Caravaggio’s painting. Other attributes are conveyed in the Magdalene’s putative life as a courtesan, implied by rich clothes and extravagant jewelry, and her body language of penitence is marked by her humble position, in this case close to the ground on a very low chair. What the Magdalene renounces in Caravaggio’s image is consonant with what has been noted in typical Pauline testimonia of the modest new woman of God - often suggested as a misogynistic text - who is unadorned by anything but grace: “not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes” as St. Paul writes in I Timothy 2:9.

Many pictorial details encourage closer inspection. The biblical texts state that the perfume vessel which the woman (Mary Magdalene?) used on Christ – often mistranslated from the Koiné Greek New Testament as being of alabaster stone - was a glass alabastron (Greek ’αλαβαστρον), probably sealed in ampule form against desiccating air and oxidation; terribly expensive because vessel and perfume were to be used only once, the glass needing to be broken to release its perfume inside. Caravaggio depicts a glass vessel here, either deliberately or accidentally in closer accordance with the text, but perhaps better to highlight the gold transparence of the nard perfume as symbolic of the Magdalene’s pouring her life out. On her dress is another vessel or receptacle noted by Cinotti as a possible simile of the Magdalene herself and which she fills here in Caravaggio’s schemata. In this instance, the vessel on her dress bears a shell-like form as possibly representative of the Classical notion that shells (extrapolated from Hesiod’s Theogony) were one of the visual attributes of sea-born Venus to whose sacred cult most courtesans belonged either professionally or by practice as those who live for amor sacer. The perfume vessel shown in two distinct forms may be an accommodation of both traditions: the translucent glass form at her feet and also as an opaque white alabaster form on her dress. Vegetal motifs on her clothing may depict the source of the perfume as floral – and flowers are another attribute of Venus - but could in any case merely indicate the fertility which courtesans explicitly evoke. However one views Caravaggio's Magdalene, on the one hand his naturalism gives us opportunity to agree with Bellori that it is mostly a seated woman who could be anybody and on the other hand to disagree because Caravaggio's iconographic subtlety allows us to identify her by her perfume and hair and almost the moment of penitence when she rejects her former life as a voluptuary as the long traditions suggest.


Giovan Petro Bellori. Le Vite de pittori, scultori et achitetti moderni. Rome, 1672 ed., Evelina Borea, Torino, 1976.

S. Benedetti. Caravaggio: The Master Revealed. Dublin, 1995, 212-13. Benedetti explores the importance of Classical statuary to Caravaggio and his probable models of Classical sarcophagi such as the Revenge of Orestes and the Roman Meleager’s Companions Carrying His Body, among at least three other Classical images, either from Del Monte’s Roman Antiquarium or his country estate Vigna di Ripetta or from the nearby Giustiniani Collection accessible to Caravaggio in Rome.

Ann Graham Brock. Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003.

F. T. Camiz. "Music and Painting in Cardinal Del Monte's Household." Metropolitan Museum Journal 23, 1991.

Mia Cinotti. Caravaggio: tutte le opere. Bergamo, 1983.

J. Dillenberger. “The Magdalen: Reflections on the image of the saint and the sinner in Chrsitian Art” in D. Apostolos-Cappadona, ed. Image and Spirit in Sacred and Secular Art. New York, 1990. 28-50.

Bart D. Ehrman. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, Part III, 179-255, 259 & ff.

John Gash. Caravaggio. London: Jupiter Books, 1980.

Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. Life and Times Series. London: Haus Publishing, 2004, 42-47, 55-57. Portions of the discussion here are excerpted directly from the author's 2004 book.

Katherine Ludwig Jansen. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

F. Mormando, ed. Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1999.

Lynn F. Orr. Classical Elements in the Paintings of Caravaggio. Ph.D. Dissertation, UCLA, 1982.

Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage, 1989, 64-7.

Catherine Puglisi. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998.

John Spike. Caravaggio. London / New York: Abbeville, 2001.

Jacobus Faber Stapulensis (in French, Jacques Lefèvre Étaples). Two Treatises on St. Mary Magdalene, especially De Maria Magdalena et traduo Christi disceptatio, 1517 (both Paris, 1517 and 1518). Cf F. M. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third ed. Oxford, 1997: 593, 1049.

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea): Lives of the Saints. William Caxton, tr. (from Latin). Selected and edited by George V. O'Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Vol. IV, 36-42.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Patrick Hunt
Stanford University