Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Penitent Magdalen

Corrado Giaquinto (Italian, Molfetta 1703–1766 Naples)
ca. 1750
Oil on canvas
63 x 46 1/2 in. (160 x 118.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch Gift, in honor of Keith Christiansen, 2006
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 620
According to the Golden Legend, Mary Magdalen ended her life in a cave near Marseilles where she was visited daily by angels, their songs her only nourishment. Giaquinto shows her dressed as penitent (around her chest she wears a cilice, or penitential hairshirt), her gaze focused on the gesturing angel and the crown of thorns displayed by a cherub. The picture was painted for Cardinal Mario Bolognetti (1690–1756) in Rome. Giaquinto was the foremost decorative fresco painter in Italy after Tiepolo, but this moving work shows him no less a master of religious painting.
This picture was painted for Cardinal Mario Bolognetti (1690–1756) and is listed in a posthumous 1756 inventory of his collection, where the subject is identified alternatively as Saint Mary of Egypt or the Magdalen ("in misure di palmi sei in circa per alto rappresentanti . . . S.M. Egiziaca o La Madalena"; see Mazzarelli 2008; six palmi is equivalent to 133.95 cm). Bolognetti owned no fewer than six canvases by the artist, all with religious subjects and displayed in his bedroom. The picture, unlined, is in its original frame, on the reverse side of which is a small piece of paper with the Bolognetti coat of arms (see Additional Images, fig. 1). There is a study for the picture on the right hand side of a sheet in the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples (inv. no. 20784; see Additional Images, fig. 2). Mario d'Orsi (1958) mentions a bozzetto for this work in the collection of dott. S. Capparoni, Rome.

Saint Mary of Egypt was a third-century ascetic who, according to The Golden Legend, spent forty-seven years in the desert in repentance and mortification. This picture more likely shows Christ's follower, Mary Magdalen, who, according again to The Golden Legend, took refuge in a grotto near Marseilles, where she was visited daily by angels, who gave her divine sustenance through their songs. In the seventeenth century emphasis was placed on Mary Magdalen's conversion and/or penitence. As Mary Magdalen was thought to be a converted prostitute, Baroque poets and artists showed her as at once beautiful and penitent, thereby creating an image that combines sensuous beauty with deep feeling. In the painting she wears a cilice—a metal belt with spurs for the mortification of the flesh (see Additional Images, fig. 3). The still life of meditational aids consists of a skull, a crucifix, and a book—possibly a breviary—open to a page with an illustration with the descent of the Holy Spirit, possibly referring to the dogma of the Trinity. Giaquinto is known to have made designs for engravings and Bolognetti had a library rich in devotional literature.

Mario Bolognetti was treasurer of the Apostolic Chamber. Under Pope Benedict XIV he was created cardinal deacon on September 9, 1743, and received the deaconry of Santi Cosma e Damiano. He served as papal legate to Romandiola (July 22, 1750) and on February 1, 1751, opted for the deaconry of Santa Maria ad Martyres (that is, the Pantheon). He died February 22, 1756; his body was exposed in San Marcello in via Lata and he was buried in the church of Gesu e Maria, which was largely a pantheon of the Bolognetti family (its interior had been completely decorated by Giorgio Bolognetti between 1678 and 1690). Although the younger brother, he undertook the major construction of the family villa on via Nomentana, beyond the Porta Pia, as well as the nearby church of San Giuseppe, designed by Salvi. In 1741, following the death of his father Ferdinando, Mario and his brother Giacomo made a division of their inheritance.

[Keith Christiansen 2010]
Condition Prior to Treatment:
The painting is on a medium-weight plain weave canvas and is unlined. It is stretched over its original eighteenth-century strainer and is held in place with wire nails that have been hammered through the tacking margins and then bent over at right angles—flush with the sides of the strainer. It would appear that the painting has never been removed from this strainer. Wooden strips had been nailed to the left and bottom edges to facilitate fitting the painting into its original frame.

The canvas support generally appeared to be in very good condition. It was rather slack and had split along the tacking margin at the top left edge (about 18 cm) and was pulling away from the wires nails all along the top.

In addition to the bar marks, there were several areas of moderate "cupping" of the paint surface including some pronounced parallel diagonal draw marks in the top left hand corner where the canvas had broken free of the strainer. The most severe area of structural damage was a horizontal compound tear in the center of the composition. This occurred during the painting's transportation from its previous owner in Caracas to Sotheby's in New York just prior to its sale in January 2006.

Paint Layer :
On examination it was noted that the paint layer appeared to be in a quite remarkable state of preservation with actual losses mostly associated with the aforementioned tears. Despite some localized damages, there was no evidence of abrasion caused by previous injudicious cleaning and much of the original paint layer appeared pristine. However, the old paint losses had been crudely consolidated with wax and broadly overpainted. In several areas, including an old damage in the Magdalen's shoulder, some form of inappropriate coating—possibly shellac—had been smeared over the old repairs, no doubt in an attempt to saturate matte areas.

The varnish had totally degraded, was very discolored, and appeared matte and scaly. It significantly undermined the tonal range of the painting and distorted the subtle color relationships that are such a vital part of the composition.

Cleaning and Structural Work:
The oxidized varnish was removed, revealing the rich color palette of the original and a paint layer in a remarkable state of preservation.

Following cleaning, the next step was to deal with the structural problems of raised and insecure paint and tears. Following the temporary removal of the crossbar, the large central tear was repaired from the reverse without removing the canvas from its strainer. The crossbar was then replaced. A woven polyester fabric was strip lined to the original along the top edge and left corner, where the canvas had split and pulled away from the wire nails. This permitted the original canvas to be properly re-stretched and held in plane.

Technique & Construction:
The original canvas appears to have been first prepared for painting by being stretched on a loom. There is pronounced cusping deformation in the canvas weave at the edges that is unrelated to the position of the wire nails which secure the support to its strainer. Moreover, the ground layer, portions of the composition and more random paint strokes continue around the tacking margins.

The principal ground is a warm brownish pink. However, examination of paint cross sections suggests that a second, thinner ground layer composed chiefly of lead white was applied on top of the first one. This is evident in the x-radiograph as a lighter, more x-ray opaque rectangle that appears to indicate the initial dimensions of the composition. It can be seen to have been applied in short regular repetitive strokes which run in horizontal bands.

It was not possible to detect any carbon based preparatory underdrawing but there is evidence that Giaquinto established his composition with a loose brush outlining in brown paint. A few strokes of this outlining are possibly seen on the left-hand tacking edge. Close examination of the surface suggests that the artist built up the form using a warm, monochrome underpainting in half tones and then gradually added more opaque local color.

The X-radiograph of the painting revealed a number of pentimenti where the artist had rethought key contours and profiles, refining the elegance of the forms and the spatial arrangement of the protagonists. For example, the profile of the angel's face has been tipped back whereas the hand has been shifted forward. The edge of the wing is further into the composition and the drapery has also been changed to be much fuller and to fill the space between the angel and the Magdalen. In the Magdalen herself, the contour of her impossibly broad but wonderfully expressive shoulder was slightly reduced in the finished painting and a number of alterations in her drapery refined the rhythm of the folds.

The artist made a major alteration in the color palette of the painting. The Magdalen's blue drapery was originally a violet hue with deep aubergine-colored shadows. Parts of this were evident in several areas during the cleaning where the top blue layer of paint had flaked away. Possibly the drapery was changed to blue in order to echo the sky and provide greater color balance and unity within the composition.

Also, as well as the markedly different color scheme there is strong evidence that the open prayer book was only added at a relatively late stage—possibly after the painting had been attached to its final strainer. Certainly the whole composition appears to have extended downwards and to the right before the painting was attached to its final strainer.

The X-radiograph indicates the position of the second ground layer and what appears to be the artist's original format for his composition. However, it was apparently necessary to expand the composition downwards by several centimeters—possibly to accommodate the feet. The second ground layer is absent in this area. At this point it would seem that the painting was attached to its strainer and the final composition and color balance was established including the major change to the Magdalen's blue drapery and the shift of the angel's wing to the far right.

Quality and Handling:
The great impact of Giaquinto's depiction of the Magdalen is due in no small part to his remarkable handling of paint which is at once fluid and assured. He makes frequent and effective use of soft color and tonal transitions accented by passages of sudden contrast, for example between the ochre and blue draperies or where the pearly flesh tones of the Magdalen's arm fall imperceptibly into shadow only to be met by the sharp contrast of the highlight on the rope.

There are also contrasts in application—a highly conscious and calculated use of thin and thick paint, of semi transparent glaze-like layers and opaque scumbles which enliven the paint surface as well as mimicking form.

[Extracted from the Condition and Treatment Report by Michael Gallagher, 2006]
Cardinal Mario Bolognetti, Rome (until d. 1756; inv., 1756); A. Casagrande, Caracas (in 1958); sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 26, 2006, no. 73, to MMA
Inventory of Cardinal Mario Bolognetti. 1756, c. 375r [Archivio di Stato, Rome, Notai A.C., Martorellus, b. 4143; see Ref. Mazzarelli 2008, p. 202], as "S.M.Egiziaca o La Madalena" by Giaquinto, "in misure di palmi sei in circa per alto," in the "stanza verde dove S. teneva il letto".

Mario d'Orsi. Corrado Giaquinto. Rome, 1958, pp. 119, 146, no. 294, fig. 148, as in the A. Casagrande collection, Caracas; dates it to the artist's Spanish period (1753–62); notes a "nostalgia solimenesca"; mentions a small "bozzetto" for the work in the collection of dott. S. Capparoni, Rome.

Antonio Videtta. "Disegni di Corrado Giaquinto nel Museo di San Martino." Napoli nobilissima 2 (May–June 1962), p. 26, under no. 37, p. 28 n. 55, connects it with a sheet of two studies for a penitent Magdalen (Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples; inv. no. 20784), noting that while the drawing on the right side of the sheet clearly relates to the MMA painting, the one on the left is either a first idea for the painting or refers to a work not yet identified; dates the drawing to the artist's first years in Spain or to his last years in Italy before leaving for Spain in 1753.

Mario d'Orsi. "Prospetto di relazione." Atti convegno di studi su Corrado Giaquinto. Molfetta, 1971, p. 105, finds it very similar to a "bozzetto" of the Last Communion of Saint Mary Magdalen in the collection of Roderic Thesiger, London.

Rossana Muzii. "Corrado Giaquinto. Il nucleo grafico del Museo di San Martino." Corrado Giaquinto: il cielo e la terra. Exh. cat., Biblioteca Malatestiana and Palazzo Romagnoli, Cesena. Bologna, 2005, p. 136.

Important Old Master Paintings and the Borromeo Madonna by Donatello. Sotheby's, New York. January 26, 2006, pp. 208–9, no. 73, ill. (color), dates it to the artist's late Roman period, about 1750; believes that the frame is probably original; states that the painting was probably made as the altarpiece for a private chapel.

Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2005–2006." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 64 (Fall 2006), pp. 42–43, ill. (color), dates it about 1750, during the artist's Roman period, and states that the frame is original; remarks that "the combination of sensuality and mystic fervor seems to be a conscious reference to the work of Bernini".

Carla Mazzarelli. "Maestri eccellenti, copisti e 'quadrari' al servizio di casa Bolognetti nella Roma di Benedetto XIV." Studi di storia dell'arte 19 (2008), pp. 202–3, 206 n. 95, ill. on cover (color detail), colorpl. XX, figs. 13 (before conservation), 14 (after conservation), 15 (detail), identifies it with a picture included in the 1756 inventory of Cardinal Mario Bolognetti as "S.M. Egiziaca o La Madalena" [see Ref. Bolognetti 1756].

Master Paintings. Sotheby's, New York. June 8, 2017, p. 114, under no. 68.

Richard E. Spear. "An Invisible Web: Art Historians Behind the Collecting of Italian Baroque Art." Buying Baroque: Italian Seventeenth-Century Paintings Come to America. Ed. Edgar Peters Bowron. University Park, Pa., 2017, pp. 62, 146 n. 29.

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