TIZIANO Vecellio
(b. 1490, Pieve di Cadore, d. 1576, Venezia)

Penitent St Mary Magdalene

c. 1565
Oil on canvas, 118 x 97 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In 1561 Titian executed a painting of Mary Magdalen for Philip II, king of Spain. It is lost but several other compositions, based on this painting, survived; probably the best version is that in the Hermitage. This painting is signed on the rock on the left side. In his final period Titian handled his various versions of the Penitent Mary Magdalene with a dramatic intensity. This is particularly evident in a comparison of the St Petersburg canvas — considered the prototype for the series — with the early Mary Magdalene (in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence) painted for the Duke of Urbino in 1533.

Despite the religious subject matter, there is a strong erotic quality in this picture of Mary Magdalene, who has sunk down in a posture of pious penitence, tears in her eyes as she gazes up to heaven. In contrast to the version painted for Francesco Maria della Rovere (now in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence), in this version her breasts are covered, but the extremely skimpy covering is if anything more provocative.

The painting was kept by Titian, and remained in his own house until he died. In 1581 his son Pomponio sold his entire remaining works to Cristoforo Barbarigo. In 1850, the Barbarigo collection was moved to the Hermitage. The work is particularly impressive because of the beauty of the colours and the wonderful play of the light - Titian depicts the changes of colour it creates right down to the shadows cast on Magdalene's breast by the cloth.