(b. 1462, Firenze, d. 1521, Firenze)

St Mary Magdalene

Tempera on panel, 72 x 53 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

St Mary Magdalene is identified by her profile and the halo, her long hair and jar of ointment. The jar alludes to the visit of the Magdalene and the pious women to the sepulcher on Easter morning. Having reached the place where the body of Jesus would be embalmed with perfumed oils, they found the sepulcher empty and were the first to bear witness to the Resurrection. The long hair with which the Magdalene is generally depicted actually derives from an erroneous interpretation of the Gospel, arising from a confusion between the Magdalene with the nameless prostitute who, repenting of her sins, shed tears on Jesus's feet and dried them with her own hair.

Piero di Cosimo's painting, however, includes details that go beyond the traditional depiction of the saint, drawing on the artist's own time: the style of her dress, the open book and the lady's pose, like the architecture framing her, draw directly on the portraiture of the 1400s. In fact, it cannot be excluded that the painting may actually have been commissioned by or for a lady named Maddalena, who wished to be portrayed as the saint whose name she bore.

The painting is notable for its extremely refined execution, particularly striking in the pictorial surface and definition of the details. In these ways, Piero di Cosimo reveals his profound understanding and appreciation of the formal values of Flemish painting.

The old attribution to Mantegna was corrected in 1874 when the painting was given to Piero di Cosimo. Most scholars have seen the piece as belonging to the first years of the sixteenth century, the last phase of the artist's production; when he was influenced by the Leonardesque movement. A more precise dating has placed this work to 1501, the time of Leonardo's return to Florence. Some scholars, on the other hand, placed the date at around 1490, setting the work among the earliest of a group carried out between 1485 and 1505. In the pictures of this group, the artist reveals a stylistic attachment to Filippino Lippi, toning down the colours for a "northern accent", in the manner of Hugo van der Goes.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.