WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

The Magdalene Reading

c. 1445
Oil, transferred from wood to mahogany, 62 x 55 cm
National Gallery, London

Parallels can be found in Campin's work for setting sacred scenes in contemporary domestic interiors like the one depicted here. This beautiful figure seated on a cushion reading a devotional book can be identified as Mary Magdalene by the jar at her side, in reference to the ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet (Luke 7:37-8). When the painting was cleaned in 1956 it was discovered that its dark uniform background, applied probably in the nineteenth century, had concealed the body of Saint Joseph holding a rosary, part of a window with a landscape view, and the foot and crimson drapery of another figure, identified as Saint John the Evangelist by reference to a late fifteenth-century drawing of a similar composition showing the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints. The altarpiece from which this picture was cut has been partially reconstructed with the help of that drawing and two other surviving fragments, one of them the head of Saint Joseph and the other the head of a female saint, both now in Lisbon. The whole picture is estimated to have been about one metre high and one and a half or more metres wide.

Van der Weyden's mastery of exquisitely painted naturalistic detail is as apparent here in the nailheads of the floor and Joseph's crystal rosary beads as it is in the gold brocade of the Magdalen's underskirt. In later paintings, however, he combined realistic details with the expression of intense pathos or deep piety, in contrast to his ever-impassive older contemporary, Jan van Eyck.

The panel depicting Mary Magdalene was sawn out of a large altarpiece. The figure of the saint - very reminiscent of the figure of St Barbara in the Werl Altarpiece (Prado, Madrid), and probably deriving from the same model - is extremely well painted; her delicate face, in its detailed elaboration and expression, is close to that of St Veronica on the right wing of the Crucifixion Triptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). But the floor and the cupboard behind Mary Magdalene, much too narrow and papery in effect, are insubstantial and uninspired. This weakness is particularly clear if we compare the jar of ointment held by the saint with the same attribute in other pictures by Rogier.

It is unlikely that Rogier was deliberately trying to create abstract effects in his figures, to match a striking effect of reduction in the general structure of their surroundings. Earlier and later works alike show no such simplification. More probably, he delegated the execution of less important parts of the picture to his assistants in both the Crucifixion Triptych and the altarpiece to which the Mary Magdalene once belonged. Many figures in the mutilated altarpiece were obviously by another painter.

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