Mary Magdalene, wearing a red mantle over a startlingly see-through dress, kneels in prayer in a landscape. A splendid manuscript, presumably a Book of Hours, rests on a large, conveniently shaped rock in front of her. Although she is gazing inwards, her eyes unfocused, the object of her prayer appears before her: an angel holds a large wooden Crucifix from which hangs the dead Christ.
She appears again in the middle ground, reclining in front of a grotto. Mary Magdalene was one of Christ’s followers who, according to legend, ended her life in Provence. She lived for 30 years at La Sainte-Baume, east of Marseille (baoumo is a Provençal word for cave) – a popular pilgrimage site in the Renaissance. Her pose copies that of a statue displayed at La Sainte-Baume, images of which must have been available in Bruges, where this small panel was probably made.
Mary Magdalene, wearing a red mantle over a startlingly see-through dress, kneels in prayer in a landscape. Although she is gazing inwards, her eyes unfocused, the object of her prayer appears before her: an angel holds a large wooden Crucifix from which hangs a figure of the dead Christ.
Beside her on the ground is a small covered pot – her attribute, or symbol – containing the ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet (Luke 7: 37). She has used the large, conveniently shaped rock in front of her as a support for a splendid manuscript, presumably a grand Book of Hours. Its illuminated borders are decorated with flowers, scrolls and birds, and at least one full-page miniature – you can see a corner of blue sky on one of the turning leaves.
She appears again in the middle ground, similarly dressed and reclining in front of a grotto. She is reading or meditating on a book which lies on the ground; on shelf of rock behind her are her pot, a Crucifix, and what seems to be a skull, steeply foreshortened. According to legend, Mary Magdalene ended her life in Provence. She lived for 30 years at La Sainte-Baume, east of Marseille (baoumo is a Provençal word for cave) – a popular pilgrimage site in the Renaissance. Her recumbent pose is taken from that of a statue displayed at La Sainte-Baume, images of which must have been available in Bruges where this painting was probably made.
The composition is borrowed from paintings of Saint Jerome in penitence in a landscape, like those made by the Bruges artist Gerard David and his followers (see Saint Jerome in a Landscape). The artist, Albert Cornelis, was one of the next generation of Bruges painters. He seems to have run a large business, but only one documented picture by him has survived, the Coronation of the Virgin and the Nine Choirs of Angels, produced between 1517 and 1522, and still in the church of St James in Bruges. The figure of Mary Magdalene here is very like the central Saint Michael in the Coronation: their heads are simplified and stylised to a remarkable degree, with little sense of bone beneath the flesh; they have rather low eyes and very straight noses with nearly white highlights. The same features are found in a panel that shows the donor Joris van de Velde and his family with Saints George and Barbara (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels). The landscape in the donor panel is so similar to that in our painting that they are doubtless by the same artist – either Cornelis himself or a specialist collaborator.
The panel on which this is painted is oak; the reverse is not particularly neatly finished and was never painted, suggesting it was not meant to be on view. The original frame is lost, but unpainted edges around all four sides show that the frame was attached to the panel before the painting was done. The chalk ground seeped under the frame onto the unpainted edges in several places. There is nothing to suggest that this small painting was part of a diptych: it seems to have been designed to be seen alone and to be used in private devotion.
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