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Ambrosius Benson, The Magdalen Reading

Key facts
Full title The Magdalen Reading
Artist Ambrosius Benson
Artist dates active 1519; died 1550
Date made possibly about 1520
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 41.7 × 37.7 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1860
Inventory number NG655
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Magdalen Reading
Ambrosius Benson

A woman, her hair covered by an elaborate structure of caps and semi-transparent veils, holds a luxurious illuminated book. The pot identifies her as Mary Magdalene: it holds the ointment with which the saint anointed Christ’s feet.

The hands and book are copied from Saint Barbara in Gerard David’s The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor. They are so close that it seems Ambrosius Benson copied from the original or that he had access to the preliminary drawings. He was a pupil of David, and the two were involved in a lawsuit about patterns which David alleged he had found in Benson’s chest. The folds of the veil are extremely close to Mary Magdalene’s headdress in The Magdalen in a Landscape by Albert Cornelis, from whom Benson borrowed patterns.

Benson specialised in half-length images of young women depicted as Mary Magdalene or as sibyls (female oracles in classical mythology). The style of her dress suggests a date of about 1520, making it one of the earliest of the artist’s pictures.

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