This altarpiece was commissioned by Francesco de Strata for the high altar of his chapel in the church of S. Paolo in Vercelli. The altar was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, who appears twice in the painting. She stands in the place of honour on the right-hand side of the Virgin and Child, holding the jar of perfumed ointment she used to anoint Christ’s feet. The infant Christ touches an apple held by Saint Paul and seems to smile at Mary Magdalene. The apple symbolises Christ’s identity as the second Adam who has come to redeem mankind from sin.
The elderly man may be the Virgin’s husband Saint Joseph, while Saint Gregory is dressed as a bishop. In the middle distance, Christ appears to Mary Magdalene as a gardener on the morning after his Resurrection. The altarpiece originally had a lower section depicting six events from the life and conversion of Saint Mary Magdalene, but its current whereabouts is unknown.
This altarpiece was painted for the high altar of the Francesco de Strata chapel in the church of S. Paolo in Vercelli, a town in northern Italy between Milan and Turin. It was commissioned by Francesco de Strata in 1540 and is signed and dated 1543. The altar was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, who appears twice in the painting.
Mary, from Magdala on the shores of Lake Galilee, was a Jewish follower of Christ, who witnessed his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. During the Middle Ages she was confused with the unnamed ’sinful woman‘ who anoints Jesus’s feet in the Gospel of Luke (7: 36–50), resulting in the legend that she was a repentant prostitute. In Lanino’s altarpiece, she stands in the place of honour on the right-hand side of the Virgin and Child, holding the jar of perfumed ointment she used to anoint Christ’s feet. She gazes lovingly at the infant Christ, who touches an apple held by Saint Paul and seems to smile at Mary Magdalene. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the apple is a symbol of sin, referring to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. Here the apple symbolises Christ’s identity as the second Adam who has come to redeem mankind from sin.
Saint Paul holds the sword with which he was martyred and a paper with an inscription from his letter to the Romans (Romans 5: 1). Only a few words are included but the passage can be identified as: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The elderly man behind Saint Paul may be the Virgin’s husband Saint Joseph. The bishop saint standing beside Mary Magdalen is Saint Gregory, who Lanino has painted with a highly individual lined and wrinkled face.
Mary Madgalen is included again as one of the tiny figures in the middle distance. Christ appears to her as a gardener, holding a large spade, on the morning after his Resurrection. She reaches out her hand in wonder but he tells her not to touch him (’noli me tangere' in Latin) (John 20: 14–18). The altarpiece originally had a lower section, known as a predella, depicting six events from the life and conversion of Saint Mary Magdalene, but its present whereabouts is unknown.
Lanino may have been the pupil of Gaudenzio Ferrari, then the most important painter in Vercelli. Between 1540 and 1560 Lanino made several trips to Milan where he became influenced by the chiaroscuro (meaning ‘light and dark’) effects in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Here the fantastical rocky landscape, the facial types of the women and child, as well as the soft smoky quality of the brushwork and the strong contrasts of light and dark are all elements derived from the work of Leonardo.
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