On the Sunday morning after the Crucifixion Mary Magdalene visited Christ’s tomb but found it empty. The story is told in the New Testament (John 20). Mary Magdalene is here identified by the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet and by the glimpse of her traditional red dress beneath a silver-grey shawl. The painting may represent Mary visiting Christ’s tomb unaccompanied, or it could be a highly dramatic ‘close-up’ of her meeting with the resurrected Christ, which followed her discovery of the empty tomb.
In the background, dawn is breaking over the Venetian lagoon. The stunning effects of dawn light on the woman’s shimmering satin shawl and her intimate glance towards us are what make this painting so atmospheric and captivating. It may be the portrait of a penitent Venetian courtesan in the guise of Mary Magdalene.
A woman turns towards us, her raised right hand covered by her silver-grey satin shawl against which she may have been weeping. We can just see the crimson pleats of her full skirt. Behind her is a ruin with six tall arched recesses with foliage sprouting from the walls. This area, particularly the green of the trees and weeds, seems to have darkened and was probably originally easier to see. Beside her an alabaster vase rests on a ledge in front of a niche. Beyond the wall, dawn is breaking over the Venetian lagoon – a church, bell towers and domes are silhouetted against the horizon. The vase suggests that the figure is Mary Magdalene the penitent prostitute in her traditional red dress, who used a jar of perfumed oil to anoint Christ’s feet.
The stunning effects of dawn light on the woman’s shimmering satin shawl and her intimate glance towards us are what make this painting so atmospheric and captivating. Paolo Pino in his Dialogo della Pittura (Dialogue on Painting) of 1548 said Savoldo made ‘truer pictures of reality than those made by Flemish masters’. Fifteenth-century Flemish painters were particularly known for their powers of meticulous observation and ability to create images of extreme realism.
Often subtleties have been lost in the faces Savoldo painted because he daringly placed them in shadow, and the paint has changed over time. Due to the paint’s increased transparency here the underdrawing now shows through with broad black lines outlining the eyelids and the bags under the woman’s eyes as well as her lips and chin. Her hair may have originally been more visible in the shadow of her shawl.
The painting may represent Mary Magdalene visiting Christ’s tomb unaccompanied, as described in the Gospel of John: ‘The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre...’ However, it might be a highly original dramatic ‘close-up’ of her meeting with the resurrected Christ, which followed her discovery of the empty tomb (John 20: 14–16). Here Mary appears to be illuminated as well as enlightened by the person to whom she turns. It is also possible that this is a portrait of a penitent Venetian courtesan in the guise of Mary Magdalene.
There are three other known versions of the painting, all slightly different. The Berlin version, which does not include the vase, is the most famous and the only one to be inscribed with Savoldo’s name. The two other painted versions are in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (Contini-Bonacossi Collection) and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. In all three, the woman has a yellow shawl unlike in the National Gallery version. The London and Contini-Bonacossi pictures are the closest in design and detail and were probably the last in the series, as they are more dramatic by being set at dawn and gain impact through their close-cropped compositions.
The painting was once owned by the grandson of Giovan Paolo Averoldi who commissioned a painting of Saint Jerome from Salvoldo (possibly the Saint Jerome now in the National Gallery’s collection).
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