Mary Magdalene, who according to medieval legend was a penitent prostitute, has risen from the dead on Judgement Day and is carried to heaven by angels, clothed only in her hair. This is one of the four lunettes (half moon-shaped) frescoes of the life of Mary Magdalene from the Massimi chapel in the church of SS. Trinità de' Monti, Rome.
In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari records that the commission to decorate the chapel came from a Roman courtesan, whose carved tomb was once there. The lunettes were situated beneath the arched vault of the ceiling. The four evangelists in the vault, the lunettes, the altarpiece (Prado, Madrid) and other ornaments in the chapel were painted by Giulio Romano, assisted by Gianfrancesco Penni. The rest of the chapel’s decorations were completed by Perino del Vaga from 1537 for the new patron of the chapel, Angelo Massimi after Giulio Romano’s departure for Mantua in 1524.
In 1837, the vault of the chapel collapsed and the surviving frescoes were sold.
Mary Magdalene, clothed only in her hair, has risen from the dead on Judgement Day and is being carried to heaven by angels. 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.
This is one of the four lunette (half moon-shaped) frescoes of the life of Mary Magdalene from the Massimi chapel in the church of SS. Trinità de’ Monti, Rome, at the top of the famous Spanish Steps. The chapel was originally commissioned by a wealthy Roman courtesan, reputedly called Lucrezia Scanatoria, whose carved tomb was once housed there, which may explain its dedication to Saint Mary Magdalene.
The lunettes were situated at the tops of the walls beneath the arched vault of the ceiling. The Four Evangelists in the vault, the lunettes, and other ornaments in the chapel were painted by Giulio Romano, assisted by his collaborator Gianfrancesco Penni. Both artists had trained with Raphael and his influence can be seen in their works of this period. Giulio Romano also painted the altarpiece for the chapel, now in the Prado, Madrid, which shows Mary Magdalene recognising Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection – a scene known as Noli Me Tangere (‘do not touch me’). The lunettes must have been completed before Giulio Romano’s departure for Mantua in 1524, probably in about 1521.
At some time after this, the courtesan’s tomb was removed and in 1537 the chapel passed to the Massimo family. Angelo Massimi (1491–1550), a magistrate, commissioned Gianfrancesco Penni’s brother-in-law, Perino del Vaga (1500–1547), to complete the decoration of the chapel with scenes from the life of Christ. Perino’s fresco, The Resurrection of Lazarus, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Following his death, Massimi was buried at Trinità dei Monti and the subject of resurrection would have been particularly appropriate for this funerary chapel.
Two drawings by Giulio Romano – Martha bringing Mary Magdalene to Christ (Devonshire collection, Chatsworth House) and The Feast in the House of Simon (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) – are thought to relate to two of the other narratives in the lunettes.
In 1837 the vault of the chapel collapsed and the surviving frescoes were sold. The British Museum and the National Museum at Budapest also have fragments of the chapel’s decorations, and others are in private collections.
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