This is one of Veronese’s earliest works, painted when he was about 18, probably for a noble patron in Verona. The lighting from the right suggests that it was made for a specific location, perhaps the side wall of a chapel.
The painting’s subject has been the matter of much debate but it is now believed to show the conversion of Mary Magdalene. In western Christianity since the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene was considered to be a promiscuous woman or a prostitute.
Martha takes her sister Mary to the Temple to hear Jesus preach as she is worried about her spiritual health. Overcome by Christ’s words, Mary blushes with shame and sinks to her knees. Mary is converted by her encounter with Christ and turns to a life of piety. The jewellery slipping from her neck suggests her decision to reject worldly things and become a follower of Christ.
The painting’s subject has been the matter of much debate but it is now believed to show the conversion of the Jewish woman Mary Magdalene. The story is absent from the Bible but is told in Pietro Aretino’s book L‘umanità di Cristo (’The Humanity of Christ‘) of 1535. This modernised version of the Gospels was widely read in Northern Italy and was probably the literary source for this painting.
Martha takes her sister Mary Magdalene to the Temple to hear Christ preach, as she is worried about her spiritual health. In western Christianity since the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene was considered to be a promiscuous woman or a prostitute. Overcome by Christ’s words, Mary blushes with shame and sinks to her knees. Mary’s fashionably low-cut, sixteenth-century dress, which is inappropriate for a visit to the Temple, is a sign of her formerly sinful life of vanity and pleasure.
Mary is converted by her encounter with Christ and turns to a life of piety. The jewellery slipping from her neck suggests her decision to reject worldly vanities and become a follower of Christ. However, the tactile way in which Veronese has painted the gold and jewels with strokes and dots of thick paint against Mary’s bare flesh, and his palette of rich bright colours, make the painting itself feel like a luxurious object. He invites us, as viewers, to take a sensuous pleasure in the worldly goods the story encourages us to reject. The colouring is very unusual, recalling central Italian, especially Florentine Mannerist painting – an approach Veronese was pioneering in Venetian art.
The picture demonstrates Veronese’s sophisticated and witty approach to narrative and composition. He was a very theatrical painter in the best sense, using broad and subtle gesture, such as the expressive and rhythmic play of hands here in the centre of the composition, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of his characters. The inward turning curve of the figures on the right is matched by the outward turning one of the architecture seen through the door in the wall on the left. The diagonal lines created by the heads of the crowd bring our gaze to Mary, anchored in the bottom centre of the ’V‘ shape by the two columns. Her attention – and with it, ours – is in turn led to Christ by Martha’s pointing hand. His elegant, slightly leaning posture is accentuated by the curving movement of the naked child who disappears round the robes of the woman on the left. The child’s bare behind is cheekily set off against the bright exterior by the silhouetted head of a dog.
The architecture of the courtyard is based on Michele Sanmicheli’s great curving choir screen for Verona Cathedral (1534). Veronese was the son of one of Verona’s leading stone masons and his brother was also a mason. Veronese would have known the celebrated architect Sanmicheli and his work from a young age. Although the architecture in this painting is dramatically effective, it doesn’t quite fit together when examined closely.
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