The Magdalen Reading

This is a fragment cut from a larger painting, evidently an altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints. It shows Mary Magdalene, with Saint Joseph behind, and the bare feet and red robe of Saint John the Evangelist on the left. The jar in the foreground contains the ointment which Mary Magdalene used to anoint Jesus' feet as she wept over them, repenting of her sins. She subsequently devoted her life to holy works, and is represented reading a holy book. Her clothes are sumptuous: her fur-lined dress is turned back to reveal a bejewelled underdress. The wooden cupboard suggests that the scene was set in a rich domestic interior. The background includes a detailed landscape view.

Two other fragments of the lost altarpiece still exist, the heads of Saint Joseph and Saint Catherine (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon). It has been deduced from these surviving pieces that the original work must have been about 1m high by 1.5m wide.

Key facts

Artist dates
about 1399 - 1464
Full title
The Magdalen Reading
Date made
before 1438
Medium and support
Oil on mahogany, transferred from another panel
62.2 x 54.4 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1860
Inventory number
Location in Gallery