The True Beauty of the Magdalene

Mary Magdalene has long been a favored subject for artists, and a particularly spectacular example is seen in The Penitent Magdalene of the Florentine master Carlo Dolci (1616-1687). The Magdalene was a subject that Dolci frequently revisited, but this version is notable for the realism and raw emotion that suffuses the depiction: her reddened and watery eyes, the delicate clasp of her hands, and the inclination of her head.

Dolci was a sensitive and intense perfectionist who spent inordinate amounts of time on details, and he once fell into a depression when he witnessed another painter work much more quickly than he did. He was, however, an extraordinarily devout man and quite deliberate in making his art an act of devotion. A contemporary said of him: ““it was difficult to tell whether he was more excellent in the art of painting … or in living a good life”, and his spiritual adviser remarked that his conscience was displayed in his brush.

So many treatments of the Magdalene tend toward the markedly unpenitential or even gratuitously immodest–but Dolci’s is a fundamentally religious work from start to finish.

And indeed, what he achieved is a masterpiece of devotional symbolism: a little glimpse of how incomparably beautiful our contrition looks in the eyes of Almighty God.

July 22, 2020