If there was ever an ultimate “Am I a sociopath?” test, it would have to be Jusepe de Ribera’s Penitent Magdalene painting.
I dare you not to cry.
It’s hard for me to put into words what moves me about this painting. Ribera’s artistry and understanding of the human psyche are beyond words. In fact, the painting is so good, that if you said this was the hand of an old Italian master no one would bat an eyelash. Just don’t drop the C-word. Caravaggio fans are not ones to mess with.
So who was Jusepe de Ribera? He was born 20 years after Caravaggio in Spain, near Valencia. When he moved to Italy around 1608-1609, I’d like to think that these two crossed paths. Maybe they drank a glass of wine at the same osteria. Or slept with the same prostitutes. You get the idea. Because Ribera very much owes his tenebrism — the dramatic chiaroscuro that engulfs paintings into shadows with oases of brilliant light — to Caravaggio, whom he admired.
What about Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene was frequently portrayed in art as a repenting prostitute, even though there is no reference to her promiscuity in the Bible. She is mentioned in the Scripture several times, but only as accompanying Jesus alongside his apostles, being there at his crucifixion and as the first witness to his resurrection.
The confusion arose in 591 when during his sermon Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene’s identity with the unnamed sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet. From there it didn’t take long before folklore equated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Egypt, the latter being a repentant prostitute who lived a reclusive life in the desert.
The reason why such a myth endures and flourished in the first place is because it gave artists permission to explore a woman’s sexuality under religious pretenses. This usually meant the depiction of breasts or extreme hairiness to reveal her savage nature.
And sometimes you get both…
It wasn’t just male artists who took advantage of this license to portray so-called depraved women. The Italian Baroque powerhouse Artemisia Gentileschi does a wonderful job too in Mary Magdalene as Melancholy where the subject’s dormant sexuality is sending out intoxicating signals, despite her obvious sadness.
Et tu, Gentileschi?
Ribera’s take on the subject, however, liberates Mary Magdalene from her promiscuity and lays bare her regrets, her penitence, her deep sorrow. She comes across as an allegory of Sadness, her emotions overflowing in a circle locked between the life glinting in her eyes and the sockets of the skull she’s clutching in her left hand. Remember that you will die, says the memento mori skull as a classic art history device, yet we can see that her sadness is not caused by the imminence of death, but by the burden of her regrets.
While in Gentileschi’s painting the light is tantalizing, revealing Mary Magdalene’s inviting bare flesh, for Ribera the chiaroscuro which illuminates the face and hands against the dark background suggests the duality of human existence, left to fend for itself in the interplay between good and evil. This duality is further enhanced through the contrast between the ornate jewelry adorning Mary Magdalene’s hair and her dirty fingernails, as a reminder that money cannot save her.
What I love most about this painting is that knowing more about the identity of the subject and the back story of Mary Magdalene doesn’t amplify its emotional appeal – it simply satisfies an intellectual curiosity.
Ribera offers such a gut-wrenching portrayal of human suffering that pausing to question the reasons or validity of the suffering is beside the point. To suffer is to live, to live is to see. We do not need our intellect to understand Penitent Magdalene. We need only look at what’s in front of us.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
P.S: There are so many beautiful paintings of Mary Magdalene throughout art history that I’m sure to return to her many times over. What a muse.