Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene (c1535-40)

Savoldo's Mary Magdalene is so unusual it demands interpretation.1 My explanation, while novel in part, is mainly based on a 1989 article by Mary Pardo who concluded, as I often do, that "its subject is the art of painting."2 The Magdalene, the first to view the risen Christ, is wrapped in a cloak, her gestures hidden like the painting's poetic meaning. She waits for enlightenment but has not yet seen Christ. The sun is rising in the distance. Considering the cloak's reflections, Christ is just outside her line of vision to the right. Pardo identified the cloak as a canvas facing the picture plane, when the largest plane in fact faces to the right and the unseen Christ. The dark circle in the wall suggests an "eye" looking inwards. That means the scene is inside Savoldo's mind, not out.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Savoldo, Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

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"What is she hugging?" must be the first question. It cannot be her knee; too large, too high. It is difficult to know but a user made the wonderful suggestion that her left arm curls down to hold “a palette” while her right one, veiled by the cape, is raised to “paint” the picture. Besides, the cosmetic jar holds pigments with which to paint faces. Several figures by Manet  also have veiled painting gestures (top right and bottom). Thus, we can infer, Mary stares into a mirror, the poetic surface of her mind, while also "painting" it as her sparkling "canvas" cape and raised arm (?) may suggest. The cape's flat surface, though, is angled towards Christ who stands next to the real Savoldo painting the picture. On the poetic level Christ-as-Savoldo is "the artist", a lesson to all to reveal their inner essence. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top left: Savoldo, Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40)
Top right: Detail of Manet's Nana
Bottom: Detail of Manet's Interior at Aracahon

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This is only a hypothesis but is supported by Mary's features, which though idealized, still resemble those in Savoldo's presumed self-portrait (bottom).3 Like Christ she also is an alter ego of the artist. This would not have been unusual. St. Jerome (c.347-40 - 420) imagined himself as Mary Magdalene in texts that were well known in the Renaissance.4 Goffen has also demonstrated how Titian had a special sense of identification with Mary Magdalene assuming her identity in letters to patrons and others.5 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Savoldo's Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40)
Bottom: Presumed self-portrait detail of Savoldo's Portrait of a Gentleman Dressed in Armor (c.1529)

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The Magdalene, calmly waiting for the next stage in her spiritual progression, remains unaware of Christ's resurrection. Her veiled "painting" arm looks oddly phallic, emphasizing perhaps the androgynous wholeness she brings to male minds. Christ faces her. She will see him when she turns to look further over her shoulder, as artists do when painting. She will then gaze directly at Christ, the divine essence of Savoldo's mind. To repeat, there is no viewer here, only the artist and his alter egos.6 Pardo was right to note that the Magdalene is undergoing a "quasi-conversion", "an unfolding process of enlightenment."7 By identifying with the artist, spiritual viewers can be guided by the painting too, towards gnosis or Wisdom.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Savoldo, Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40)

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Pardo wrote that "we are being explicitly told that natural appearance is not the goal of pictorial skill, but rather an instrument in the evocation of what lies beneath, as under a veil." This, I must add, is true of most art. Art as poetry, she noted, has both a literal and more spiritual sense and that part of the pleasure of looking at art is the thrill of understanding. She cited Petrarch: "..for truth uncovered is all the more pleasant, the more difficult its quest has been" and concluded "that the inventiveness of poetry, in effect, is to make an inventor...out of the reader."8 And that is what we try to do here.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Savoldo, Mary Magdalene (c.1535-40)

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Notes:

1. Several versions of Savoldo's composition exist.

2. Pardo, "The Subject of Savoldo's Magdalene", Art Bulletin 71, March 1989, pp. 69, 84

3. Jodi Cranston, The Poetics of Portraiture in the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge University Press) 2000 p. 136

4. Zbynek Smetana, Titian's Mirror: Self-portrait and Self-Image in the Late Works, PhD Diss., Rutgers University, NJ 1997, pp. 175-6

5. Goffen, Titian's Women (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2007pp.8, 178, 185.

6. We know that mirrors were important symbols to Savoldo because he painted his self-portrait surrounded by them. Prominent examples, though, in which the whole surface is also a mirror include Michelangelo's drawing, Archers Shooting at a Herm, Velazquez's Las Meninas and Manet's Olympia and Spanish Singer.

7. Pardo, op. cit., p. 75

8. Pardo, op. cit., pp. 84-6, 90-1; I should note that just as Pardo claimed that "the gleaming shawl re-represents the pigmented and brush-imprinted canvas" facing Christ. so the ointment jar in the lower left corner represents Mary's "paint pot." Mary, unfairly accused by the Church of being a harlot, presumably used cosmetics to paint her face just as artists use pigments to paint theirs. The image therefore invites us to contemplate its other hidden theme "the artistic process itself." Even though Pardo mis-imagines the central axis as between Mary and the viewer, she is still in my view largely correct. The true axis is the moment to come when Mary looks out over her shoulder to see the resurrected Christ, to paint the resurrected Christ and to become at one with God.

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Original Publication Date: 18 Apr 2012
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