The Magdalen Reading- Rogier van der Weyden Before 1438
Mary Magdalene- Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo 1535-40
Here we have two paintings of the same subject but painted a century apart. But for me these two paintings are very much companion pieces in the way they depict Mary Magdalene not as a repentant sinner but as a woman of strength and character. The church always had difficulty in how to portray Mary who plays a prominent part in Christ’s story but who’s past was less than virginal.
The Weyden Magdalen is part of a fragment of an alter piece of the Virgin and Child with saints. The scene depicts a domestic interior with Mary richly dressed with a fur lined dress falling open to reveal a bejewelled under-dress. Next to her as a perfect still life sits the jar of ointment, the one used to anoint Christ’s feet with. Behind her we see the partial figures of Saint Joseph and in deep red and bare feet St. John the Evangelist. His red cloak only intensifies the vibrant green of Mary’s dress. Indeed the colours look as fresh as if it was painted yesterday. But it is Mary’s quiet contemplation as she reads her bible that first draws the eye and sets the serene mood of the painting.
The Savoldo Magdalene by contrast is a much more dramatic setting. We see Mary against the back-drop of a Venice lagoon her enveloping silver cloak picked out in the moon light. An almost secretive figure caught in the act of visiting the tomb after the resurrection with only her jar of ointment to give her identity away. She turns in a dramatic gesture to face us. Her gaze holds ours, a woman who holds a secret of which we are left to ponder.