Guido Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene is the latest in a series of loans from the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena. This astounding, large canvas — leaving Pasadena for the first time since Norton Simon acquired it in 1982 — is one of Cagnacci’s most ambitious works and is rightly considered a masterpiece.
The Repentant Magdalene was probably painted in the early 1660s in Vienna for Emperor Leopold I. Sometime in 1660–61, Cagnacci wrote to Francesco Gionima, his pupil and assistant in Venice, explaining that it was no longer possible for him to visit that spring, as he had planned: “I cannot come [to Venice] anymore after Easter, because His Imperial Majesty has asked that I promise to make him a painting of the repentant Saint Mary Magdalene, with four full-length figures.” By 1665, The Repentant Magdalene was in Italy, in the collection of Carlo II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The Gonzaga family was closely related to the emperor, and the duke may have either acquired the canvas from him or received it from him as a diplomatic gift. In 1711, it was documented in the possession of the Bentinck family in England, and they owned it until its sale in 1981.
One of the most common criticisms of Cagnacci within Venetian artistic circles was that he seemed incapable of painting full-length figures. While in Venice and Vienna he had, in fact, produced a large number of paintings with half-length figures, including the famous Cleopatra, which will be on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York from December 3, 2016, to January 19, 2017, on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Several of Cagnacci’s contemporaries — the painter Pietro Liberi and the art critic Marco Boschini, among others — had viciously condemned his work for this reason. Cagnacci, in his letter to Gionima, described his plans for the full-length figures he intended to include in The Repentant Magdalene, remarking with bitter sarcasm, “and because I cannot paint feet, it would be better if Cavalier Liberi could come and paint them himself.”
The event depicted in the elegant space of this canvas is an episode from the life of Mary Magdalene, the courtesan who renounced her sinful ways and converted to Christianity, following her encounter with Christ in the temple. Mary is shown on the floor, having discarded her luxurious clothes and jewels; her face is reddened from remorse and her body barely covered by a white sheet. Her sister Martha sits on a cushion, calming her, while behind them two servants are leaving the room after having witnessed their mistress’s emotional scene. Cagnacci has also included two allegorical figures to the left. A standing angel banishes a levitating devil, complete with horns and a tail. He lurches toward the window as he flees the room. The combatant figures represent Virtue and Vice as they battle for Mary’s soul at the moment she chooses to embrace her virtuous new Christian life.
Guido Cagnacci, The Repentant Magdalene (detail), ca. 1660−63. Oil on canvas, 90 1/4 x 104 3/4 in. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, California