The work, first documented in the Borghese house in 1790, depicts Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s most famous disciples. Here she is portrayed in the role of a penitent, a very successful subject in 17th-century painting due to its profound religious content. In fact, Mary Magdalene proved to be a crucial figure in the years of the Counter-Reformation, and her image was often used against Protestants to support the necessity and validity of the sacrament of penance.
19th-century frame decorated with corner palmettes
(?) Rome, Borghese Collection, 1790 (Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 7, 41; Della Pergola 1955); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1833 (Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 7, no. 1); purchased by Italian state, 1902.
Two small paintings depicting Mary Magdalene were mentioned in 1790 as forming part of the Borghese Collection. One of these was cited by Carlo Cesare Malvasia in 1678 as a work by Ludovico Carracci, which in 1801 was sold to a dealer by the name of Durand (Della Pergola 1955). The other Mary Magdalene, which is perhaps this one, is listed in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833 together with The Saviour (inv. no. 39). Here it was described as ‘the Madonna by Agostino Carracci, 2 palms 4 inches wide, 2 palms 3 inches high’. The attribution was accepted with reservations by Paola della Pergola (1955), who published the work – whose lower edge had been cut to pair it with The Saviour (inv. no. 39) – as by a ‘follower of Agostino’.
This painting, together with its pendant, synthesises that study of ‘the motions of the soul’ made by the Bolognese painter and his workshop on the works of Correggio, in particular Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo, London, National Gallery), from which Agostino made an engraving that enhanced the popularity of that iconography. Indeed, the intense pathos of this Mary Magdalene contributed to making its subject into one of the most admired of the era, inviting the participation of the observer by entreating his/her pity. The reduced size of the work indicates that it was intended for private worship: it was meant to heighten compassion in the observer to a melodramatic level, in keeping with the tastes of Counter Reformation Italy.
Paola della Pergola (1955) pointed out the existence of a replica of this work in the Gradenigo Collection in Venice.