This superb example of what was a particularly popular subject in sixteenth-century Flanders constitutes a masterpiece of the anonymous painter known as the Master of the Parrot. Almost certainly produced for private devotion, the painting represents a young and beautiful Mary Magdalene, not as a sinful prostitute of questionable morality, but rather as a newly repentant disciple. In spite of her recent spiritual redemption, the Magdalene is completely enveloped in an opulent atmosphere, standing against a tasseled cloth of honor that matches her bejeweled, velvet gown with slashed sleeves and flowing drapery. Mary Magdalene's less-than-pious life prior to her salvation through Christ gave artists license to indulge in the representation of feminine beauty as well as luxurious garments and accessories, such as her ointment jar used to anoint Christ's feet (Luke 7:36-50). The exquisite craftsmanship of this object reflects contemporary goldsmith work, and it is quite possible that this painting was conceived as a disguised portrait of an unknown, sixteenth-century Flemish woman. Images of this type were highly desirable and were produced in significant quantities by workshops located in Bruges and Antwerp, often expressly for exportation to Spain.
Max J. Friedländer writes that the Master of the Parrot, so named for the idiosyncratic, exotic birds that often appear in his compositions, was a contemporary of the likewise anonymous Master of the Female Half-lengths ('Der Meister mit dem Papagei', Phoebus, 1949, II, pp. 49-54). Both are thought to have been active in Antwerp or possibly Bruges in the 1520s and 1530s. The Master of the Parrot's paintings betray the influence of Italianate artists of the generation following Quenten Metsys and Bernard van Orley who worked in that region. Particular similarities may be found in the oeuvre of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Among the most distinguished South Netherlandish painters of the sixteenth century, Pieter Coecke became a master in Antwerp's Guild of Saint Luke in 1527 and maintained a large and productive workshop where it is likely the Master of the Parrot began his career. In fact, many of the works now given to the Master of the Parrot were formerly attributed to that artist.
Since it last appeared at auction, the present painting has been cleaned and several layers of unrelated paint and dirt have been removed, revealing new details and a resplendant surface. The composition displays many of the characteristics that Friedländer identified as hallmarks of the Master of the Parrot's style. The Magdalene's oval face is crowned by her centrally-parted, golden hair that falls in tight ringlets. Her hands, which feature long, delicate fingers capped by oval fingernails, attest to the Mannerist taste for elegant body proportions that exceed reality. The playful, highly-expressive faces and fleshy bodies of the two putti supporting the cloth behind the Magdalene are especially representative of his style, and compare favorably to similar figures in other of the Master's works, such as the infant Christ in his Madonna and Child in the San Diego Museum of Art. Furthermore, in both compositions one finds a similarly gifted treatment of the transparent veils serving as headdresses.
The striking chiaroscuro modeling of the Magdalene's face in the present painting is distinctly Leonardesque. The figure's graceful appearance and alabaster complexion as well as the refined, mysterious setting are indebted to works produced by Pieter Coeck in the 1520s and early 1530s, such as his Virgin and Child in the Heinz Kisters collection, Kruezlingen (M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, New York and Washington, 1975, XII, no. 154). This affinity strongly suggests that this remarkable painting was executed early in the Master of the Parrot's career, when he was still very much influenced by the older artist.