This engaging depiction of Mary Magdalene as a bejeweled embodiment of femininity and redemption constitutes a beautiful example of this iconic subject of the Northern Renaissance. The interest in Mary Magdalene that pervades 16th-century Netherlandish painting may have been sparked by theological debates around 1520 about the identity of the three Marys, as well as by Erasmus’s commentaries about the nature of the Magdalene as a moral exemplum illustrating the infinite power of conversion and the way to salvation (C. Scailliérez, Quentin Metsys, Sainte Madeleine, Paris, 2007). Demand for this theme may also have been fueled by more mundane motivations: indeed it allowed artists to depict a magnificent young woman clad in lavish attire referring to her former sinful life as a prostitute. It is in such opulent and exotic dress that the pensive repentant saint is depicted in this panel: her extravagant costume consists of a crimson damask bodice, with slashed sleeves tied together by green bows, through which a shirt with long hanging sleeves is visible. She is crowned with a fanciful tiara-like headdress from which a blue veil flows, describing an elegant arabesque. The saint holds her attribute the ointment jar here depicted as an elaborate piece of gilded metalwork, which she used both to wash Christ’s feet (Luke 7:36-50) and anoint his dead body after the Crucifixion.
With its crispness of design, playful fantasy and vibrant colors, this panel is a characteristic work of the Antwerp school. In the first half of the 15th-century, the city of Antwerp witnessed an artistic florescence later referred to as the ‘Antwerp Mannerism’ by the great historian of early Netherlandish painter Max J. Friedländer, and eloquently described by Peter van der Brink as "a period situated between old traditions and new developments, where rules were bent and a giddy sense of freedom and novelty had play, in a town that rapidly changed from being merely provincial to being the economic and cultural capital of the western world." (P. van der Brink, Extravagant! A Forgotten Chapter of Antwerp Painting, 1500-1530, Schoten, 2005, p. 6). The present composition must have met with remarkable success, for it survives in a number of versions of lower quality (Galerie George Petit, Paris, Dollfus Sale, 1-2 April 1912; Christie’s Amsterdam, 6 November 2000, lot 65; Christie’s Amsterdam, 1 November 2011, lot 65; RKD, no. 19660, unknown location). These various versions all seem to have been painted by different hands, suggesting that a cartoon of this popular composition must have circulated between several Antwerp studios. The present work would have occupied the upper-tier of this production and been painted by a skilled artist whose name unfortunately remains to this day a mystery.