The Repentant Magdalene in London

“They couldn’t ‘arf paint: them Italians”

OK it’s not a very scholarly review on what is a fascinating painting and a rather intriguing artist but, whilst the National Gallery is a mecca for art-aficionados all over the world, it is also open (and free) for me and you.

Cagnacci’s The Repentant Magdalene, considered to be one of his finest pieces of work (not least by Norton Simon, who bought it for  $525,000 from the Colnaghi art gallery in 1982, and by Musee du Louvre in Paris who would have but couldn’t afford the price-tag) has returned to the UK and is now in residence in Room 1 of the National Gallery until May.

The Repentant Magdalene in London London Theatre Breaks
X9135 – Guido Cagnacci’s The Repentant Magdalene (After 1660). Oil on canvas © Norton Simon Art Foundation

I’m a big fan of the National Gallery. It’s ours. Collectors pay huge amounts of money to “own” paintings, to show them off to friends and say things like “Oh this? Yes I bought it last year. I love the artist’s stunning use of chiaroscuro so I just had to have it”.

The rest of us just pop down to Trafalgar Square and have a wander around our own art gallery!

The only downside about the gallery is there are just so many paintings to look at. It is impossible to take them all in  over one visit, but the gallery can help with that, with “themed” and “highlight” tours well worth the £4 hire for the headphones.

So it was quite refreshing just to come and look at one painting.

It’s a huge slab of canvas – over 64 square feet – but the point of the thing takes place in the lower third: where Mary Magdalene is gently comforted by her sister, Martha, after she has dramatically renounced her sinful ways, tearing off her finery, and throwing it to the ground.

Standing in front of this, 350 year old painting, it is the exquisite detail of her abandoned shoes, the broken strings of pearls, glistening in the light, of the folds of her fine clothes and of her half-naked body, lying on the rough floor, that hold the eye and talks to us across the centuries.

It’s by no means perfect. Architecturally the painting has its flaws and apparently Cagnacci was often mocked for not being able to paint feet, so it is very daring of him to have so many of them down front and centre instead of being tucked away under a modest cloak, as Mary quietly contemplates her post-liminal state: the more normal representation of her famous transformation.

But perfection is over-rated and I forgive him a dodgy balustrade for those shoes alone!

As I say, They couldn’t ‘arf paint: them Italians!

  • The Repentant Magdalene is at the National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, kindly on loan from the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.
  • The exhibition has been organised in association with the Frick Collection New York.
  • Open to Public to 21 May 2017
  • Daily 10:00-6pm (last admission 5pm)
  • Fridays open to 9pm (last admission 8:15pm

After spending some time with Mary I went for a wander to check up on some of my favourite paintings.

The Repentant Magdalene in London London Theatre Breaks
Detail of Canaletto’s Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day. National Gallery

I made sure that Stefano (my name for him) was still pointing out the splendour of Venice in Canaletto’s “The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day”.

I checked in on that poor servent getting walloped by the doctor in the background of the last frame of Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-Mode. It was his fate to have delivered the poison with which the wife kills herself.

And lastly I wandered over to An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph Wright just so I could say “A stunning use of chiaroscuro” within earshot of a couple who turned and smiled… they probably didn’t know what it meant either.

About Simon Harding

Simon Harding has grown up in and around London's Theatreland and has been working here ever since he left school: promoting its shows to anyone who will listen!

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