Penitent Magdalene El Greco Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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El Greco produced several paintings based on the religious theme of the Penitent Magdalene, with this version being the most memorable. It is housed in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and was completed by the artist in around 1576–1578.

The artist would have been in his mid thirties by the time that he produced Penitent Magdalene and have already undergone different influences from a number of different sources around Europe. The story of the Penitent Magdalene has been covered by a vast number of artists, and was particularly common during the Renaissance, both in Italy and also elsewhere in Europe. It concerns the moment at which she shows penitence for her sins, leaving behind her worldly goods and choosing to follow a new path, thus marking her conversion. This powerful story is reduced to a single, powerful moment by visual artists and there were many different ways in which this theme could be depicted. The Greek painter delivers beams of light from the sky, which signify her message being heard, and assistance being delivered. Her soul with now be saved, thanks to her willingness to change and atone for past sins. El Greco himself was a deeply religious man who would have been well acquainted with stories such as this even before his artistic career took off.

The content within this painting tells of how considers death and immortality whilst sat by herself in a rocky, wild environment. This is to be the moment at which she realises the errors of her ways and immediately seeks conversion. El Greco attempts to portray her as a saved soul, purified by the light which comes down upon her. She drops the symbol of mortality just at that moment, a careful use of symbolism by the artist, whilst ivy climbs up to her side. The colour scheme used colder tones which provides a different atmosphere to how other artists to work with this theme, though the result is no less impactful. By the 16th century, landscape scenes were still very much seen as supportive elements for other genres, and here we just get a small glimpse of the type of outdoor scenes which El Greco was already capable of. Having learnt from various masters in Italy, followed by Spain, he became a truly gifted artist who could deliver different religious themes within his signature drama for which he is much loved even today.

The finished painting is 164cm in height, and 121cm wide. This makes it a fairly standard height for El Greco, because of how he worked with large canvases throughout his career. This Greek painter would regularly feature large amounts of detail within his dramatic scenes and so it became necessary to make use of larger canvases. This was also fairly typical of the period, but in later centuries paintings would start to reduce in size to around half of that size. Much depends of the amount of content included, with El Greco regularly featuring large numbers of figures, grouped together in emotional and powerful imagery. Small versions of these compositions would never be able to carry quite the same level of impact and sometimes El Greco even worked on canvases much larger than the one found here. Another factor to affect this would be the commissioners for each piece, and where they were intending to hang the final piece, with many religious bodies needing larger artworks which could fill their spacious rooms.

Interpretations of the Penitent Magdalene

Between 1576 and 1590 the artist produced four different versions of the Penitent Magdalene. Three, including this one, all followed much the same layout but with some elements of the composition tweaked. The fourth item was considerably different. Additionally, many other artists have taken on this theme, including notably Titian and also Donatello. One can see some connection with Titian's Penitent St Mary Magdalene, though he produced several versions in total. Donatello's contribution is perhaps the most famous sculpture on this topic, and was named Penitent Magdalene from 1455. It is generally regarded as one of his finest sculptures and gives an example of how the same topic can be delivered in many different ways, depending on the style of, and materials used, by each artist. El Greco's own version remains amongst his biggest achievements too, even though it is relatively restrained in terms of content, as compared to some of his other pieces.

Penitent Magdalene in Detail El Greco