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Mary Magdalene is a Renaissance portrait which dates to around 1515 and has, by some, been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. This connection has been questioned by many, however, and it remains one of his disputed artworks.
This historical figure has inspired many artists and was seen frequently throughout the Italian Renaissance, when most commissions would require religious content. Single figure portraits of this nature could be used within a private room for devotion, or hung in a larger building too and so were fairly flexible. They could also be completed by a single artist, and therefore fitted in between larger projects. The painting has been dated at 1515, which would place it right at the end of Da Vinci's career, by which time his evolution as a painter had been completed. Within this portrait of Mary Magdalene, though, most see elements of a younger painter with some experience, but not the supreme mastery of Leonardo.
Giampietrino, who might have been worked professionally for two decades by 1515, has been put forward as the creator of this piece by many scholars, with far fewer claiming it to be from his master, Leonardo. The painting's location in a private collection has made it harder to solve this mystery once and for all, and so this controversy is likely to continue. Leonardo trained a number of pupils within his studio and they would naturally work in a similar style to his, making undocumented paintings inevitably fall into these grey areas of attribution. Typically, those not from Leonardo's hand would carry technical errors which could be found with sufficient study.
There are several elements to this piece which raise our suspicions regarding this being a Leonardo da Vinci painting. The exposed nature of Mary Magdalene is something we see several times within Giampietrino's career, but feels entirely out of place for his master. Any variations of technique cannot really be determined without seeing the painting up close and only a few individuals have been given access to this painting in recent years. There are similarities with Da Vinci in terms of the landscape across the background and also the way in which the face is constructed, by the same can be said for a number of other paintings to have come from Leonardo da Vinci's circle, and they have conclusively been attributed to the master's pupils.
One aspect which might explain why the chest is exposed in this painting, is that potentially the young female may have been holding a knife to her chest, and that actually she was Lucretia, not Mary Magdalene. This seems plausible, but would not make the artwork any more likely to have come from Da Vinci's hand and the expert who put this theory forward also believes the painting came from Giampietrino's career. It is unlikely that this mystery will ever be solved without an in-depth study of the piece using the latest scientific techniques, and so for now this remains a decidely loose attribution to Da Vinci.
Table of Contents
- Leonardo's Disputed Works
- Who was Giampietrino?
- Size and Medium
Leonardo's Disputed Works
There is a good number of paintings which have been classified together within Da Vinci's oeuvre as being disputed. Indeed, almost all of his paintings have been disputed at one point or another over the centuries, but most have now been more confidently classified as one of his own. Those that remain disputed, therefore, have more of a cloud over their creators, and Mary Magdalene is amongst the most controversial of all. The nature of Italian art during the Renaissance led itself to confusion over attribution, with artists regularly collaborating together and often following the style of others. Documentation was also sometimes not produced, or has since been lost, and the combination of these factors makes Renaissance art a hotbed of discussion, controversy and disputes between academics.
As a hotly disputed Leonardo painting, Mary Magdalene will often be left out of written publications on the artist's life and career, with some authors prefering to focus only on those with a confidence attribution behind them. Others prefer to widen the scope out to include anything with a reasonable claim to Leonardo. One must remember that this master was highly revered for his painting during his own lifetime, and so many followers would take up his artistic style and study his techniques in great depth, aiming to produce paintings of a similar standard.
Scientific Research Techniques
From the very early 20th century, science has played a large role in art history research. Techniques such as X-Ray have helped us to solve many of these attribution issues, by comparing disputed items with those that have been accepted. These methods have mainly been applied to artworks owned by the major art galleries and museums of the world, who have access to these resources, but items in smaller or private collections may have been left alone for now, still hiding secrets for future generations to potentially discover.
Mary Magdalene is shown wearing a red robe with black detail, with a thin transparent cloth beneath which she pulls down to reveal her open chest to the viewer. She looks off into the distance to our right hand side, whilst her curly hair hangs down onto her shoulders. In the distance we see a sprawling landscape which is immediately identifiable as in the style of Leonardo and his followers, with tones slowly drifting away into the distance and eventually merging with the sky above. Most of their landscapes were beautifully formed, but entirely intended as supporting elements to the main focal point, and with no specific relevance to the theme of the work.
One knowedgeable on Da Vinci's career will immediately spot elements of this portrait of Mary Magdalene which are entirely typical of Leonardo, but also many that were not, supporting both the case for and against it being a genuine Da Vinci work. She wears a small piece of beaded jewellery around her neck, which hangs down across her chest. The lighting in this painting is also fairly abrupt, with bright light falling across her front, indicating a light tone of hair. The rolls of material in her robe, however, are heavily shadowed, and the middle section of the painting is also very dark, which disconnects the foreground and background.
The exposed nature of Mary Magdalene feels a little out-of-sync with Da Vinci's other religious paintings, and elements of her facial features do not match what we are accustomed to from the artist. Mary is pictured as a pretty young woman, and in that sense this is a complementary portrait, by the way in which she is exposed to the viewer does not feel either typical of Da Vinci not entirely respectful. At around the same time that this painting was produced, Da Vinci did contribute Bacchus (1515), Saint John the Baptist (1513), whilst also potentially re-working parts of the Mona Lisa from time to time.
Who was Giampietrino?
Giampietrino was one of the more significant followers of Leonardo da Vinci, and would have been at the start of his career whilst master Da Vinci was in his final two decades of work. Many have accused him of taking advantage of his master's qualities in order to profit within his own career, but the exchange of ideas and techniques between a master and his pupils was entirely normal. One cannot criticise the technical ability of Giampietrino, who was able to copy some of his master's paintings meticulously, and so most complaints about his work were more about lacking his own imagination, and bringing something new to what Leonardo had already achieved.
In terms of attributing this particular painting, Giampietrino produced a number of depictions of Mary Magdalene within his career and most of his oeuvre was based on religious themes. He also left some women exposed on the canvas a number of times (including Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, Musée des Beaux-Arts), and so what we find here could potentially have been from his hand. Some of his portraits lacked the softness of his master, with details more visible but not quite as lifelike. This portrait does not carry those same abrupt tones, though, with Mary boasting a soft feminity in her facial features.
Carlo Pedretti, director of the Armand Hammer Center in Los Angeles, has claimed the painting to be from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Having studied the artist's life and career for decades, he feels confident that after two years of research into this portrait of Mary Magdalene that he is able to correct this mis-attribution to Giampietrino. However, other scholars on the artist do not agree with this view and continue to see the artwork as that of Giampietrino, and if we take all available opinions of respected scholars with experience in Da Vinci's career, the concensus would be that he did not produce it himself.
This painting resides within a private collection in Switzerland, which has made the item slightly harder to research than if it was on display within a public gallery or museum. The owners have allowed the piece to be displayed in public exhibitions from time to time, which has helped to bring the piece to our attention, and remind us of how some still believe that it may have come from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci.
Size and Medium
Mary Magdalene is sized at 58 cm × 45 cm (23 in × 18 in) and was likely produced using oils on a wooden panel, but that cannot be confirmed. Many of his wood panel works have since been transferred to canvas in order to avoid some of the problems that can occur over the centuries, such as woodworm or bending wood. Da Vinci's wider studio often worked with sizes of this nature, around half a metre in width and height, with the aspect ratio for portraiture. It was only when producing more detailed portraits, perhaps with multiple figures or a complex background that they might go larger, such as with the various versions of Virgin of the Rocks, for example.