Francesco Hayez had already dealt with the iconography of Mary Magdalene as a hermit in the desert in an 1825 painting—currently kept in a private collection—inspired by the 1796 sculpture of the same name by Antonio Canova. Held at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa, this sculpture is considered to be an exemplary icon of the Romantic poets. As opposed to the original and the marble version by Canova, the 1833 work sees the painter abandon his usual compositional structure and style, characterized by an elevated sensuality and realism, in order to achieve a more formal and expressive rigor that is academic in nature.
The famous portrait artist and painter of scenes from 19th-century Milan outlines a minimalist landscape in the background: the cold, cerulean-clad silhouette of the solitary Mary Magdalene is painted against this backdrop, her hand gently gripping the cross. Magdalene's expression suggests a sense of melancholy and grief, symbolizing the eternal conflict between religious vocation and earthly desires.