Artemisia's Magdalene in Ecstasy

Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy', about 1620–5

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy (about 1620 - 25) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Until its appearance on the art market in Paris in 2014, this picture was only known from a black-and-white photograph. 

It has been hailed as one of the most significant rediscoveries of a work by Artemisia in recent years.

It depicts Mary Magdalene, a follower of Christ, who withdrew to a life of solitary penitence and prayer following his death. 

Here the Magdalene, alone in a cave and bathed in light, is in the throes of an ecstatic vision.

Artemisia paints her in a way that suggests a real, physical presence. 

Almost life-sized, the Magdalene seems so close to the viewer, it is as if we are right alongside her.

This close proximity makes looking at the Magdalene almost uncomfortably voyeuristic. 

She is oblivious to the viewer's presence. 

Her head is thrown back to expose her neck.

She is also unaware that her chemise has slipped off her shoulder.

Artemisia no doubt intended this image to be powerfully sensual, but changes she made during painting suggest she chose to modify this aspect of the picture. 

She decided to cover the Magdalene's left breast (the contour of which was originally more obvious) by covering it with the plum-coloured cloak and flowing locks of gleaming hair.

However, she emphasised the eroticism of the Magdalene's exposed skin – particularly the crease of flesh where her arm meets her chest. 

The flicks of the brush describing the lace trim of the chemise also evoke a sense of touch.

Artemisia gives a great demonstration of her skills as a painter in depicting the folds and creases of the Magdalene's chemise.

Her use of intense 'chiaroscuro' – the strong contrast of light and shade – and details such as the Magdalene's interlaced fingers, may have been adaptations from an earlier picture of the same subject by Caravaggio.

But the choices Artemisia made in her depiction of Mary Magdalene are telling. 

She brought the saint very much closer to the viewer than Caravaggio had done.

The saint's 'attributes' (the symbols by which viewers would be able to identify her)  – an ointment jar, crucifix and skull  – are all absent.

Nor does she have a halo. 

Instead, Artemisia's Mary Magdalene is presented as a young woman who is  real, entirely self-contained and completely absorbed by the intensity of her spiritual feelings.

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