Paintings | 16th Century | Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino | Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crown of Thorns | Artwork profile

64,7 cm x 55 cm
Oil on canvas



Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crown of Thorns

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

The subject
This portrait by Guercino displays without a doubt one of the most popular subjects depicted in the Christian religion: Mary Magdalene. Traditionally, the figure of Mary Magdalene has various interpretations. The most widespread is that of Mary of Magdala (the city of her birth): like the twelve apostles she always remained at Jesus’ side, even in the final hours of the Passion and his death. She was the first to first bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. The other interpretation, much more widespread in the world of figurative art, is the image of the Penitent Magdalene. For a long time artistic tradition personified the image of Mary Magdalene as a sinner who managed to make amends after meeting Christ. The association with the Penitent Magdalene was definitively rejected by the Second Vatican Council in 1969 but up until that moment it served as a great inspiration for the artists who saw it as a powerful means of expression for guiding the collective imagination towards virtue. And this appears to be the iconographic subject that Guercino depicted in this piece: He painted a woman in rich clothing with her hair adorned in jewels, according to the traditional stereotype of prostitutes, while meditating on one of the symbols of the Passion of Christ, the crown of thorns, through which she obtained salvation.

The painting

This work was recognized by Nicholas Turner as one of those recorded in the painter’s Account Book and was identified as a painting of “a head of Mary Magdalene” for Dr. Rigetti on 18 September 1632 and for which the artist was paid in two instalments (written communication on 9 June, 2004). The style of this painting perfectly matches Guercino’s style during that period: the rich the colour and heavy impasto distinguished this phase of the painter’s life, as can be seen in comparisons with other works from the same period such as the Virgin with Child preserved in Toulouse, originally commissioned for the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia. There is another portrait of Mary Magdalene by Guercino that shows many similarities in its measurements and iconography but the current location of this piece is unknown. Always half-length and with a meditative demeanour, in this version Mary Magdalene contemplates the nails of the Passion instead of the crown of thorns. The existence of this work has made it difficult to determine which of the two paintings was being referred to in the aforementioned account book: Turner believes the painting analyzed here is of a much higher quality in comparison with the other version as evident in several details such as the woman’s hands, which are much more refined in this version while they are only partially visible in the other, having been cut from the edge of the painting. This brings us to the conclusion that the “Mary Magdalene meditating on the crown of thorns” is the principal version of the two.

Denis Mahon supports this conclusion (written communication on June 26, 2004) as does Claudio Strinati.