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

64,7 cm x 55 cm
Oil on canvas


Artwork profile

Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crown of Thorns

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

The Expertise

1) Regarding the work “Penitent Magdalene contemplating the Crown of Thorns” there are no doubts that it is the picture for which Guercino received payments on the 18th of October 1632 and on the 14th of January 1633 from the lawyer of Cento Francesco Righetti, whose beautiful portrait will soon be auctioned by Sotheby’s. In a footnote published by Barbara Ghelfi on p. 68 of Guercino’s Account Book, it is suggested that the payments are related to a painting formerly in the collection of Doc. Carlo Croce in Philadelphia. Such work, the location of which is currently unknown, is reproduced on a colour plate in the complete catalogue of Guercino’s paintings by David Stone (Florence 1991). It appears to be a contemporary workshop derivation, of a rather high quality yet not comparable to that of the original. (Denis Mahon)




2) At first glance, it may seem a depiction of the Virgin Mary, considering the popularity of the image of the Mater Dolorosa, a subject widely exploited during the Counter-Reformation. Such identification is incorrect not only for the face and the hairstyle of the young woman, but also for the attire that does not seem appropriate for a mother beholding the death of her own son. The figure is in fact dressed in vivid and bright colours. These are attributes of Magdalene, who in the Catholic Church represents the archetype of repentance: she was in fact a prostitute redeemed by the encounter with Christ, and therefore she is often portrayed wearing gaudy dresses and jewels. On the 18th of September 1632, Guercino receives the payment of 5 scudi for a “head of St. Mary Magdalene” from Dr. Rigetti and on the following 14th of January a second payment of 21 scudi as a settlement of the work. The style of the painting here examined perfectly matches that of those years: the richness of colour and the thick mixture are the Master’s characteristics at this point of his career. A similar palette of colours, with the pictorial surface handled in this exact manner, can be found also in the painting “Virgin with Child and the Martyrdom of St. John and St. Peter” or in the “Visitation”, housed in the Musée des Augustins in Toulose and in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. A pair of works that Guercino finished in 1632 for the walls of the Fordibelli Giroldi Chapel in the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia. Prior to the discovery of this work, it was believed that the 1632 payment just mentioned recorded in the Account book was to be referred to another image of the Magdalene, that features similar dimensions and iconographic details very close to ours. There are still some uncertainties regarding which of the two versions is the entry on the Master’s record actually referring to. Yet, there can be no doubts on the fact that the treatment of the subject in the work here at issue is much more sophisticated than that of the “Magdalene Contemplating the Nails of the Passion”: not only there is a much wider background that comprises on the left a wall made of stones and on the right a view of the blue sky, but also the drapery is treated in a more ambitious manner. Even the hands are rendered with more delicacy in this version than in the other, as it is the Crown of Thorns compared to the Nails in the other painting. All these elements thus point to the “Magdalene Contemplating the Crown of Thorns” as being the principal version between the two. Furthermore, it is likely that this is the painting that Rigetti received after the second payment at the beginning of 1633. Without a doubt this work is an important addition to the archive of the Master’s output, a work that possesses some exquisite brushstrokes especially over the clothes, the features of the face and the hair of the Magdalene. (9th June 2004  Nicholas Turner)



3) This superb and dramatic picture possesses a strong emotional impact as well as an exquisite quality, and it is certainly to be included amongst the most interesting and significant achievements of the great painter from Cento. It was Nicholas Turner who recognized this work, identifying it as the painting recorded on the 18th of September 1632 in the Account Book as a work made for a certain Dr. Rigetti. Turner’s identification is to be considered conclusive; he brought to light those features such as the richness of colour and the thick texture’s mixture that characterize this specific phase of Guercino’s career. It is a phase that could be defined as romantic, since so passionate and intimate is the impact of the work on the beholder, testifying of a unique personage in the Italian history of art of the 17th century. Interesting is the structure of the form in a work such as this, that tends to enhance the expressive balance in a different manner from that of Guido Reni. As much the latter is intimate and sensitive in his expression as Guercino seems to find his inspiration in the characters of the theatre and of the opera, marked by a restrained power and an enchanting sweetness of feelings. (Claudio Strinati)