Seated figure of a crying woman with long hair facing left, leaning her right elbow upon a skull while holding a crucifix in her left hand. The skull sits on top of a book. In the foreground there is a still-life arrangement of grapes, peaches, an apple and a melon. In the bottom left corner there is a small box, completely in shadow, and there is a chalice in the upper left corner. A distant landscape and blue sky are visible in the upper right corner.
One of a series of half-length, figural compositions undertaken by Abraham Janssens in the 1620s, this sumptuous painting of the Penitent Magdalen was intended for a private patron. Its owner would have savored the visual opulence of the pensive saint surrounded by jewels, silks, fruit, and a golden ointment jar, while also understanding the somber skull and crucifix as emblems of death and redemption. Janssens painted it during the Counter-Reformation, a period when the Catholic Church strongly encouraged penitence as the route to salvation. Traditionally described as a prostitute who became a devoted disciple of Christ, Mary Magdalen embodied notions of repentance and redemption. To this day, she remains a complex and mutable symbol of women and their place in the Church.
portraits; women; skulls; fruit; crucifixions
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