The Penitent Magdalen
(Bartolome Esteban Murillo)


This Penitent Magdalen is one of the most important works by Murillo to be discovered in recent years. Murillo signed rather few of his works during his lifetime and most of those that are signed were painted during the early stages of his career, before he became Seville’s most famous painter.

The iconographic theme of the penitent Magdalen was a key element of Catholic devotion during the Counter Reformation period that commenced with the Council of Trent in 1563. Representations of penitent saints were extremely common throughout Europe, but especially so in Spain and Italy. Mary Magdalen symbolises a person who, after a period of debauchery and sin, repents and takes refuge in religion, pursuing, above all, a life of prayer and penitence. The Magdalen was traditionally believed to be a beautiful woman who practiced prostitution until the moment that she met Christ and was redeemed. Later, she withdrew from the world, mortifying her flesh to repent of her sins. During the baroque period the Church used the symbolism of the Magdalen in order to exhort the faithful to repent and recognize their sins while offering them the hope of salvation through penitence and spiritual purification.

The theme of the penitent Magdalen was favoured by Murillo throughout his entire career. This Penitent Magdalen was not painted very early in Murillo’s career between 1638 and 1640 as has been suggested. At that time the artist was still experimenting and his style was as yet unformed while he remained under the influence of Juan de Castillo, his master. The painting should rather be dated some ten years later, around 1650, when the artist was beginning to assert his own individual character in harmony with the traditions of Sevillian painting. Murillo began to use chiaroscuro during this period in order to endow his characters with a sense of intense expression and so that he might also heighten the dramatic quality of the composition and imbue it with a spiritual sense of religious purity. There are a number of other penitent saints which date from this period, all equally dramatic, particularly in their body language and especially in their facial expressions. These include the Saint Francis in Antwerp cathedral (fig.1) as well as another version of the same saint in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville. A similar sense of drama can be seen in a Saint Jerome in the Museo del Prado in Madrid where the kneeling saint is intensely absorbed in the act of penitence (fig.2).

Murillo’s works executed c. 1650 are tenebrous and also show a strong use of chiaroscuro. Thus, he experimented with a Sevillian form of Caravaggism, which he probably derived from a knowledge of Jusepe Ribera. At the same time the intensity of expression and devotion evident in these compositions was almost certainly due to a knowledge of early Guido Reni. Several works by Reni once hung in Seville cathedral and his engravings were widely circulated. The characterisation of the head of the Magdalen in particular in this Penitent Magdalen owes much to Reni.

The dramatic sense of expression that Murillo utilised between 1650 and 1655 gave way to sweeter or softer, almost vaporous figures in later years. It is enough to compare this Magdalen with The Magdalen in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne which was painted around 1670. The Cologne Magdalen shows Murillo’s tendency to progressively sweeten and beautify his models, the result of a move towards a more open-minded doctrine within the Spanish Catholic Church. Inevitably this doctrinal tendency inspired Murillo to produce compositions with a softer, more delicate slant than his early Counter Reformation pictures.

This Penitent Magdalen should be compared to four paintings by Murillo executed during the period 1648-55 on the theme of the Magdalen. The earliest version is in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and bears many distinct similarities to the Penitent Magdalen exhibited here – see detail fig.3. There is a similar depth of chiaroscuro and a raking light source from the upper left spotlighting the saint and highlighting the open book. The saint looks to the left in the same way with hands clasped, and mouth open with eyes ecstatically rolled back in a Reni-like way. A slightly later example which may be dated around 1655 is the version in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (fig.4). Here the saint is shown full length kneeling rather than seated. Her shoulders are bared and she holds her robe up to cover her breasts. This is a more progressive image than our Magdalen where, in greater harmony with the restrictions of the Counter Reformation, the saint is shown fully clothed. Another version, also dating c.1655, was formerly in the church of Saint George in New York and is now in a Madrid private collection. The Penitent Magdalen in the San Diego Museum of Art is the fourth version dating from this period and is in many ways similar to the Dublin version except that the saint has been rotated to face to the right and the lighting is much more suffused so that not only is the physiognomy and bodice softer, but the drapery folds have lost their crisp Reni-like character and are no longer picked out in highlighting (see fig. 5).

In the Virginia Museum of Art, Richmond, there is yet another painting on the theme of the Magdalen which also dates from the same period. This version does not show the Magdalen as a penitent but instead shows her at the moment of her salvation as a beautiful woman who has decided to renounce her sinful life and follow Christ. Elegantly dressed, the Magdalen casts some jewellery and a ribbon, symbolising her worldly possessions, upon a tasselled cushion on the floor. She is a handsome figure shown in the first moments of her repentance as she makes the decision to abandon her sinful life and convert to Christianity. All these versions show that there was a considerable demand for iconographic representations of the Magdalen in seventeenth century Seville.

Finally a further painting worthy of comparison is the Saint Francis in Ecstasy which was formerly with The Matthiesen Gallery and which is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection (see the illustration after the Introduction in this catalogue). This painting has also been dated to the period 1650-55 by William Jordan ‘on the basis of its dramatic light and strong chiaroscuro……’

It is worth remarking that this Penitent Magdalen is the only version from the period that shows the saint outdoors, surrounded by rocks and seemingly at the foot of a gully with the light source filtering from high above, upper left. Rocks and shadowy shrubs make up the Caravaggesque right background. The saint kneels in front of a substantial slab of rock on which are placed a book, a crucifix and her pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet. A skull or memento mori signifying melancholy but in this instance, in conjunction with the crucifix, indicating a contemplation of the transience of life on earth and the rewards of the life eternal is also present. The Magdalen appears covered with a white shift, tied at the waist with a cord, while a mauve mantle envelops her entire body. Her facial expression, eyes upturned towards heaven, translates into a profound plea for the forgiveness of her sins. Her contemplative, praying posture is indicative of her profound state of repentant piety. As previously remarked, this early Magdalen figure by Murillo differs from later versions and also from Flemish and, more particularly, Italian representations, in its sense of modesty. There is no naked flesh except for the forearms. Reni for instance was to make his Magdalens dazzling figures of seduction while even Murillo in his Dublin picture radically increases the amount of flesh as a distraction to the viewer, perhaps at the special request of the client. As the impact of Counter Reformation mores receded so Murillo carefully adapted his Magdalens from a purely spiritual penitent figure, to a beguiling female whose very body alludes to her past activity. This Penitent Magdalen is among the most restrained in its sexuality, a fact probably explained by the power of the Seville Inquisition which at this time still strictly monitored the moral content of paintings.

There is an engraving of this painting by Raphael Morghen dated 1801, and this again testifies to the popularity Murillo enjoyed in the nineteenth century.

77 1/8 x 56 ¾ in. (196 x 144 cm.)
Oil on canvas

Palazzo Bracciano, Rome?
Torlonia collection, Rome?
Robert Westall, England.
William Skinner, Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Grace Congregational Church (latterly The United Congregational Church of Holyoke), Holyoke, Massachusetts, since 1915.
Sotheby’s, New York, 28 January 1999, lot 248.


Reveil, E. A., Musee de Peinture et de Sculpture…, Paris, Audot 1830

C. B. Curtis, Velazquez and Murillo. A description and historical catalogue of the works, New York 1883, no. 373, p. 261.
F. R. Halsey, Raphael Morghen’s Engraved Works, 1885, pp. 95-97, no. 109.
‘’A Fine Murillo’,’ Academy Notes, 3 January 1908, p.132, illustrated.
‘’In the Galleries’,’ The International Studio, April 1909, illustrated pl. VIII.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1619-1682): Paintings from American Collections, (forthcoming exhibition), 2002 at Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, and Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum, (ed. S. Stratton-Pruitt and W. Jordan), chapter 1, p.8 and note 31.

The Matthiesen Gallery, 2001: An Art Odyssey, London, 2001, pp. 278-285, plate no. 32.

Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Collector’s Exhibition 2016, 2016, p. 9


Ehrich Galleries, New York, 1908-9.

Exhibition of Paintings of the Spanish School, Copley Society, Boston, 1912, no. 60.

An Art Odyssey 2001, The Matthiesen Gallery, London, 2001, pp. 278-285, plate no. 32.

El Joven Murillo, Seville and Bolbao, 2009-2010, no. 30, pp. 330-331.

Amanti. Storie di Passioni Divine e Umane at Casa delle Esposizioni di Illegio (Tolmezzo, UD) from 21.05. to 08.10.2017

Where is It?
Matthiesen Gallery, London
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Historical events
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
Hardbound millennium catalogue with special binding with 58 colour plates and 184 black and white illustrations, 360 pages. £35 or $50 plus p.& p.

(Click on image above)
Price band
$1 million - $1.5 million