The Repentant Magdalen, c. 1565-1570
Paolo Caliari (called Veronese)
oil on canvas
169.6 x 134.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 3530)
The persona of the Magdalene is a complex one in Christian mythology: she is understood to be a woman who lives a wayward life until she meets Christ, to whom she becomes very close. After his death and resurrection, she begins an ascetic and solitary life in the wilderness repenting her former ways. During this period, she is visited by angels seven times a day who carry her close to Heaven. After many years, she is ready to enter Heaven, and is eventually taken up for the last time and reunited there with Christ. She is depicted here surprised during spiritual contemplation, symbolised by the skull with the book resting against it. Her relative youth, coiled and elaborate tresses, and sumptuous if simple garments may indicate that this is the moment of her first visitation, but this of course prefigures her death.
The painting is likely from the late 1560s, and while studio assistants may have played some part in its production, most of the painting is by Paolo Veronese himself. Technical study has revealed a bold and loose application of paint with numerous changes of outline during the process. The format of the painting and the distortions built into the figure of the Magdalene tell us that it was made for the left-hand lateral wall of a chapel and is designed to be seen from a viewpoint slightly below and to the left. A drawing of the painting made in the studio after its completion is in the display case nearby and shows the painting as seen without these distortions. We do not know the circumstances of the commission, but it was probably painted for a church on the mainland rather than in Venice.