This hauntingly beautiful painting for private devotion is an early work of Filippino Lippi datable to circa 1478-1480. In the late 1470s, Lippi was a close adherent to the style of his second teacher, Sandro Botticelli in terms of color palette and composition. The penitent Magdalene had a cult devotional following in quattrocento Florence and images of her proliferated in painting and sculpture; Lippi drew inspiration for this panel from diverse sources including Donatello’s famous wooden sculpture of Magdalene (circa 1453 - 55) for the Florence Baptistery. Lippi here emphasizes the effect of thirty years living in the wilderness as an ascetic: the Magdalene’s emaciated figure is all bones and sallow skin, and her hair has grown so uncontrollably that it doubles as a garment. The extreme devotion of the saint evokes an emotional response in the viewer, and the high level of minuscule details in her features and in the landscape require close looking and quiet attention.
Born in 1457 after an infamous and illicit affair between painter Fra Filippo Lippi and the nun Lucretia Buti, Filippino Lippi began his artistic training with his father and his assistant Fra Diamante before joining the workshop of Sandro Botticelli in 1472. The works he produced in collaboration with Botticelli are so close to the latter that Bernard Berenson once considered works now given to Filippino to be by an anonymous “Amico di Sandro” influenced by both artists. Once established as an independent artist, Lippi maintained the warm color palette and elegant, animated drawing style learned from Botticelli and seen in the present lot. The color scheme, rock formations, and rendering of the figure of the Magdalene are reminiscent of another of Lippi’s great early works, the Adoration of the Magi, circa 1480 (fig. 1) which features a very similar Magdalene kneeling before a cave in the distant background. These early works earned Lippi enough acclaim to garner commissions for large-scale fresco and altarpiece projects throughout Florence, including the Life of St. Peter cycle for the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. These Lippi completed in 1483-84, over 50 years after the chapel was left unfinished by Masaccio and Masolino. By the 1490s Lippi’s work was in demand across Italy and his patrons included Florentine banker Filippo Strozzi, for whom he completed his most ambitious project, the decoration of the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. A generation after Lippi’s death in 1504, Vasari celebrated Lippi’s “curious and original” imagination as a driving force in the development of Italian mannerism.
“Saint Mary Magdalen, moved by her wish to live in contemplation of the things of God, retired to a mountain cave which the hands of angels had made ready for her, and there she dwelt for thirty years, unknown to anyone...she found neither water nor herb nor tree, whereby she knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.”
In quattrocento Florence, the penitent Magdalene had a cult devotional following thanks to the city’s Archbishop and Prior of San Marco, the future St. Antoninus (1389 - 1459) and his detailed writings on her as patroness of the Dominican Order. The original source for the story of Mary Magdalene as a penitent ascetic living in the wilderness is Jacobus Voragine’s thirteenth-century collection of saint hagiographies, the Golden Legend. Although this aspect of her life is not strictly Biblical, it became immensely popular for visual artists as a devotional subject. According to the Golden Legend, Mary Magdalene accompanied Maximinus in his travels to spread the Gospel, and the group survived an attempt to wreck their ship and landed safely in Marseilles, where Mary successfully converted a pagan community to Christianity with her preaching. Following this, according to Voragine, “Saint Mary Magdalen, moved by her wish to live in contemplation of the things of God, retired to a mountain cave which the hands of angels had made ready for her, and there she dwelt for thirty years, unknown to anyone.” This is in keeping with Jesus’s declaration that Mary had chosen “the best part,” or the contemplative, penitent form of faith rather than the outward demonstration of worship (Luke 10:42). Mary’s extreme devotion led to her adoption of a completely ascetic lifestyle: “she found neither water nor herb nor tree, whereby she knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.” However, she was borne up by angels seven times each day to heaven where she “heard the glorious chants of the heavenly hosts. Then, being filled with this delightful repast; she came down to her grotto, and needed no bodily food.” Despite the popularity of the story as an artistic subject, few paintings depict the saint’s self-deprivation so literally.
The extreme devotion of the saint imagined by Lippi evokes an emotional response in the viewer, much like Donatello’s sculpted version of the Magdalene for the Baptistery in Florence (circa 1453 - 55), which was indeed a source of inspiration for Lippi, as were Florentine sculptures throughout his career. The deep cuts in the wood shaping the hollowed-out features of the Magdalene are echoed in Lippi’s painting with the figure’s protruding collarbones, sunken eyes, and bony hands. Also similar is the floor-length, unkempt hair that doubles as clothing, with only a ragged hair shirt underneath. A more common arrangement is for the penitent Magdalene to recline as she prays or reads Scripture, but Lippi’s Magdalene kneels on hard rock, and indeed the faithful viewer was intended to contemplate the painting from a kneeling position as well, based on the foreshortened perspective of the cross.
Mary Magdalene is traditionally represented at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion, as she was thought to be especially emotional during Christ’s death and was known for kneeling before Him and washing His feet and drying them with her hair before the Passion. Rather than venerate a crucifix or an image of Christ on the cross, here she venerates the True Cross, the historical cross on which He died, life-size, intact, and unsullied. Though the saint’s hagiography does not specifically mention her having a vision of the True Cross, it follows that she could have done so during one of her seven daily ecstatic visits to heaven while living in isolation. The original cross is believed to have been broken into many pieces, its relics dispersed to churches worldwide after its discovery by St. Helena in the fourth century, and many relics seized by crusaders from Constantinople in 1204. Florence itself holds a relic of the True Cross in Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral), which may explain Lippi’s incorporation of this iconography into the Penitent Magdalene narrative of the present panel.
A note on provenance:
The first documented owner of this devotional panel is Count Frans von Ingenheim (1846 - 1919). He was the grandson of Friedrich Wilhelm II and nephew of Friedrich Wilhelm III, both Kings of Prussia. Count Frans’ father, Count Gustav-Adolf von Ingenheim (1789 - 1855), was an avid art collector and traveled to Italy between 1822 - 1833 to acquire works for the newly founded Royal Museum of Berlin (now Altes Museum). The next documented private owner was Denys Sutton, who began his career as an art critic after serving in the British Foreign Office during World War II. He wrote for Country Life, Financial Times, and The Telegraph, and became editor of the arts magazine Apollo in 1962, a position he held for 25 years. He specialized in Old Masters and organized many exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London and elsewhere.