The master derives his name from the series of works depicting half-length female figures behind a writing desk, reading, or playing a musical instrument, that he painted in Antwerp, though inspired by the art of Bruges, during the second and third decades of the sixteenth century. Here the figure holds, as if to open, an unguent jar that identifies her as Mary Magdalene. She is dressed in magnificent white, gold and crimson, her sleeves slashed and her neck and bosom decorated with a highly ornate necklace of large, precious jewels and her perfectly brushed hair crowned with a jewel-encrusted gilded cap. Unusually she meets our eye, where in the vast majority of the Master’s works her eyes are downcast or cast to the side. The edges of her lips curl upwards into the beginnings of a smile and her starkly lit and well-polished face leaps from the jet black behind to meet us with a provocative yet innocent and irresistible gaze.
Few of the Master’s half-length females, if any, are as richly ornamented as this. The pristine condition of the paint surface preserves each of the finest details, every strand of hair and thread of gold, of this mysterious Mary Magdalene. Her billowing slashed sleeves, encrusted at each pleat with jewels, her bodice, necklace and cap are unequalled in their luxuriance, though recur sporadically, one or two at a time, in a few other works such as the St Catherine in the Brera, Milan.1
1. Friedländer, under Literature, cat. no. 81, reproduced plate 41.