Lot 1
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AMBROSIUS BENSON | Mary Magdalene reading

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Mary Magdalene reading
  • oil on panel
  • 77.5cm. by 64.8cm.; 30½in. by 25½in.


Acquired in Paris in 1891 by Victor Martin-Le Roy (1842–1918); Thence by descent until at least 1974;

Anonymous sale, Versailles, Martin-Chausselat, 18 October 1998, lot 12;

Where acquired by the present owner.


E. von Bodenhausen, Gerard David und seine Schule, Munich 1905, p. 203, no. 48, reproduced p. 204; W.H. Weale, ‘Les peintres de la famille Benson à Bruges, 1519–1585’, Annales de la société d’émulation de Bruges, May 1908, p. 154, no. 5;

P. Leprieur and A. Pératé, Catalogue raisonné de la collection Martin Le Roy, Paris 1909, vol. V, pp. 85–87, no. 23, reproduced pl. XXI;

A. von Wurzbach, Niederländisches Künstlerlexikon, Amsterdam Ergänzungen 1911, p. 23;

S. Reinach, Répertoire des Peintures..., Paris 1918, vol. IV, p. 656, no. 2, reproduced as line engraving;

G. Marlier, Ambrosius Benson et la peinture à Bruges au temps de Charles-Quint, Damme 1957, pp. 196–97 and 309, cat. no. 100;

M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, The Antwerp Mannerists, Adriaen Ysenbrand, H. Pauwels (ed.), Leiden 1974 , vol. XI, p. 99, no. 275i;

Nouvelles acquisitions du Département des Peintures (1983–1986), Musée du Louvre, Paris 1987, p. 58, reproduced on p. 59 (as location unknown).


Catalogue Note

As Georges Marlier notes in his monograph devoted to Ambrosius Benson, the Magdalene in this attractive painting is more the elegant grand dame of her day than penitent saint. Her beautiful figure derives from one of the sibyls in Benson’s Deipara Virgo (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp).1 The design was evidently very popular as Benson used it on several occasions as a single sibyl, or as the Magdalene, either reading, as in this painting, or holding an ointment jar. The versions that survive attest to the theme’s popularity around 1530. Benson was one of the most popular, and prolific, painters of the Renaissance in the north, successfully fusing the art of his north Italian origins with the precision and delicacy of his Netherlandish peers. The present work is listed by Max Friedländer when it was in the Martin-Le Roy collection, Paris, together with a distinguished group of early Flemish paintings that included a Virgin and Child with Saint Barbara and Saint Catherine by Benson, now at the Musée du Louvre.2 It relates most closely in physiognomy, dress and attributes to a painting of the Magdalene reading formerly at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and subsequently on the Munich art market.3 Friedländer lists nine versions of the subject, including the present work, stemming from the prototype formerly with Kleinberger (current whereabouts unknown).4

A comparison between this Magdalene, Benson’s sibyl in the Antwerp painting and other images of the saint shows similarities in dress – notably the fur sleeves – as well as numerous differences. Most striking is the substitution of the headdress for the diaphanous confection worn by the Magdalene in the present work. Here, semi-transparent veils designed to off-set the fine detail of her hair and the effect of layered gauze are held in place by a pin (a detail that is missing, for instance, in Benson’s painting of the Magdalene reading at the National Gallery, London).5 Another distinctive feature of the work is the design of the jewelled brooch, with its prominent fleur-de-lys set with white pearls, which differentiates it from other images of the Magdalene. Its association with France may have been of significance to the painting’s original owner.  

Lombard in origin, Benson is recorded in Bruges as early as 1518 and the following year becomes a master in the city’s guild of painters. His rise to prominence occurred in a thriving artistic environment that numbered many successful painters, including the great master of illumination Simon Bening (1483/84–1561). Here, in a charming detail, the Magdalene reads a prayer book with decorated borders of flowers on a gold ground. The ‘scatter’ border shows sweet pea with other flowers and on the following page a small bloom with white petals and a yellow centre, perhaps a strawberry plant; too little of the miniature on the right-hand page is visible to be legible. Not all versions have illuminations: the Magdalene at the Accademia, Venice, reads from undecorated pages of text. One other difference here is the absence of a chemise binding for the book, which allows for a more spacious arrangement around the sumptuous ointment jar that in other versions is more confined.

Marlier dates this painting to around 1532, close to the version formerly at Minneapolis and to another Magdalene that was once in the collection of James Sotheby (1655–1720) at Ecton Hall.


1 Marlier 1957, reproduced pl. XLIII; Friedländer 1974, vol. XI, no. 270, pl. 173.

2 R.F. 1971-19; oil on panel, 133 x 108.5 cm. Friedländer 1974, vol. XI, no. 267; see also Foucart (ed.) 1987, pp. 58–60.

3 Oil on panel, 70 x 55.5 cm. Sold Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2002, lot 9.

4 Oil on panel, 54,5 x 43,5 cm.; Friedländer 1974, vol. XI, no. 275, pl. 175; Marlier 1957, no. 109.

5 NG 655; L. Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues. The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings with French Paintings before 1600, London 2014, reproduced in colour on p. 87.

6 77.5 x 64.8 cm.; Marlier 1957, no. 99, reproduced pl. XLVI. Christie’s, London, 4 July 1997, lot 29.