De Bray depicts the Magdalene against a dark cave-like background, a reference to the legend that for many years she lived in solitude as a hermit. She is shown with her usual attributes of a skull and crucifix, and the open book with a scourge are symbols of her life of meditation and penitence. De Bray has taken particular care in depicting the saint’s flowing golden hair with which, according to the Gospel of Luke, she had dried Christ’s feet after bathing and anointing them. The perforated ointment jar seen at right in the background is a reference to this act, as well as to her anointment of Christ’s body when she came to his sepulcher after the Crucifixion.
The highly individualized features of the Magdalene and the direct manner in which she engages the viewer give this work the feel of an actual portrait, not just a devotional representation of the popular saint. De Bray specialized in the portrait historié (historized portrait), in which he sometimes posed sitters as historical figures. James Welu (see Literature) was the first to suggest that the radiant woman here represented may be the artist’s third wife Victoria Stalpaert van der Wiele (died 1680) whose middle names were Maria Magdalena.2 From a prominent Roman Catholic family, she and De Bray were married in 1678. If the sitter is, indeed, De Bray’s third wife, then the painting would have been executed around the time of their brief marriage, and the partially visible date on the painting places the painting in that decade. Interestingly, another work by De Bray depicting Penelope and Odysseus, painted in 1668, is thought to be a portrait of the artist himself and his first wife, Maria van Hees.3
1. See P. Biesboer in Painting Family: The De Brays, Master Painters of the 17th Century, exhibition catalogue, Haarlem 2008, p. 18.
2. In the accompanying brochure of the 2005 Currier Museum/National Gallery exhibition (see under Literature), the present painting is presented as a portrait of De Bray’s third wife and the date of the painting is given as 1678.
3. In the collection of The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY.
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