Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Mary Magdalene has been described as 'one of the most fantastic and precious of the small sculptures' created by the artist (Ackerman, op. cit. p. 322). The Magdalene is both an hieratic and erotic figure. Her frontal gaze and ritualised hand gestures recall those of a priestess, whilst her luxuriant costume is that of 'a Middle-Eastern harlot' (Cars et al., op. cit., p. 312). Gérôme has thus succeeded in capturing the Saint’s inherently contradictory character and, in the process, has created one of the most powerful images in his oeuvre.
Conceived in 1897, Gérôme’s Magdalene is the work of an experienced and acclaimed sculptor, who had turned to sculpture relatively late in his career, at the age of 54. The Magdalene was Gérôme’s first sculpture with a religious subject, and the first with an overtly Middle-Eastern flavour, recalling his earlier Orientalist paintings. The Saint’s exotic costume has an ethnographic quality, and can be compared with the sensuous clothing of the belly-dancer in his 1863 canvas, Dance of the Almeh, which was probably inspired by a journey to Egypt and the Near East in 1862.
The Magdalene is taken directly from Gérôme’s painting, The Entry into Jerusalem, also completed in 1897 and today in the Musée Garret, Vesoul (Ackerman, op. cit. no. 441). In the painting, Mary stands before the gates of the city, a crowd behind her, welcoming Christ with a palm branch in one hand and an open palm with the other, a pleasing visual pun; Christ returns the gesture with a sign of blessing. Gérôme’s sculptural version of the Magdalene is deliberately more schematic in appearance, the pose rigid and ceremonial, lending to the figure an air of religiosity.
The present bronze counts among only a handful of known casts of the model, some of which use marble for the figure's face and limbs. Like the others, it was cast by the Siot-Decauville foundry, who were known for an almost goldsmithing standard in bronze casting and finish. Note the superbly crisp detailing of the Magdalene’s belt and headdress, and the intricate jewellery. Gérôme was obsessed with the notion of polychromy in sculpture, and this is reflected in the subtle changes in the colour of the patina. The addition of semi-precious stones to the figure's headdress and jewellery adds a further colouristic dimension and lends to the bronze a virtuoso quality.
G. M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme with a Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1986, pp. 322-3, no. S. 42; L. des Cars, D. de Font-Réaulx and É. Papet (eds.), The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), exh. cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Milan, 2010, pp. 312-3, no. 181