Piero di Cosimo (Florence 1462 – Florence 1522)
Saint Mary Magdalene


Tempera on panel

72 x 53 cm

Palazzo Barberini

Inv: 1468

Saint Mary Magdalene is identified by her profile and the halo, her long hair and jar of ointment. The jar alludes to the visit of the Magdalene and the pious women to the sepulcher on Easter morning. Having reached the place where the body of Jesus would be embalmed with perfumed oils, they found the sepulcher empty and were the first to bear witness to the Resurrection.
The long hair with which the Magdalene is generally depicted actually derives from an erroneous interpretation of the Gospel, arising from a confusion between the Magdalene with the nameless prostitute who, repenting of her sins, shed tears on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her own hair.

Piero di Cosimo’s painting, however, includes details that go beyond the traditional depiction of the saint, drawing on the artist’s own time: the style of her dress, the open book and the lady’s pose, like the architecture framing her, draw directly on the portraiture of the 1400s. In fact, it cannot be excluded that the painting may actually have been commissioned by or for a lady named Maddalena, who wished to be portrayed as the saint whose name she bore.

The painting is notable for its extremely refined execution, particularly striking in the pictorial surface and definition of the details. In these ways, Piero di Cosimo reveals his profound understanding and appreciation of the formal values of Flemish painting.