National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ

The Penitent Sinner

As a convert and an ardent follower of Christ, Mary Magdalene was considered one of the most exemplary and accessible saints, offering hope of transformation from sinner to saint. Her legend is a conflation of numerous scriptural references and apocryphal stories. The woman who was purified and pardoned by Christ, "Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils" (Luke 8:2), came to be identified with the unnamed woman who anointed Christ’s feet at the feast in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:37-50), and with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha (Luke 10:38-42). The Magdalene was present at the Crucifixion, and was the first person to whom Christ appeared after his Resurrection (Mark 16:9). Her legend was further developed in Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of the lives of the saints. There she is described as a former courtesan who "gave herself wholly to the pleasures of the senses" but who repented her sins and was forgiven. Georges de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene (c. 1635) shows her in a state of deep contemplation. She is seated in a dark room, her face lit by the flickering flame of a candle, and her fingers resting upon a skull. The reflection in the mirror offers another view of the skull, this time for our contemplation. Behind it is Mary’s attribute, the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet. The candle, skull, and mirror are all traditional vanitas symbols, reminders of the transience of life. These objects suggest that Mary is pondering human mortality, and the eternal life of the spirit made possible through Christ’s sacrifice.

Brochure Images | Exhibition Information
Lost and Found | The Taking of Christ | Caravaggio and His Followers
The Counter-Reformation | The Penitent Sinner | Scenes of Martyrdom
Dreams and Visions | Secular Subjects and Sinners