The Penitent Magdalene

The Penitent Magdalene

Traditionally regarded as a penitent prostitute (see ‘Suffering and Pain’, 9), Mary Magdalene is reputed to have been cast adrift in a rudderless ship so that she would die at sea, but as the result of an act of divine intervention, she eventually made landfall in Marseilles. After preaching the word of God and liberating its inhabitants from the cult of idols, she retired to an empty wilderness so that she could atone for the errors of her youth. According to the account transmitted by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend (c. 1264), the most accomplished and widely disseminated of the great medieval hagiographic compendia, she lived out her life in a state of strict ascetic solitude, spending thirty years mortifying her flesh in an attempt to cleanse and thereby purify her soul. Her legend, in this sense, demonstrates the importance of avoiding the perils of sudden death and remaining alive for a sufficient length of time so as to be able to ascend in grace to the kingdom of heaven.

Tristán’s painting depicts Mary at a moment of intense spiritual fervour. Recalling the sins of her former life, her garments hang loosely over her body, exposing her naked left shoulder and well-muscled arm, while hinting at the alluring sensuality of her partially exposed breasts. Her dishevelled hair, which falls in a series of untidily matted strands over her back, functions as a conventional reference to unrestrained sexuality and the concomitant delights of the flesh. Yet as Mary kneels in prayer, she overlays the past onto the future, formulating a robust narrative link between the death of Christ—as symbolized by the books and the crucifix—and her own impending mortality. Although the skull could potentially be regarded as a memento mori or generic symbol of death, it serves equally as a representation of Mary’s own future self. Just as she gazes downwards towards it—her soul brimming with thoughts of guilt, shame, and remorse—the skull stares ominously upwards, inviting her to reflect on the fleeting nature of time and the vanity of human endeavour. The solution, which lies on the table before her, is the discipline, which she has used in order to flagellate herself and thereby purge herself of iniquity. Its centrality to Christian praxis is emphasized, as is the case of the book, by how it appears subtly intertwined with the crucifix—its bloodstained thongs lying both under as well as over it. The implicit suggestion is that self-inflicted suffering constitutes an effective mechanism for imitating the example of Christ.

Luis Tristán belonged to a circle of painters active in Toledo in the early seventeenth century and was a disciple of El Greco (1541–1614), with whom he trained in around 1603. During a trip to Italy, which he made sometime between 1606 and 1613, he adopted a more naturalist style, which is evident in his treatment of the Magdalene.

Andrew M. Beresford, Durham University

The Penitent Magdalene Click to zoom and pan


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Artwork Details


The Penitent Magdalene.


Luis Tristán de Escamilla (Toledo, 1585–1624).


c. 1620–24.

Medium and Support

Oil on canvas.


110 x 100 cm.

Marks and Inscriptions


Acquisition Details

Acquired through Sotheby’s by The Auckland Project / Zurbarán Trust in 2017.

Previous Owners

Paris Art Market (as Alonso Cano), 1996; The Apelles Collection, Santiago de Chile.


The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.


Janis Tomlinson, From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain 1561–1828 (New York: Perspectives, 1997), pp. 56–58;

Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001);

Alfonso Pérez Sánchez & Benito Navarrete Prieto, Luis Tristán 1585–1624 (Madrid: Ediciones del Umbral, 2001);

Michelle Erhardt & Amy Morris, ed., Mary Magdalene: Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, Studies in Religion and the Arts, 7 (Leiden: Brill, 2012);

James Macdonald & Edward Payne, ed., The Auckland Project at Sotheby’s: Paintings from the Spanish Gallery (New York: Sotheby’s, 2018), pp. 38–39.