It would be impossible to have a casual encounter with Guido Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene now on view through January 22 at The Frick Collection, an institution that excels at single-painting exhibits often showcasing little-known works to the public.
The event depicted is an episode from the life of Mary Magdalene, the courtesan who renounced her sinful ways and converted to Christianity, following her encounter with Jesus Christ in the temple.
Mary Magdalene is one of the most controversial women in the Bible’s New Testament. For those who remember her only as a player in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, may recall her song: I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Cagnacci’s masterpiece will still be staggering.
This astounding canvas left Pasadena for the first time since Norton Simon acquired it in 1982. It is one of Cagnacci’s most ambitious works and considered his masterpiece. What distinguishes it from the other canvases it shares the gallery with at the Frick is that while they are — polished, proper, perfect – executed deftly within the bounds of polite society — the Magdalene is another story.
Clearly there is something apocryphal in this piece. Magdalene and the entire cast in the five-figure work on view demand scrutiny: from her face partly in shadow, yet luminescent, the still-life of lavish turquoise slippers, the glistening jewels she has cast off and strewn beneath her exquisite and generous body, to the origin of the breeze that lifts a veil in one corner and blows the servants’ dresses in the opposite creating tension and a deep breath of life.
Mary is shown on the floor, having discarded her luxurious clothes and jewels; her face is reddened from remorse and her body barely covered by a white sheet. Her sister Martha sits on a cushion, calming her while behind them two servants are leaving the room after having witnessed their mistress’ emotional scene.
Cagnacci has also included two allegorical figures to the left. A standing angel banishes a levitating devil, complete with horns and a tail. He lurches toward the window as he flees the room. The combatant figures represent Virtue and Vice as they battle for Mary’s soul at the moment she chooses to embrace her virtuous new Christian life.
Even after renouncing all her worldly possessions — lust and passion dominate this chapter of Mary’s life. According to Xavier F. Salomon, the story behind the story — Cagnacci’s life – sounds almost as tumultuous as Mary Magdalene’s.
Most of what we know about Cagnacci has been written in Italian. Accompanying this exhibit is The Art of Guido Cagnacci, (Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers), written by Xavier F. Salomon who also contributed remarks at the opening this week. The Art of Guido Cagnacci is the first book in English devoted to the artist in nearly 30 years. Written by Xavier F. Salomon and published by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers, it examines Cagnacci’s life and work, from his early religious paintings to the later canvases showing ancient heroines and allegorical and biblical figures, often in defiantly sensual attitudes.
Originally from Romagna, Cagnacci lived within the Papal States of the Province of Rimini, an area now known for its beaches, but in the 13th century it was a mini powerhouse of influence. He studied in Bologna before he dove into a wild and wooly life of risky and impetuous love affairs.
Dismissed by contemporaries, Cagnacci became known as il genio bizzarro. Estranged from his wealthy family, particularly his father, and his sisters; he never married; he gallivanted with abandon often disguising his mistresses as men to shield them from social criticism.
Many of these mistresses doubled as his live models. Upon closer look, it seems Mary and her sister Martha in the featured painting could have been based on the same woman. And adding another observation, Mary’s face is androgynous.
Cagnacci’s private life seemed to overshadow his work. At one juncture, he changed his name, ostensibly to rid himself of his own baggage yet his topics remained the same: sexy, religious, mythological and half-length figures.
Indeed, Salomon confirmed that Cagnacci produced a large volume of work with half-length figures, which may have made him commercially viable as they were executed quickly with assistants, and in several versions. Unfortunately, this mode of working did not produce disciples among his pupils just master copiers.
Once he moved to Vienna, Cagnacci made a concerted effort to be taken more seriously. He painted more important works, this time for the Imperial Court.
Around 1660-1661, Leopold I commissioned him to create a Repentant Magdalene with four full-length figures (there were five figures in the end). This particular Magdalene had been hidden from the public for over 300 years safely housed in two private collections before it was sold in 1981.
The more one looks at Mary, Martha, the servants, the devil and the angel, it feels as though Cagnacci needed to make this piece work to buck the devil inside himself.
Mary’s conversion may have mirrored his own need to leave his mark, to weave all he knew into one bright and beautiful hybrid that you simply cannot ignore and now have the privilege of spending time with at The Frick.
The Frick Collection offers free public evenings on First Fridays from 6-9 p.m. But while you’re at it, you might want to consider visiting all three Cagnacci works in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue (Gallery 601) is home to the Death of Cleopatra, while Cagnacci’s infamous Cleopatra will soon be on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York from December 3, 2016, to January 19, 2017 (on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan) and the Frick’s single-painting exhibit will remain on view until January 22, 2017.