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The Penitent Magdalene Revisited

Ever since I wrote the original posting on Giaquinto’s Penitent Magdalene, I have had unanswered questions brewing in the back of my head about this intriguing painting. So, when I was in Manhattan last August, I jumped on the first chance to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and took that long awaited second look at this masterpiece. If you have not read my earlier post, I recommend that you read it, as I will build upon some of the concepts already mentioned there. You can read it Here.

A Thorny Vine 

In a “penitent” painting, it is a little surprising that Giaquinto chose to forgo the cilice as her outer garment and put Mary Magdalene into a flowing white and blue gown. However, he chose to put a sliver of a thorny vine visible only under her right arm. It appears to wrap around her ribcage underneath her robes.

Perhaps the artist is making a statement by doing this. The message I hear when looking at it is that, no matter what your outward appearance is, what is important is that you remain humble and pure at heart.

The official gallery label from the museum states that this is hair shirt cilice, but after close inspection, I do not agree. The color and texture are exactly the same as that of the crown of thorns held by the angel. I believe this is to signify that Mary already wears the crown on the inside; the crown being brought to her is only making external what is already internal, as described by Christ in the Gospel of Thomas. This also correlates to the old Hermetic saying “as above, so below.”

The Open Book

I must admit a certain level of disappointment at the reality that this open bible does not contain any actual writing, just the block coloring that gives the impression of writing. On a positive note, I did get a much clearer picture of the illustration on the opposite page of the bible. My assumption was correct that it is a depiction of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist with the Dove descending from the sky framed by the sun.

I do not believe that this is merely a random part of the gospels to be opened to. Perhaps this painting is a glimpse of Mary Magdalene’s baptism, as well. If you take the baptism as symbolizing spiritual transformation, then this is precisely the same concept as Mary being crowned the Christ’s crown. She has become one with Christ and, as Christ was blessed by the Dove, she is now being blessed by the angels.

Mary Magdalene has earned the Kether, the topmost of the sephirot to speak kabbalistically. The Kether, or Crown, is called  "the most hidden of all hidden things" in the Zohar, and it is interesting to me that the thorny vine is hidden beneath Mary’s clothes. It is also noteworthy that the Kether is closely associated with “Adam Kadmon,” the original man, or Adam prior to his rib, which became Eve, was separated from him. Adam Kadmon was androgynous (technically a hermaphrodite, in the original sense of the word, i.e. the combined nature of Hermes and Aphrodite into their offspring, Hermaphroditus or Ἑρμαφρόδιτος), meaning that both masculine and feminine were combined into one within him. As you recall from my earlier posting, I remarked on the possibility of Mary, in this painting, being symbolically androgynous. One who has returned to the original state of perfection, or specifically, one who has earned the Kether, would also be symbolically or spiritually androgynous.

There are definitely three people present in the illustration. The two in the foreground are Christ and John, and both are looking upward at the dove. The third stands in between them in the background. This figure looks not at the dove but straight out of the page, directly at the viewer. It is impossible to say with certainty, but this third person appears to me to be feminine. My guess as to the identity of this person, and I emphasize guess here, is that it is Mary Magdalene herself being next in line for baptism. I am aware that chronologically speaking she had not met Jesus yet (he had not begun his ministry at this point), but perhaps it could mean that she was there in spirit. Art is all symbols, so the idea and meaning behind the symbols is what is important when interpreting esoteric images.

The Female Christ?

To the casual observer, this painting would not raise any eyebrows. No one would think it anything but a homage to a Christian saint. That is all with good reason, even in 1750 when it was painted, openly putting a woman, especially Mary Magdalene, in place of Christ could have caused the Giaquinto some concern.

Whether it was the intention of the artist or not, it does seem to me that this is a painting of a female Christ. Mary Magdalene would be a perfect choice for just this sort of thing. She always held a very unique position in early Christianity, as well as Gnostic and esoteric traditions. Of course, many now know of the implication that she was even the wife of Christ as well as the mother of his children. I do not believe that that is the true relation between them, but it is undeniable that Mary Magdalene played a major role in the life of Jesus. She was the first to see the resurrected Christ, the first to be called “Equal of the Apostles,” and wept with the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion.

By putting Magdalene on equal footing as Christ is essentially making her something of a goddess; if Christ is the son of God, then making her identical with him is to make her the daughter of God. It is not unheard of to compare Mary Magdalene to the Shekinah, or the female essence of God.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I feel that there are too many correlations for all of it to be coincidence. I believe that this work of art has intentional occult references within it, and I feel that I have made a strong argument for that belief. As with things of this nature, it is impossible to really know what was intentional and what unintentionally found its way into the artwork. Either way, the end result is profound and can be very meaningful to the viewer. For me, this masterpiece by Corrado Giaquinto will always hold a special significance.

A Self Portrait of Corrado Giaquinto

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  1. Hi Osie ! The 18th century was not particularly an era versed in esoteric symbolism, quite the opposite in fact; the relationship between the open book illustration and actual events depicted seems to be the crucial factor to any interpretation. However, what would make your interpretation watertight is any evidence that Giaquinto was in any way acquainted with esotericism and its symbolism, perhaps in who he mixed with, or in other paintings by him, otherwise the Crown, Skull and Dove are standard Christian symbols, albeit with esoteric associations.

  2. Hello Kevin!

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t seemed to be much information about Giaquinto’s personal life available; just the basic highlights and milestones of his life, but that’s about it. I also thought that perhaps Giaquinto was not the one behind the symbolism, but very little is known about this painting. It is unknown who commissioned it, and it is presumed to have been intended for an altarpiece, but again, nothing is certain. From its creation in 1750 until it turned up on auction in 2006, there isn’t any mention of it. What I do know is that Giaquinto became a member of the Accademia di San Luca in 1740, and traveled frequently across Italy and Spain. It is plausible that he could have made acquaintance with someone who did suggest the specific symbolism used in this particular painting. Giaquinto’s other works do not seem to have any special occult visuals. In fact, the Penitent Magdalene appears, at least to me, to be distinctly unique among the artists work.

    It should also be noted that Giaquinto’s The Lamentation (also at the MET) is oftentimes considered a mystical interpretation of the Passion. I feel that it is the most similar in style to the Penitent Magdalene out of any of his other works. It does not have any esoteric symbolism in it though.


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