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Painting & Illumination

Mary Magdalene drying Christ's feet

Mary Magdalene drying Christ’s feet

Origin / Date Veneto or Umbria, c. 1280-1300
Material tempera on vellum
Dimensions 125 x 111 mm.
Availability Sold


Initial M. Cutting from a Gradual or Antiphonary. Excellent condition.


It is is no exaggeration to say that this miniature from the time of Dante depicts a representation that has exercised commentators for centuries, - who was the Mary that anointed Jesus?, - and which had already become one of the key moments in western history, insofar as the Church identified her with the ‘repentant sinner’.

Ever since Pope Gregory the Great deliberately conflated the ‘sinful woman’  (Luke 7:37-38), plain Mary and Mary Magdalen, the Church gained the means to illustrate and validate one of its key contributions to human happiness: repentance.
Moreover, he did this not entirely unfoundedly since all four versions (see below) are related and John not only speaks of Mary as somebody too well-known to be named further, something that applies to both the Magdalene and to the sister of Martha and Lazarus, often called Mary of Bethany, - assuming they were different people, - but, more importantly, even before this event, he had already referred to Mary (John 11:2) as “she that anointed the Lord’s feet”. It is therefore not all that far-fetched to see this as the same Mary who was present at the crucifixion and burial, described there by John sometimes as just Mary, and who was also ready to anoint his body for burial, just as this woman here was his feet.
One could say that there was also another gain.
For unlike many parts of the non-Christian world, where women are still today ranged with cattle or other prized possesions, as chattel, the penitent Magdalen probably represents one of the first narrated moments in history when a woman is at one at the same time shown as master, or rather mistress, of her sexuality, albeit, by definition, as a prostitute, (represented by the shock of [red]  hair [1]), and capable of subjectivity in being able to distance herself from it and use her hair for other, non-erotic, ends (here washing tears of someone’s feet), even if paradoxically, it is in an act of submission to a new master. This subjectivity equates to what was called at the time having a ‘soul’, that is, being human, something that was (and is) not always predicated of the creature called woman. One could say that one of the first steps in the liberation of women was the one illustrated here, with the dignity given by Jesus, and later by the Church, to someone who was capable of changing the way she loved.

[1] Only the wilful would dispute the fact that her hair is a woman’s most prized erotic attribute and it is not just the conservative tribal or desert cutures who draw conclusions from this fact.


Luke 7:37-38.
“A certain immoral woman heard Jesus was there (at the house of a Pharisee) and brought a beautiful jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.”
John 12:3-8.
Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii2 and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it3 for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.
Matthew 26:6-13
‘While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you,[a] but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Mark 14
3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”



Presumably taken by Napoleonic troops to France before 1815;
Mounted into a printer’s album of letter types by 1842; thence by descent.
French collection from 2008.



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