The Baroque painter's masterpiece is on view in the UK for the first time in over 30 years.
Compared with his contemporaries, the baroque painter Guido Cagnacci is not well known, perhaps because his religious scenes have an unsettling eroticism. His masterpiece is The Repentant Magdalene, a monumental scene in which a voluptuous, near naked Magdalene lies on the floor, her sumptuous clothes cast off, her pearls scattered before her, while Martha kneels over her, a finger raised in rebuke.
If her courtesan-turned-Christian convert’s pose implies penitence, her nudity a repudiation of her vanity, her sullen, even insolent expression as she clasps a necklace, suggests otherwise. In the background, however, virtue triumphs over vice as a winged angel beats a cowering devil, who nevertheless bites his thumb in defiance. To the right are two maids: one, representing vanity, has turned her back on the scene, while the other, symbolising contrition, who is weeping, heads to the sunlit balcony. For an allegory of sin and redemption, let alone a religious scene, it revels in sensuousness, luxury and the pleasures to be found in worldly goods.
Now in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, it returns to London for the first time since 1981, when it was sold, having been in the collection at Welbeck Abbey. Before that, however, it belonged to the Gonzaga family in Mantua, who acquired it from the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.