Beyond Caravaggio has left the National Gallery, so we'll just have to put up with Cagnacci's Italian Baroque masterpiece instead

 
Olivia McEwan
‘The Repentant Magdalene’ by Guido Cagnacci. You should probably still visit the real thing, though.
Cagnacci's The Repentant Magdalene
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For those missing strong, dramatic Italian Baroque art in their lives now the excellent Beyond Caravaggio show has wrapped, the National Gallery have secured (timely, for Valentines?) a superb and extremely rare loan of the magnificent painting, ‘The Repentant Magdalene’ by Guido Cagnacci, from the Norton Simon Museum in California.

Many will likely not have heard of Cagnacci as there is just one other of his works in UK collections; how lucky we are then that this monumental epic is considered his masterpiece, completed during his time in Vienna (around 1660-01).

The parallels with Caravaggio are unmistakable: not only does Cagnacci employ similarly extreme contrasts of light and shadow – chiaroscuro – and a dynamic sense of movement and drama that is compelling, but his personal life from what little we know was also a colourful one, including a criminal record in 1628 for attempting to elope with a rich Riminese widow.

The moral purpose of the work is still here – the personification of virtue drives out that of vice in a striking lunging movement – yet Cagnacci tempts us to derive pleasure from looking and enjoying.

Where they differ however, is Cagnacci’s opulent sensuality, particularly regarding females; something that apparently characterises much of his work. Traditional depictions of the penitent Magdalene show a sober woman holding a skull and regretting her former life of vice. Here, she lies practically naked, barely rising out of a lounging repose, with jewellery and clothes scattered about.

The moral purpose of the work is still here – the personification of virtue drives out that of vice in a striking lunging movement – yet Cagnacci tempts us to derive pleasure from looking and enjoying. Cagnacci is so pleased with his twist on the usual depiction that he signs the painting as ‘invented’, rather than merely ‘made’ by him.

Given pride of place in its own gallery, curator Letizia Treves allows for expansive background informtaion to the painting which facilitates an excellent introduction to this relatively unknown artist. The painting itself is a gorgeous experience; no wonder Treves calls it “One of the greatest Italian Baroque pictures of all time”.

Admission free, until 21 May at The National Gallery, London

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