Circle of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Bruges c.1535

Mary Magdalene with a Vessel in an Interior

oil on panel
31.6 x 23.5 cm (12⅜ x 9¼ in)


In this refined portrait, Mary Magdalene sits contemplatively within an interior, her eyes distant as she gazes towards an unknown space outside the picture frame. Depicted in three-quarter view, she has an oval face with lowered eyes, a straight, thin nose, arched eyebrows and well kempt hands. Her velvet dress is close-fitting with a low neckline, and her hair is parted in the centre and partially covered by a cap. While delicate and graceful, the plainness of the figure and her neutral setting may naturally lead one to assume that this portrait is simply a representation of a young aristocratic lady. The presence of the ointment jar, however, which she clasps in her hands reveals the true identity of the sitter. The jar is the attribute of Mary Magdalene and refers to her primary link with Jesus as the woman washing and anointing his feet. The painting is therefore transformed into a devotional and spiritual piece and her contemplative glance assumes a new, pious significance.

Sharing many stylistic similarities with the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Mary Magdalene with a Vessel in an Interior is believed to have originated within the artist’s circle. The Master’s work is defined by the specialisation in small panels of aristocratic young ladies in half-length and devotional scenes. Often, they are shown reading, writing or playing musical instruments. Typically, the figures are delicate and reflective and clearly represent the feminine ideal of the artist. The Master extended this figure-type to devotional panels of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin, in which the Christ Child is typically nude, elongated and muscular. A characteristic example is the Virgin and Child, which hangs in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. In contrasting the female figures of these two paintings, clear similarities are evident in the sitters’ dress, face and posture. In both works, the influence of the Italian Renaissance in the idealised images of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary respectively is clearly identifiable. However, the treatment of texture or landscape reveal the traditions of the artist's national school.

The identity, place and period of activity of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths have been subject to wide disputes. Indeed, art historians attribute the name to either a single South Netherlandish painter or a group of painters. The most persuasive argument identifies the Master as an artist located in the highly cultured circles of Mechelen, owing to the poetic and musical elements of his works, and Antwerp, due to the closeness of the Master’s landscapes to Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) and the similarity of the female types to Bernart van Orley (c.1488-1541), both artists based in Antwerp. Some art historians believe the Master may well have trained in Patinir’s studio in Antwerp and that other details of his paintings indicate that he had contact with the so-called Antwerp Mannerists, such as Jan de Beer (c.1475-1528). From such evidence, the Master is thought to have been active in Antwerp (located near Bruges and part of modern day Belgium) around the 1520s and 1530s.

The relatively large number of meditative, half-length portraits ascribed to the Master’s name has led to a general acceptance that they were in some part the product of a workshop, rather than all by the same hand. Mary Magdalene with a Vessel in an Interior, whose subject, style and form closely resemble the portrait paintings attributed to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, is thus likely to have originated in his circle and stands as a particularly fine example of the genre.