The painting depicts St. Mary Magdalene, naked and covered by long blond hair, as in her traditional iconography, while raised in heaven by angels who are carrying her.
The subject is inspired by the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine, which narrates the life of Mary Magdalene, Christ’s favorite disciple, who lived in complete isolation in the mountains of Provence the last years of her life.
Lanfranco made a rather original interpretation of the story, not only from the compositional point of view, but also for the realism of this heavy nude Magdalene, combining together his knowledge of Emilian art, classicism, and the influence of Annibale Carracci. Annibale had been Lanfranco’s master, but he already showed in this early work that he had fully freed himself from Carracci’s manner, especially in a more realistic sense. The abandoned body of the saint certainly does not appear light to support for the little angels, while the expression on her face is completely in ecstasy and turned towards the sky. Even the concept of space is equally modern, especially in his decision to give landscape a major role in this scene.
The bird’s eye-view of the forests of Provence, calm river, mountains and the sky covered by clouds occupies the whole painting, which is dominated by cold shades of blue and strong chiaroscuro, that can be seen on the hills which are darker in the foreground and the river in the background.
The work is one of the nine panels that decorated the ceiling of Camerino degli Eremiti at the Farnese Palace in Via Giulia in Rome. The Capodimonte Museum also preserves Christ Served by Angels, another painting of the same decoration which represented the theme of hermit and penitent saints. In addition to these two paintings, three frescoes with representations of hermits are still existing of this decoration and they are preserved in Santa Maria della Morte in Rome.
A few years after their execution in 1662, the paintings that decorated Camerino degli Eremiti were moved to Parma, where they are mentioned in the inventory of Palazzo Farnese del Giardino in 1680 and in the 18th century two of them were taken to the palace of Capodimonte. Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples, had inherited the collection from his mother Elisabetta, the last descendant of the family, and in the 1730s’ he moved almost the entire collection to Naples.
The Uffizi Drawings and Prints Cabinet preserves a sheet of preparatory studies and sanguine drawings by Lanfranco, related to Magdalene’s face and hands.
Giovanni trained under Agostino Carracci, the older brother of famous Annibale, who worked in Parma at the time at Ranuccio Farnese’s service.
After Agostino’s death in 1602, Giovanni moved to Rome, where Annibale had opened a successful workshop. There he worked in the Farnese Gallery and decorated important churches, such as San Gregorio al Celio. After Annibale’s death in 1610 he returned in Parma, his hometown, and then once again back to Rome. He put to good use all the experience he had gained in the field of fresco decoration and the painted the chapel of Buongiovanni in the church of Sant’Agostino, the frescoes in Palazzo del Quirinale and many altarpieces for the churches of the city.
Around 1616, when many Emilian artists left the city, among them Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino, Lanfranco gained more popularity in the Roman circles with the decoration of the Chapel of the Crucifix in Santa Maria in Valicella, considered his masterpiece, together with St. Peter Walking on Water in the Vatican.
His fame as a decorator reached also Naples, where Lanfranco worked in Certosa di San Martino on the dome of the church of Gesù Nuovo.
In 1646 he was back in Rome, where he frescoed the apse of San Carlo ai Catinari and where he died in November of the following year.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.