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Exhibitions and Projects
Revelations | 2 Sept.−6 Oct. 2021

Revelations: Matevž Langus

St Mary Magdalene, 1846

Mary Magdalene is considered the first woman to follow Jesus and serve him. She witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, his descent from the Cross, entombment and resurrection. She was the first to pass the good news to his followers. She was regarded as a sinner due to a mistake made by Pope Gregory the Great.

Matevž Langus (Kamna Gorica, 1792 – Ljubljana, 1855) depicted St Mary Magdalene at least eight times. Mary Magdalene is the most often pictured woman saint after Mother Mary. Most of Langus’ depictions follow the iconographic tradition of treating Mary Magdalene as a sinner and a repentant. In three instances he presents the saint on her own, while he included her into multi-figural scenes of the Crucifixion and St Mary’s Assumption five times. The depictions are more intimate in oil and more monumental in fresco technique; we also know of preparatory studies in graphite in sketch books. This points to the constant presence of the saint’s image in Langus’ body of work, in different patron circles and in the collective memory of the first half of the 19th century.

The image of Mary Magdalene from 1846, kept at the National Gallery of Slovenia (NG S 191), is the most emotionally expressive among Langus’ depiction of the penitent sinner. Swollen teary face, mouth open in ecstasy, eyes turned upwards and sensual depiction of hair falling across her hand and cleavage remind us of depictions by Guido Reni (1575–1642), a Baroque painter from Bologna. Reni perfected the typical rapturous images of saints looking towards the sky, with his pictures of Mary and Magdalene proving especially influential. Following the instructions of the Conter-Reformation exegesis and the Tridentine Decree on holy images, Reni recognized the ideal female beauty and perfection in the images of Mary Magdalene. He painted around a dozen versions of St Magdalene. They all share the idealized sensuality of the young saint, while differing in details such as hand gestures, the gaze, composition and background. Reni’s Magdalenes are thus a symbol of devoted prayer, deep contemplation and spiritual ecstasy.

The Gallery’s St Mary Magdaleneby Langus leans on Reni’s St Magdalene in Prayer in composition and colour; the picture was kept in Louvre, Paris until 1897 and is now in Musée des beaux–arts, Quimper. As in Reni’s work, so is Langus’ Magdalene also placed before the rocky shelter in nature. Reni’s Magdalene is clothed in elaborately folded yet simple mantle, while Langus painted the saint in modern clothes. The saint’s conspicuous tears and spread-out hair allowed Langus to intensify the emotions up to the pathetic level and gave the picture a number of penitent connotations. From her regular attributes he selects a skull, placing it in Magdalene’s right hand as a reminder of the transience of life, a vessel of ointment, and a cross in the background. Absent the halo Magdalene’s image seems rather secular, leading us to assume that the picture was meant for private devotion. This conclusion can be supported by a more formally presented Magdalene in Langus’ picture for the mensa of the side altar in the Franciscan Church of St Jacob in Kamnik. In the monastic, preaching milieu the picture of the saint had to be more seemly and include a halo, a book and a whip.

Both mentioned oil paintings are reductions of a fresco that Langus painted in the nave of the Parish Church of St Martin in Šmartno under Šmarna gora in 1841. The fully-figured St Magdalene there is in rapture in the middle of a rocky landscape and the central figure of the ambitiously-planned illusionistic altar. The fresco is one of Langus’ earliest works of this kind and was supported as a part of a strategy by the Prince Bishop of Ljubljana Anton Alojzij Wolf (1782–1859) for the renewal of the Church. For the consecration of the church in Šmartno, the bishop financed these fresco decorations of the altars. The importance of the commission is evident also by the drawings in Langus’ sketchbook, kept by the Gallery (NG G 137). In it, we find several compositional sketches and coloured jottings that the painter used to design his fresco painting and his later images of St Magdalene in oil.

Kristina Preininger

2 September–6 October 2021
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana