Today I am returning to an artist I featured back in My Daily Art Display of April 24th 2011 when I looked at two paintings of his depicting the death of Cleopatra. He is the Italian painter of the late-Baroque period, Guido Cagnacci.
Guido Cagnacci was an Italian painter belonging to the Bolognese School, which rivalled Florence and Rome as centres of painting. He was born in 1601 in Santarcangelo di Romagna, a town in the province of Rimini where he spent the early part of his life. Later, he moved to Rome where he met fellow artists Simon Vouet, and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, often better known simply as Guernico. Cagnacci had also been a pupil of Guido Reni and he tended to combine references to classical models and to Raphael’s work with his own lively interest in the type of daring perspectives and brilliant compositions that the Baroque style favoured. It is also believed that during this time he may have studied under an ageing Ludovicio Carracci. He moved back east to Venice in 1650 and started to paint very sensual scenes with seductive, half-naked girls as his subject, His later paintings often featured semi-naked women as Lucretia, Cleopatra and even Mary Magdalene, as we will see in today’s offering. These erotic paintings were very popular and much sought after by collectors at the time and through them, his popularity spread. In 1658 he journeyed to Vienna where he gained the patronage of Emperor Leopold I and that was his ticket to fame and riches. It also gave him the opportunity to bring to the German-speaking lands the latest classical style.
It is his contentious painting of a semi-naked Mary Magdalene that I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today. The painting, which Cagnacci completed around 1660, is entitled Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity. The title of the painting brings up the first question one needs to consider and that is who is Mary? Many would say that the Mary in the title is Mary Magdalene but others would disagree. Mary and Martha are the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. In the books of Luke and John, the pair, who lived in Bethany were described as friends of Jesus and who had a brother called Lazarus. Though some earlier interpreters blended the person of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, current theologians believe she was a different person. In Latin tradition, Mary of Bethany is often identified as Mary Magdalene while in Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions they are considered separate persons. The Orthodox Church has its own traditions regarding Mary of Bethany’s life beyond the gospel accounts. However I will go along with the idea that in this painting we are looking at Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha.
The painting is a vivid and somewhat melodramatic allegory of Virtue conquering Vice. Cagnacci has managed to blend reality, idealism and fantasy in the way he has portrayed the occurrence. Lying prostrate on the floor is the semi-clad Mary Magdalene being rebuked and lectured to by Martha who sits on the floor in front of her. Martha leans forward and is fervently lecturing her sister about the sins of Vanity pointing to the allegorical scene we see in the background. She is passionately trying to get her sister to discard the life of pleasure she had been leading up until then and turn to the life of virtue as a true follower of Christ. Mary would seem to have recognised the life of sin she had been leading and realised, in response to the admonitions of her sister Martha, the error of her ways. As a dramatic act of changing course, she has discarded her lavish and extravagant outer garments, jewellery and her other worldly possessions which we see scattered on the floor around her.
To the right of the painting we see a couple of servants, one in tears, symbolising contrition whilst the other looks back in disbelief and annoyance at Mary’s act of repentance and she symbolises the unremorseful face of Vanity. In the background, mirroring what is happening in the foreground, we see an angel, symbolising Virtue driving out the demon which represents Vanity. Cagnacci has in some ways tailored the story of the discarding of the woman’s clothes so as to give us an unusually sensuous depiction of the semi-naked Mary Magdalene. He was often criticised for this sort of eroticism in his paintings, with critics maintaining that some artists could make anything salacious and Cagnacci was one of these. However one must remember that Cagnacci knew that this type of painting sold well, so he would not be put off by his detractors.
The scene, which Cagnacci has painted, does not come from any particular passage in the Bible and we must believe the artist has manipulated the biblical facts of the differing character of the two sisters to suit the story behind this work. The story of the differing personalities of Mary and her sister Martha was painted many times before by many different artists and in my next blog I will feature one by Johannes Vermeer.
Cagnacci probably completed this work whilst working for Leopold I at the Austrian court in Vienna. The painting later went to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, which had strong ties with the court at Vienna. The painting was acquired by the Norton Simon Art Foundation and is currently housed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
When I was researching the painting I discovered that the Museum had held a special exhibition in November 2008 entitled Guido Cagnacci and the Resonant Image which featured the Los Angeles artist Ruth Weisberg’s series of works in dialogue with Cagnacci’s Baroque masterpiece Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity. It was based on her intuitive artistic reaction to the work. Ruth created over twenty paintings and drawings which were pictorial stories on the themes of repentance, anger and ultimately the triumph of virtue over vice. In one she even depicts herself and family members as characters from the Cagnacci work.