Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Art review: Ribera: Mary Magdalene in a New Context at SMU’s Meadows Museum
The exhibition shows two of Ribera's most striking portrayals of Mary Magdalene, neither of which has been seen in the United States in nearly 20 years.
DALLAS Continuing its partnership with the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, the Meadows Museum presents Ribera: Mary Magdalene in a New Context. The exhibit features one of Jusepe de Ribera’s masterpieces Mary Magdalene, on loan from the Prado, alongside three other works from international museums and several from the Meadows' own collection.
Ribera, a 17th century Spanish-born painter who spent most of his life in Italy, was best known for his brutally realistic and often bloody portrayals of saints, earning him the name "the cruel Ribera." This collection is intended to show his contrasting paintings of the female saints. While these works are similar in their realism and lighting techniques, they are handled with more delicacy and sensitivity than his typical works.
Mary Magdalene was a central figure of religious devotion during this time, therefore a popular subject for artists. She was the star of nearly 20 known paintings during Ribera’s career. In the Meadows' exhibit, we are presented with two of his most striking portrayals of her, neither of which has been seen in the United States in nearly 20 years. Displaying the two Magdalene pieces side by side allows viewers to easily see their similarities. In The Assumption of the Magdalene, she is shown being carried on a cloud to heaven by cherubs. In Mary Magdalene, she is shown meditating in a cave.
While the paintings were created during different time periods, both include iconic symbols that have come to be associated with the Magdalene. She is wrapped in a scarlet drape, probably representative of her former life of luxury. A skull (for meditation), a jar of ointment (used on the feet of Christ), and a whip (for self-flagellation), are objects neatly placed around her. Ribera presents us with a new vision of the Magdalene with long, flowing hair and striking beauty. Her slightly exposed shoulder gives her a tender sensuality unseen before.
In the two Mary of Egypt pieces, we are presented with contrasting portraits of this important saint. Ribera shows his attention to detail in these images of her in two stages of her life. You can see a defined difference in physical attributes between the two, and especially in comparison with the young portrayals of the Magdalene. Still, Ribera presents her with the same delicate tenderness.
With many of Ribera’s paintings, we can easily see the influence of artist Michelangelo Caravaggio, whom he may have met when he first arrived in Naples. Ribera creates a dynamic play between light and shadow in many pieces. His subjects are typically bathed in a single light source which gives them more realistic feel. The paintings in the Meadows collection are prime examples of his amazing ability to not only render details of light, but to show subjects with honest expressions in a natural environment.
In a complementary exhibit, the museum presents The Many Lives of Mary Magdalene: A Selection of Images From Bridwell Library Special Collections. This collection of rare texts presents varied renditions of the Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, giving a great comparison to the version represented by Ribera. One standout of the collection is the Golden Legend (c. 1260), which was a popular iconographic compendium of the saints used by many artists for reference, including Ribera.
The Meadows provides a perfect setting for Ribera’s masterpieces, nestled amongst its extensive collections of Spanish art. While inside the exhibit, you feel transformed to the Prado, and the museum does indeed become -- just as founder Algur H. Meadows envisioned -- the Prado on the Prairie.
The Ribera exhibit runs through January 15, 2012 at The Meadows Museum, located on the campus of SMU.
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