Peter Lely's Penitent Magdalen emerges from the shadows

The Penitent Magdalen by Sir Peter Lely

Kingston Lacy is a hugely important site for viewing works by Sir Peter Lely, the Anglo-Dutch artist whose portraits helped define Restoration Britain. In addition to many fine portraits, it houses The Penitent Magdalen, a rare subject picture in the artist’s oeuvre.

Painted in the 1650s, the picture had become unstable and had darkened over time. Earlier this year, the picture was cleaned and conserved. This once dark painting is now resplendent with a newly visible monogram clearly identifying this as Lely’s work.

David Taylor, Curator of pictures and sculpture, explains the significance of this beautiful picture and what was learned from its conservation.

From subject pictures to portraits

Peter Lely (1618-80) is best known as a portraitist who, as Charles II’s official Principal Painter, produced a huge body of work and became the chief image-maker of Restoration Britain. However, in the period after Lely arrived in England in the 1640s, he predominantly painted subject pictures with a variety of mythological, pastoral, musical and religious themes. 

Lely painted around thirty of subject pictures until, mindful of his career, he realised that the English preferred buying and collecting portraits, and turned to portraiture instead.

In 1661, he was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II. Soon his portraits of women – characterised by sensuous exuberance, richness of colour and supple handling of flesh – came to epitomise the idea of beauty in Restoration England. 

It is for this reason that Lely's contemplative painting of Mary Magdalen – with its deep, earth tones – is so unusual. It is one of a small number of religious subject pictures that Lely produced during his early years in England, and it is the only one that depicts a figure from the New Testament.

Picturing Penance

In Lely's picture, Mary Magdalen sits in the mouth of a cave, with a landscape and sunset behind her. She looks pensively at a crucifix that rests on a rocky ledge before a skull. The skull is a ‘momento mori’, a reminder of the vanity of worldy pleasures she now repents against, and that one day she too will die.

In earlier artistic and literary representations, the Magdalen's vanity was often expressed through extravagant, richly decorated garments. But Lely, who chose to depict the saint after her solitary penance in the wilderness, has clothed her in simple, dark robes. 

Sinner-turned-penitent

Despite the theme of private penance, Lely's Magdalen is nonetheless a sensuous and alluring figure. These two qualities –  spiritual redemption and overt sensuality - offered an attractive role model for 17th-century viewers. In time, Lely began using the figure of the Magdalen, the sinner-turned-penitent, as the subject for role portraits of his named sitters. The most famous of these is his portrayal of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and later Duchess of Cleveland, the king’s official mistress from 1660 to 1670. 

The prime version of this much copied portrait is in the collection at Knole. It shows Villiers with her head resting on her right hand and her long hair loose on one side. By using this pose and hairstyle, Lely was clearly referencing contemporary depictions of Mary Magdalen. It was at this time that the poet and satirist Samuel Butler referred to Villiers as ‘England’s Magdalen’.

Out of danger and out of the shadows

By 2017, Lely's Penitent Magdalen was in urgent need of preventive and remedial conservation. The paint and ground layers of the painting were flaking and the canvas lining was failing. The stretcher had bad woodworm damage and was in need of replacing. To stabilise the painting, the canvas was relined and a purpose made stretcher was supplied.

Detail of Mary Magdalen's cheek shows the cracking of paint prior to treatment
Detail of Penitent Magdalene during cleaning

The picture had further suffered due to centuries of dirt accumulation, varnish discolouration and previous restoration attempts. By removing these discoloured layers, as well as a blanket of overpaint, the painting's appearance was vastly improved. Now, the dark draperies and background landscape glow with a subtle richness. A realistic and nuanced plumpness is freshly evident in the contours of Mary Magdalen's face and chest.

During the varnish removal a subtle pink blush was revealed across Mary Magdalen's chest
Detail of discoloured varnish

In addition to brightening the overall appearance of the picture, the treatment has revealed the fine quality of Lely's painting, including his deft and economic brushwork. It also allows is to see the colours of the picture as originally intended, including the flushed, pink glow to Mary Magdalen’s skin across her chest and the red ribbon she wears in her hair. Most importantly, it has revealed one of Lely’s distinctive signatures that he used on some of his canvases - the initials 'PL' painted in monogram.

The cleaning and conservation of this important picture helps to illustrate the range of Lely's oeuvre. His career spanned almost forty years, including the turbulent years of the Civil War and the Commonwealth and his output was vast and more diverse than his reputation has allowed. Kingston Lacy's newly resplendent Penitent Magdalen exemplifies this beautifully.

The Penitent Magdalen hangs in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy
The Penitent Magdalen in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy

Peter Lely in our collections

We look after many works by Peter Lely and his followers. Discover them by browsing our collections online.