JAN DE BRAY
(1627 - Haarlem - 1697)
The Penitent Magdalene
signed & dated, lower center on crucifix: JDBray/167(?)/25
oil on panel
72.6 x 56.2 cm
Galerie Marcus, Paris, 1972 (as by Pieter de Grebber); Private collection, New York.
17th Century Dutch Painting, Raising the Curtain on New England Private Collections, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. 1979.
Dutch Religious Art of the Seventeenth Century, The Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. January - March, 1975, no. 9.
17th Century Dutch Painting, Raising the Curtain on New England Private Collections, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. 1979, pg. 23, cat. no. 4, illustrated.
Primarily a figure painter, Haarlem artist Jan de Bray provides a minimal backdrop suggestive of a cave for the Penitent Magdalene, who, according to legend, lived in solitude as a hermit late in her life. With the Magdalene's striking features and a direct gaze, the present work appears as much like a portrait as a devotional representation of the popular saint. It was not uncommon for seventeenth century patrons to elect to be portrayed as a religious, historical, or mythological figure; a convention de Bray employed in various commissions. In the Worcester exhibition catalogue, James Welu suggests that the luminous woman in our picture may well be de Bray's third wife, Victoria Stalpert van der Wielen, the daughter of a distinguished Roman Catholic family, whose second name was Maria Magdalene. If the sitter is indeed a representation of the artist's wife, then the painting necessarily would have been executed around the time of their brief marriage in 1678. The partial signature and date places the work in that decade. De Bray's loose brushwork and pared down composition are consistent with his late style of painting.
Regardless of the identity of the sitter, the painting has strong Catholic overtones. Most likely Catholic himself, de Bray received many commissions from clergy and members of the faith. During the Counter Reformation and Baroque periods, Mary Magdalene became an attractive and persuasive model of repentance and reform, in keeping with the Council of Trent (1545-63). Canonized and celebrated by the Catholic Church, the penitent saint became a popular subject. De Bray portrays the Magdalene with most of her key attributes, but the beauty of her long flowing hair commands the most attention. According to the Gospel of Luke, the guilt-ridden prostitute washed the feet of Christ with her tears and anointed them with costly perfume before wiping them dry with her hair. This penitent gesture foreshadowed Christ's death when Mary Magdalene would again anoint the body of her crucified Lord in preparation for burial. The perforated lid of an ointment jar is partially visible in the background of our painting as a reference to her sacrificial act. Likewise, a whip laid across the open book of scripture symbolizes her penitence and salvation. The Magdalene places one hand near her heart and rests the other on a skull, representing sin and mortality. A large crucifix, imposed across her body, is stained with blood corresponding to her crimson lips and dress.
Jan, born in Haarlem about 1627, was the son of the painter Salomon de Bray. Jan most likely received his training in the studio of his father. His earliest drawing dates from 1648 and his first known painting from 1651. He may well have assisted his father as an apprentice with commissions. In the 1650s, Jan de Bray emerged as an outstanding portraitist, although he also took an interest in historical subjects. The earliest document relating to him is a will he drew up in 1664, naming his brother Dirck as his sole heir. Jan must have gained a considerable reputation in the following years, as he was appointed warden of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke in 1667, and dean in 1671-1672, 1676, 1681 and 1684-1685. He was married in Haarlem in 1668 to Maria van Hees, who died, possibly in childbirth, the following year. In 1671, the widowed Jan de Bray drew up his second will, once again naming his brother Dirck as his sole benefactor.
In 1672, Jan married Margaretha de Meyer in Osdorp. The following year, he and his wife drew up a will, but Margaretha died before the year was out and Jan drew his fourth will. He was married for the third time in 1678, this time to Victoria Stalpert van der Wielen. In the same year, they both drew up wills, shortly before Victoria died in childbirth in 1680. By this time, Jan also worked as an architect, designing a church for the United Mennonite Congregation in the Peuzelaarsteeg in Haarlem. After completion of the building in 1683, Jan drew up another will, naming as one of his heirs Johan Lucas, the son born of his last marriage, although he might not have survived for long.
In 1688, Jan de Bray was said to be living ‘Op de lindegraght int Schip de Walvis’ in Amsterdam. That year, he presented a detailed proposal to the burgomasters of Amsterdam concerning the construction of a freshwater reservoir near the Amstel river. De Bray may thus be seen as the originator of our present-day water towers. On 21 April 1689, a petition was submitted to the Supreme Court: Jan de Bray had evidently incurred debts through ‘misfortune and loss’, which he was not in a position to pay. He applied for a dispossession order and was subsequently declared bankrupt. In 1692, Jan de Bray became a burgher of the city of Amsterdam, where he remained until his death in 1697, although he was buried in Haarlem on 4 April.
 Biographical information from J. Giltaij in: Dutch Classicism in seventeenth-century painting, exh.cat. Rotterdam/Frankfurt 1999, p. 276