Mary Magdalen / 16th Century / Suffolk


Classification Data

Current location: private collection

Acc.: n/a

Project ref.: Mary Magdalen / 16th Century / Suffolk

Material(s): oak

Dimensions: 381mm h. x 102mm w. x 64mm d.

Form: high relief (statuette)

Iconography: Mary Magdalen (hirsute)

Period: 16th century (early)

Place of recovery: England, East Anglia, Suffolk

Probable origin: England

Probable context: unknown / altarpiece (?)

Alternate Views




Additional information

Construction/materials: Carved from a single stock of coarse-grained oak, with a notable radial twist to the long axis. The rear plane, unfinished and with prominent tear-outs. The top of the head relived by a bored hole; the underside with a excavated slot – like once a point of attachment. The left arm (now missing) originally separately constructed and attached with a wrought spike.

Surface: Heavily patinated. muddy dark brown surface, with no traces of polychrome. Heavily rubbed on all planes from apparent extensive and prolonged hand contact.

Condition:  Separately constructed right arm lost. Detail of carving severely eroded through wear. Bored hole to top of head enlarged. Chipping and other minor losses.

Provenance: Prior to 2010, private collection, Suffolk; thence to present owner, private collection, Kent.

Image credit(s): Celia Jennings.



Comparative images




















Description: The Magdalen stands frontally in a right-leaning contrapposto. Long tresses fall behind the shoulders. From the neckline, he torso is covered by finely curling hair. This extends to the lower body, most of which is covered (apparently for modesty) by a knee-length skirt.

This image of the hirsute Magdalen depicts the saint during an apocryphal thirty-year hermitage in the cliffs outside of Marseilles. During this time she was said to have taken only the Eucharist as nourishment during nightly elevation by angels, growing a pelt of golden hair.

Originally, the statuette was most likely part of an altarpiece dedicated to the saint’s life, perhaps not as a free-standing figure, but as part of a high relief panel. Later, it appears to have taken on a second life as an image of private devotion, receiving extensive hand contact on all surfaces. This treatment, which may have lasted generations, has obliterated much of the carving’s detail and lead to the development of a heavy, muddy-brown surface from the accumulation of  dirt and oil from countless hands.

Reference Literature:


1. Tilman Riemenschneider, Mary Magdalen with two Angels, limewood, c, 1490 (Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum).

Image credit(s): Bayerisches Nationalmuseum.