St. Mary Magdalen between St. Peter Martyr and St. Catharine of Siena
16 3/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. (42.5 cm. x 28.5 cm.)
Medium and Support
tempera on panel
Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation
Active in Florence in the second half of the fifteenth century, Gherardo was a painter and book illuminator who benefited from the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Gherardo’s works reveal a powerful interest in classical antiquity. In this small devotional panel, perhaps commissioned for a Dominican convent, Mary Magdalene is flanked by Peter Martyr (identified by the transparent knife embedded in his head) and Catherine of Siena. The Magdalene is covered only in her calf-length hair, a reference to her years in the wilderness after Christ’s death. Seen through a window (a scene-within-a-scene device typical of the artist), an earlier event in Mary’s life unfolds, wherein she is the first to recognize Christ, newly risen following his crucifiction. “Noli Me Tangere,” or “touch me not,” he instructed, as she sought to embrace him.
Retracing the Painting’s Origins
Gherardo del Fora’s biography is recounted in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and documents attest to his activities as illuminator, mosaicist, painter, stationer, and organist. Born into a family of artists in Florence, he spent part of his life as a lay brother at San Marco, the Observant Dominican friary where Fra Angelico’s frescoes enriched devotional practice. For whom this painting was made is undocumented, but the iconography may provide clues to its origins. Mary Magdalen, a patron of the Dominican order, and Catherine of Siena, the Dominicans’ first female saint, commonly appear in art made for Observant Dominican women. The inclusion of Peter Martyr, who is glorified with the triple crown of martyr, virgin, and doctor, suggests the panel could have been painted for San Pier Martire, an Observant Dominican nunnery in Florence. Gherardo’s own association with the order strengthens this hypothesis. Too small to be an altarpiece, the painting may have been intended for a nun’s cell there.
Curator, Frist Art Museum, Nashville