When Godefridus Schalcken moved to London in 1692 and began painting portraits of the stadholder-king William III, he enjoyed the patronage of one of the most powerful men in Europe. Possibly because of that patronage, his work was also held in high esteem at other royal courts.1 In 1694, while Schalcken was still in London, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, requested through his agent Thomas Platt that the artist send him a candlelit self-portrait, for which he would pay 25 pounds sterling. After Schalcken’s return to The Hague in 1696, this purchase was followed by several others and, as a result, four paintings of the master are still to be found in Florence.2
This contact with Cosimo probably led to commissions from the court in Düsseldorf, the residence of Cosimo’s son-in-law, Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine.3 In 1700 Schalcken painted for the elector two rather large canvases (compared to his usual small format), both of which are magnificent demonstrations of his skill in portraying artificial lighting. Schalcken came from a family of Protestant clergymen, so the religious subjects portrayed in these paintings were most likely stipulated by the strict Catholic court. The elector and his Florentine wife would certainly not have appreciated the racy, candlelight illuminated scenes Schalcken often painted for other clients.
The more famous of the two paintings that Schalcken painted in 1700 for the court in Düsseldorf is his ingenious portrayal of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1–13). This biblical story was the perfect vehicle for a display of the artist’s complete repertoire of nocturnal lighting effects, to which the painting owes its well-deserved reputation (fig 1).4 Conversion of Mary Magdalene in the Leiden Collection is the other painting that Schalcken made for the elector that year. This story derives not from the Bible, but from the highly popular Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine. The figure of Mary Magdalene was still particularly topical in Schalcken’s day, for the proponents of the Counter-Reformation saw her as the penitent sinner par excellence.5
Schalcken portrayed Mary Magdalene with delicate brushwork and rendered her surroundings with an exacting eye for detail. We see her seated beside a sarcophagus; on it lies a thick book and on top of that a burning oil lamp, which she grips with her right hand. The light from this lamp falls mainly on the saint’s nearly naked bosom. The Magdalen raises her left arm and turns her head upward in the direction of a number of angels, who hold a palm branch and a wreath and are bathed in a heavenly light. This supernatural illumination also falls on her head. Around her neck she wears a broken pearl necklace, and at her feet lie two costly pieces of cloth in purple and blue. Arrayed on these fabrics are gold and silver plates, cups and other precious objects, including a string of pearls and a gold medal hanging from a blue ribbon. The saint’s left foot treads on an imperial crown, next to which lies a gold scepter, another symbol of worldly power. The left side of the composition is closed off by a large, red drapery decorated with fringe, which catches the light coming from the left from a source outside the picture. A round column on a high base stands behind Mary Magdalene, and visible at the right is a nocturnal view of a rough sea, with several ships in distress. This last scene refers to the Legenda Aurea, which tells how the Magdalen boarded an unnavigable boat in Palestine and finally disembarked in the south of France, near Marseille.6
Schalcken’s discerning portrayal of the conversion of Mary Magdalene is an excellent illustration of the way in which she was viewed and interpreted at the time of the Counter-Reformation, when she was thought to embody the union of the sensual, profane life and the spiritual life of the Church. It was in the Magdalen that the feminine beauty prized in antiquity was united with the Christian ideals of conversion and atonement. Schalcken took great pains to portray her gracefulness: she wears only a white chemise, unfastened at the top, and has an ample blue cloth draped over her legs. No offense could be taken at the Magdalen’s partial nakedness, because penance and nakedness were interrelated in post-Tridentine religious thought. The beautiful and scarcely concealed body of the converted woman was considered a “heroic nude,” in which the figure was placed at a distance and surrounded by a spiritual glow. Schalcken heightened this effect with the radiant light of heaven shining on the Christian sinner.7
As a subject, Mary Magdalene was certainly no novelty in Schalcken’s oeuvre. At least ten paintings feature the penitent Magdalen, though all of them are characterized by simple iconography, showing the saint praying by the light of a lamp or candle, with a skull or the Holy Scripture close at hand.8 None of his other works portraying Mary Magdalene can compare with the present painting in its wealth of pictorial elements, a feature that undoubtedly reflects the wishes of the elector’s court. Here, too, the artist succeeded in producing a variety of light sources, just as he did in Wise and Foolish Virgins. In addition to natural light from the left, there is the light of an oil lamp—as is to be expected in the work of Schalcken—next to the protagonist. The third and most important light source (and not only in the iconographic sense) evokes divine intervention. Heavenly light shines mainly on the Magdalen’s forehead, an indication that she is now about to embark on a spiritual life that demands the rejection of all earthly splendor.
Striking in this supernatural setting are the angels, for they are portrayed here in a way not found in any other of Schalcken’s works. Rather, they reflect his intentional study of the work of Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), in whose Amaryllis and Mirtillo we find a closely related putto. In Schalcken’s day, Van Dyck’s painting was in the collection of William III until it was transferred to Het Loo Palace near Apeldoorn in 1694–95. The canvas had been on display in the Stadholder’s Quarters in the Binnenhof in The Hague, which means that Schalcken certainly knew it.9
Given the quality of the two paintings sent to him in 1700, Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, understandably became a great admirer of Schalcken’s work. The shipment of 1700 contained the earliest known purchases, but the elector eventually acquired eight paintings by the artist. In December 1702, Heinrich von Wiser, the elector’s ambassador in The Hague, reported to Johann Wilhelm that Schalcken had a piece in stock for which he was asking 1,000 guilders: “And as Your Electoral Highness probably knows, he would not be willing to go much below that.” 10 The work represented the Holy Family with John the Baptist and Elizabeth. It is not known if the elector decided to purchase this painting in spite of its high price, but it is a fact that in 1703 Schalcken spent some time in Düsseldorf, where he lived in the house called “In the Golden Helmet” (Im gold’nen Helm) on the Flingerstrasse.11 It was probably at this time that Schalcken received the large gold medal from the elector that he displays in his last self-portrait of 1706.12