Peter Paul Rubens

Penitent Mary Magdalene and her Sister Martha

The controversy surrounding the at least eight different versions of this painting. Rubens studio was known to have produced up to eight versions of a single painting in other cases. For this painting the catalog raisonne only lists one original with no known variants done by Rubens Studio. It does however acknowledge the existence of  a second version in an inventory of his possessions.  In 2012 a version located at the Museum of Irbit in Russia was cleaned and examined by experts and was found to have been done in part by Rubens and in part by Van Dyck. This leaves at least two contenders for the original. Examination of the engraving by Lucas Vorsterman would indicate the presence of another now lost original. The article below outlines the cases for each version with Photos where available. Note that all versions have a different jewelry box and contents. Boxes in red, blue, black, and brass with and without lids.


      Museum Vienna                    Museum Irbit                      Sothebys

    French Collection                  Kassel Germany                 Vorsterman 

There are at least eight variations of this painting and one probable copy. The Catalog Raisonne, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard Part VIII Saints part 2 by Hans Vlieghe, #129 page 117-118, lists 4 complete versions and 4 partial versions. The addendum on RKD Images adds 1 complete and 3 more partial copies. My search has found in total 9 complete versions and 11 partial versions. There is also a reverse etching by Lucas Vorsterman who seem to have worked in Rubens studio from 1617 to 1621. There is also supposed to be an anonymous etching after Vorsterman in the correct direction (not found). The catalog raisonne describes an original in Vienna with curly hair and all others to be copies based on the anonymous etching after Vorsterman. This position is in direct conflict with the Hermitage in Russia that has just authenticated as Studio of Rubens a straight haired version never seen by the Rubenianum staff and very similar to the painting at the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel #2, Staatliches Museum #10, Sothebys 2007 # 5 and similar to the French version #6.

Complete versions in the Corpus Rubenianum, the catalog raisonne for Peter Paul Rubens .

Penitent Magdalene and Martha Vienna version
Питер Пауль Рубенс Покаянный Мария Магдалина и Марта. Венская версия

1. Kunst Historisches Museum Vienna, larger, considered the original by some but still heavy studio involvement. Only marginally better than other iterations (per Rooses and Vlieghe). 205 x 157 cm. This is the only version where the Magdalene has curly hair. The first listed  provenance for the Vienna version is not solid. Lugt 869, A sale in 1754 done in Amsterdam with measurements in Amsterdam voet, shows the dimensions of the painting as 7 voet x 5 voet 3 duim. Using 28.3133 cm per Amsterdam voet and Amsterdam duim as 2.57393 cm. (11 per foot). This makes the total dimensions 198.19 x 149.29 cm. Actual size is 205 x 157 cm a difference of 6.81 cm in height and 7.71 cm in width. It could be a sale for Lugt 15918 (No. 8 below) 192 x 141 cm. A difference of 6 and 9 cm or more likely the Russian version which has most likely been cut down in height as it has the width close to the norms of accuracy for the period and adding an appropriate amount of sky would bring its height closer to 198 cm. This would leave the provenance for the Vienna painting starting at Paul Schukking; Galerie Graf Nostitz, Prag; 1786. Vlieghe also lists the engraving done by Lucas Vorsterman as a copy of this painting. In fact it seems to be the least like the engraving of the 5 examples found. Photo of the engraving is found below. The lack of a known painting close or identical to the engraving indicates a lost original, possibly 3, 4, or 8 below (see Section on Vorsterman below).

Studio of Rubens Penitent Magdalene and Martha
Питер Пауль Рубенс Покаянный Мария Магдалина и Марта. Германия версия. Maria Magdalena en Martha door Rubens

2. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel Listed as follower of Rubens on their web site in accordance with the Catalog raisonne description by Vlieghe. Rooses calls it a repetition (studio version). Inventory GK 1117 192 x 148 cm. Acquired before 1749 by William VIII.

No Picture

3. Formerly coll. A. Le Bermuth, Ohain, Brabant, canvas, 175 x 100 cm. status unclear.

No Picture

4. Sale, Brussels, 12 November 1928, lot 184, wood panel, 64 x 41 cm. Status Unclear. Vlieghe and Rooses talk about the fact that a copy on wood panel existed in the inventory of 1626. (Denuce, KonStkamers, p. 72). So there are at least two versions before 1626. Possibly this is one.

Additional complete versions not in Rubenianum

Penitent Magdalene and Martha sold Sothebys 2007
Питер Пауль Рубенс Покаянный Мария Магдалина и Марта. Версия Sothebys 2007

5. Sothebys November 1, 2007, The Magdalene repenting of her wordly vanities, Sothebys Old Masters. London sold 10,000 pounds. 181 by 131 cm. Described as follower of Peter Paul Rubens. No provenance cited.

Rubens Penitent Magdalene and Martha
Питер Пауль Рубенс Покаянный Мария Магдалина и Марта. французская версия Maria Magdalena en Martha door Rubens
French Private Collection

6. France Hotel Drouot January 19, 2018 Tessier Sarrou uncataloged sale, 152 x 117 cm 17th c.  The painting was originally taller as the top edge has been cut unevenly.  Lugt 15499 Lot 59 sold in Tienen Belgium in 1839 as after Rubens. The sale in 1839 specifies that the painting was handed down in the family and originally belonged to Henri Rega (1690-1754). In 1716 he joined the faculty of the University of Leuven. He received the chair of chemistry of the faculty of medicine. In 1718 he gave courses in Anatomy. He had an immense reputation as a practitioner. He was the doctor for the archduchess Marie-Elisabeth of Austria and Charles of Lorraine, governors of the Austrian Low Countries. His statue is one that adorns the Leuven town hall.  he had a large mansion built in the Parijsstraat with courtyard and horse stables, and a very rich collection of books. It was lavishly decorated. No expertise was performed in 2018 due to extreme dirt but the painting was cleaned later in 2018.

Irbit Museum Penitent Magdalene and Martha by Rubens
Питер Пауль Рубенс Покаянный Мария Магдалина и Марта. Версия Ирбит
The Irbit State Museum of Fine Art

7. Irbit Museum Russia, examined by Hermitage director of restoration, product of Rubens studio. Chemical analyses confirm the production in Rubens studio. The first known owner of the painting was the St. Petersburg professor Alexander Yakobson, who in the middle of the 19th century bought the canvas for his collection of paintings. Thought to be after Rubens till 2012 cleaning. lists it as 18 x 152, clearly a mistake. But a ratio of 1.19 height over width would give it a height of 181 cm. Thus 181 x 152. Reported elsewhere as 180 cm. high. It seems to have been cut down in height and using 13.8 percent of the height over the head of Martha, same relative amount as the Vienna painting we can estimate it original height at about 198 cm. If this height were correct then Lugt 869 is much more likely to be the Russian version and not provenance for Vienna. This painting has received significant press in Russia and has been presented as an earlier copy than the one in Vienna, also with the participation of Van Dyck for the sister Martha and also Jacob Jordaens. The painting has now been re-framed circa 2014 and placed behind bullet proof glass, it has been doing a one painting touring exhibit in different museums in central Russia.

No image found.

8. Lugt 15918 lists an intriguing version from the Abbey of Cambrai/Cambron?. Sale in Ghent, Sept 14 1840. 71 x 52 pouces. Using 2.707cm per French pouces gives 192 x 141 cm Described as by Rubens during his best period and known from the Vorsterman print. Lugt 521 Lot 92 in 1740, 195 x 138 cm, might be the same painting.

Marie Madeleine et Marthe version Prague
Mary Magdalene and Martha after Peter Paul Rubens. Photo from RKD Web site.

9. Rychnov Chateau Prague Slavata family, – Seems to be an exact copy of the painting in the Vienna Museum, even the dimensions are very similar. 202 x 150 cm. In the chateau before 1716. Listed as after Rubens on RKD website. This painting does not seem to fall in the same category as the others. The fact that it is an identical copy of the painting in Vienna, owned by a family that had houses in both Prague and Vienna at the time of first record, lends to the conclusion that it is in fact a later copy probably not done by Rubens studio. It is the only version that is an almost exact copy of  any other.

Vorsterman engraving

Magdalene and Martha by Rubens engraved by Vorsterman
Engraving done by Lucas Vorsterman of Peter Paul Rubens Mary Magdalene and Martha.
Lucas Vorsterman engraving

2nd form without his address at bottom. Certainly before 1660 and probably while employed by Rubens 1617-1621 as it bears an inscription as to Rubens publishing rights.

Study of Vorsterman Engravings

16 engravings made by Lucas Vorsterman after Rubens paintings were compared against known Rubens paintings to determine if the engravings were true to the original paintings. All 16 bear an inscription giving Rubens a sort of copyright protection granted to him in various countries.

7 of the engravings showed no differences between the engravings and an identified original oil.

3 demonstrated very minor differences. A few extra links of chain ect.

4 engravings could not be matched to a painting.

 Job tormented by his wife and demons – Original is definitely lost                    Suzanne and the elders  – original has not been found                                          Saint Michael and rebellious angels – probably destroyed by fire in 1740        Saint Peter finding tribute in a fish – original is probably lost

2 engravings showed significant differences from all known versions.

Hymans #40 – Virgin and sleeping child – Rockox house version is the closest to the engraving but the sleeping child’s arm is outside the covers and the bed is visible in the engraving. The curly hair matches the engraving. The other version has straight hair and the arm is hidden as well. Clearly it demonstrates that there are other paintings that have a curly and straight haired versions. It could be argued that the Rockox version is the original with the bed added as a framing element in the engraving, leaving only the small arm as a difference (possibly to hide an engravers mistake).

Hymans #80 – Mary Magdalene and Martha – Jewelry box contents and placement do not match any known version. The engraved Magdalene has straight hair. Some painting versions have boxes with lids.

To summarize, of 12 engravings done by Vorsterman where a good comparison was possible only 2 were significantly different from all known paintings, Virgin and sleeping child with 2 versions found, original possibly not found, and the Magdalene and Martha with 5 versions to compare. In this case the original painting has probably not been located.


Various experts consider the Vienna painting to have been created between 1615 and 1620. In it the Magdalene has curly hair. It has been designated the original even though students seem to have been heavily involved. The Rubens inventory of 1626 shows at least one Magdalene copy. The Vorsterman etching if done during his employment would have been within a few years of the creation of this painting and shows straight hair as do all other versions that I have located most specifically the Irbit Museum version which has been authenticated as Studio of Rubens by the experts at the Hermitage. If correct this means the Studio of Rubens was active in the production of both a curly and a straight hair Magdalene(s).

Vlieghe in the catalog raisonne states “ All these copies, however, are not based on the original but on the anonymous engraving in the same direction as the Vienna painting, which was itself made from the reversed engraving published by Lucas Vorsterman. They have the hard quality and lack of nuance of the engraving; moreover, precisely like the latter they show the Magdalene with long lank hair instead of the curly hair in the painting.” This is confusing but if I read it correctly he is saying that an anonymous engraver took the Vorsterman engraving reversed it as a new engraving and this became the source material for all subsequent copies done entirely by anonymous others. His conclusion is that since all the later copies have straight lank hair and face the same as the Vienna painting and are not as good they must be based on the anonymous etching after Vorsterman.

It would seem that any differences in the quality of the work would be more easily explained by looking at the work schedule of the studio as we have no idea who was working at any given time during the fabrication of these pieces. Also the rather dirty condition of at least the French, Russian and German versions would have covered up the nuances that Vlieghe mentions. Other than #9 there seems to be little difference in the technique of the painters visible on photographs.

If correct that the Irbit painting is a product of Rubens studio, it would seem then this analysis is no longer tenable. An alternative theory would be that Rubens studio produced straight hair versions and at least one curly haired version and the Vorsterman engraving is only a copy of one that was available in the studio. A point that seemed curious is that most copyists will try to make an exact copy, as close as they can get to the original. Differences in their technique or ability will often lead to subtle differences. With 8 different versions of the painting the different colored boxes were possibly a way of telling them apart. It would be much easier to say “Ship him the one with the blue box” rather than “Ship him the one that is 155 cm x 117 cm.”.

For the five above paintings (1,2,5,6,7) the Magdalene and sister are exactly the same, (see Note) every fold in the silk dress is the same and yet in every case the jewel box is very different and none is the same as the engraving.  Given that two of the five above paintings have already been authenticated and a third has provenance to around 1750 only 65 kilometers from Antwerp, they are in my opinion from the same source but I have not yet examined any other than the French version #6.

#9 seems to be a direct copy of #1 and thus is not included in this comparison. Photos of #3, #4 and #8 have not been found.

After all this digging my conclusion is that probably Vienna #1,  Cassel #2, Irbit #7, French #6 and Sothebys 2007 #5 will all eventually be confirmed as Rubens studio versions with an as yet to be found original. #9 is probably a copy of the Vienna painting done later.  Interestingly this would make #9  the only potential copy made throughout history, which makes sense as the effort involved to copy something this big is substantial. It sort of boggles the mind to think of some copyist deciding to make a series of 5 – 8 large copies of the Magdalene each with a different color box and different dimensions or even less credible that 5 individuals decided to make copies and all of them decided to just change the box. I think Rubens who was quite business savvy, knew he could sell 8 so have the studio make 8 and paint the boxes different so that when Van Dyck screws up a face, I can just tell him to fix the one with the green box. There seems to be little alternative that all of these paintings came from Rubens studio, however the quality and participation of the master himself is yet to be determined for some of them.

Note: The blouse color varies in different versions from light blue to black. This maybe original but may also be due to a removal of a darker final layer of paint during cleaning. This leaving a lighter blue underpaint visible. Some slight evidence of a darker layer existed on the French version before its cleaning in 2018. This might account for the higher contrast in certain sleeves.

Copyright Alain R. Mackinnon 2018