El Greco drew inspiration for Mary Magdalene in Penitence, from the Bible. When depicted in works of art, Mary Magdalene is many characters. She is the woman who was Lazarus's sister as well as the sinner who attended to Jesus, washing and then drying his feet. In the Bible she also lay at the Cross, during the Crucification and ventured afterwards into the tomb, who then witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus. Most importantly, Mary Magdalene is the first known woman in the Bible to be forgiven for her sins.
It is widely believed that El Greco based his painting, Mary Magdalene in Penitence, on the ancient story that tells of how she lived in a mountain cave for over 30 years in Sainte-Baume, France. This is suggested when we observe what surrounds Mary Magdalene in the background of the image. In the painting Mary Magdalene is obviously crying, as we can see a tear rolling down her cheek. As the tithe of the painting suggests, she is sat and contemplating penitence for the forgiveness of her sins. Behind her is the mouth of a mountain cave, and in front of where she sits is a book, alongside which is a skull. This skull in particular, represents the fact that Mary has come to terms with he natural passing of life.
El Greco has managed to portray the many different nuances and personalities of Mary Magdalene. What we observe in the elegant clothes, is a lady who represents Lazarus's sister. But on the other hand, we also see a partially nude Mary Magdalene, who has one breast exposed. This Mary is the prostitute and the woman who has sinned. The need for mourning and to seek forgives for all her sins is shown by the dark coloured overcoat.
There are many intricate details in this painting, and El Greco managed to paint an exquisite ointment jar. What this represents is the time that Mary Magdalene washed and dried Jesus's feet and then used the ointment to add fragrance. We also observe vibrant green ivy that adorns the cave, which is symbolic of both resurrection and immortality.
Mary Magdalene is obviously the focal point of the painting. Her tear streaked face is looking upwards, as if to heaven, and we believe that El Greco painted her in this fashion so as to convey the need to plead for forgiveness and mercy. Although these emotions appear natural, her posture seems strained, in that her neck is just that little bit too long and her face twisted in an unnatural way. This was a deliberate statement by El Greco, as this was a fashionable method of painting, that at the time was referred to as Mannerism. El Greco was therefore making an artistic protest against those Renaissance painters who wished to represent perfection on the canvas.