Museum Home Past Exhibitions Orazio Gentileschi in Genoa: Paintings for the Palazzo Sauli

October 1, 2002–January 12, 2003 at the Getty Center

Saint Mary Magdalen (detail) / Gentileschi
Saint Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (detail)

The Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) was the most innovative follower of Caravaggio (1571–1610), whose emphasis on realism and dramatic lighting revolutionized painting in the early 1600s. Gentileschi adopted Caravaggio's methods, including the practice of working directly from posed models, but he tempered realism with his own lyrical sense of beauty.

Between 1621 and 1623, Gentileschi established his fame with three paintings for a wealthy patron from Genoa, Giovan Antonio Sauli. This small exhibition reunites these extraordinary works, which include the Getty's Lot and His Daughters and two works on loan from private collections: Danaë and the Shower of Gold and Saint Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy. The paintings explore relationships between women and God concerning sex and love. Each image represents a distinct perspective—one is drawn from classical mythology, one from Hebrew Scriptures, and one from Christian writings. Gentileschi's compositions and the choice of subjects seem calculated to invite comparison and suggest meaning.

Danaë and the Shower of Gold / Gentileschi
Danaë and the Shower of Gold

At the Mercy of Fate

In Greek mythology the beautiful Danaë was locked away in a sealed tower by her father, the king of Argos, after an oracle prophesied that her son would cause the king's death. Although mortal suitors could not reach Danaë, Jupiter, king of the gods, transformed himself into a "shower of gold" to enter the chamber and impregnate her. Danaë conceived the hero Perseus, who eventually killed his grandfather by accident, affirming the belief in fate's inevitability.

Here, Cupid throws back the curtain as Danaë extends her arm in a gesture of resignation to the inescapable because she too was at the mercy of fate. For the shower of gold, Gentileschi devised a cascade of screw-shaped shavings and coins that bear images of Jupiter and his symbol, the thunderbolt. The story of Danaë is interpreted as an ancient foreshadowing of the Annunciation, the divine conception of Christ.

Lot and His Daughters / Gentileschi
Lot and His Daughters

A Moral Dilemma

According to the Book of Genesis, God destroyed the sinful city of Sodom, sparing only Lot and his daughters. Fearful that they alone survive to perpetuate the human race, the daughters face a moral dilemma. Having witnessed God's wrath for sin, should they obey his command to "be fruitful and multiply," thereby committing incest? The daughters decide to make their father drunk so that each can furtively mate with him. They sought only to procreate, so their sin was not lust, but rather their lack of love for God, for they did not trust that he would provide them children without requiring incest.

Gentileschi stressed the daughters' motivation by depicting them gazing back toward the smoldering city, where everyone has presumably perished. By posing the intoxicated father curled like a baby in his daughter's lap, Gentileschi brilliantly conveyed the reversal of relationships and their outcome. The artist's languid, entangled grouping suggests the moral complexity of the interaction.

Saint Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy / Gentileschi
Saint Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy

Redeemed by Divine Love

In response to Protestant condemnation of the sacrament of penance, the Catholic Church promoted Mary Magdalen as the female model of the repentant sinner redeemed by divine love. Notoriously wealthy and wanton in her early life, she abandoned physical pleasures to become one of Christ's most devoted followers.

Mary Magdalen spent the last thirty years of her life as a hermit in southern France (not far from Genoa), where she practiced penance in a cave, abandoning herself completely to God's will, as indicated by her nudity. She was rewarded with rapture from spiritual union with divine love, which is signified here by a strong light from above. To convey the effect of mystical bliss on the body, Gentileschi depicted Mary Magdalen with her mouth agape and her eyes rolled back in her head, thoroughly immobilized by the awesome presence of the divine.