This portrait miniature was painted by Catherine da Costa, the first Anglo-Jewish miniaturist. Da Costa was born at the royal residence of Somerset House, where she was named after Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Queen Consort of Charles II.[1] Her parents, both Portuguese Jews, fled the Spanish Inquisition and arrived in London, where her father swiftly converted to Catholicism while he held the post as physician to Charles II. Later studying painting under renowned miniaturist Bernard Lens III[2], da Costa even caught the attention of French philosopher Voltaire, an acquaintance of her husband, who witnessed an unavailing attempt by a priest to convert her to Christianity, attesting to her unwavering Jewish faith. De Costa grew up in London during the mid-17th century, an epoch of religious transformation owing, in part, to the re-admission of Jews to Britain in 1656.

As a trained artist, she mainly gained commissions from her close circle of family and friends or from members of the...

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This portrait miniature was painted by Catherine da Costa, the first Anglo-Jewish miniaturist. Da Costa was born at the royal residence of Somerset House, where she was named after Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Queen Consort of Charles II.[1] Her parents, both Portuguese Jews, fled the Spanish Inquisition and arrived in London, where her father swiftly converted to Catholicism while he held the post as physician to Charles II. Later studying painting under renowned miniaturist Bernard Lens III[2], da Costa even caught the attention of French philosopher Voltaire, an acquaintance of her husband, who witnessed an unavailing attempt by a priest to convert her to Christianity, attesting to her unwavering Jewish faith. De Costa grew up in London during the mid-17th century, an epoch of religious transformation owing, in part, to the re-admission of Jews to Britain in 1656.

As a trained artist, she mainly gained commissions from her close circle of family and friends or from members of the Jewish community. Here, more unusually, she paints the figure of the Penitent Magdalene. A mysterious and enigmatic figure, the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in religious and secular art is multifaceted, complex and often contradicting. Yet although she is habitually associated with the Christian Gospels, this portrait miniature is a representation of Mary through the eyes of a Jewish woman artist.

Taking into consideration da Costa’s Judaism raises the question as to why Mary Magdalene, a figure tied to Catholicism, is her chosen subject. In fact, da Costa’s Jewish identity lay in stark contrast with her vibrant cultural milieu in English society, where she was exposed to Old Testament themed oratorios and Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume and Locke. She would have also been mindful that Jewish identities were often concealed, and that intermarriage and conversion was embraced. After all, da Costa’s father, and her father-in-law, both never confessed to being Jewish, with the former declaring himself a ‘Roman Catholic’ and the latter as being ‘Church of England’ following his adult baptism in 1672. Her painting thus provides fascinating testimony that her life was disparate to that of the average Jew in England, offering a nuanced understanding of the intricate times as a Jew, in which she lived.

The exact source for Da Costa’s Penitent Magdalene is, at present unknown, but it compares closely to Guido Reni’s (1575-1642) Penitent Magdalene, now in the National Gallery, London, where the saint is shown in penance, appealing to heaven. Emulating such a work also fits with Vertue’s description of her: ‘she Coppyd many pictures & limnings mostly all the remarkable of Faime in England painted by Rubens Vandyck & other masters’.[3] Da Costa’s teacher Bernard Lens certainly drew the subject of Mary Magdalene on at least two occasions, one of which was engraved.[4] The fact that da Costa has carefully signed and dated the miniature suggests that this was an important commission for her. 1714 was also the year in which she completed a portrait of her only son, Abraham, now (1704-1760) at the age of ten, now in the Jewish Museum, London.

[1] Catherine was also given the Jewish name Rachel after her mother. References to Catherine of Braganza being her godmother cannot be substantiated.

[2] George Vertue’s observed that Lens’s pupil, Catherina da Costa: ‘learned to limne of Bernard Lens for many years.’ British Library, Add. MS 23079, fol. 26

[3] Ibid., fol. 26

[4] See the example in the British Museum, 2010,7081.178, engraved by

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500 Years of British Art