A poetic encomium, in the form of a letter written in 1633 by Emanuele Vizzani and dedicated to Marchese Virgilio Malvezzi, describes the painting in detail and provides the date after which it cannot have been made.
On the basis of a document published by Aronberg Lavin (1975), it has been possible to identify it as a full-length Penitent Magdalene made for Cardinal Antonio Santacroce. Upon his death (25 November 1641), it was donated by Valerio Santacroce to Cardinal Antonio Barberini (16 December 1641). According to a hypothesis put forward by Mazza (1988), which is generally agreed upon, it is possible that the gift to Cardinal Antonio was in recognition for his nomination as cardinal by Pope Urban VIII in 1629. Vodret (2000) has expressed some perplexities about the identification of the work as the one mentioned in the 1641 document.
The painting appears again in the inventories of Taddeo (1648–49) and Francesco Barberini (1649), in which it is described as Santa Maria Egiziaca (Aronberg Lavin 1974; Pepper 1984; Vodret 2000). In the 1738–39 inventory of Francesco Barberini Jr., it is referred to as Maddalena, which Mazza (1988) identifies as a work in a private collection, while Vodret (2000) suggests it may be the work displayed here. The success of this subject in the Barberini family is documented by the existence of numerous inventory entries of other similar paintings by Reni.
After the Barberini estate was broken up in 1812, the painting entered the Colonna di Sciarra Collection, where it remained until 1891–92. It was later owned by the Corsini princes of Florence and finally arrived at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini.