donatello mary magdalen
Though the “Penitent Magdalene” was the usual depiction for the many single figures of Mary Magdalene in art, Donatello’s gaunt, emaciated figure differs greatly from most depictions, which show a beautiful young woman in nearly perfect health. The Magdalene Penitent is famous for the detailed and very realistic carvings on the statue. Medieval hagiography in the Western church had conflated the figure of Mary Magdalene, already conflated with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed sinner in the Anointing of Jesus, with that of Saint Mary of Egypt. She was a popular figure in the Eastern Churches, who had been a prostitute before spending thirty years repenting in the desert. Donatello’s depiction is similar to, and very probably influenced by, Eastern Orthodox icons of Mary of Egypt, which show a similar emaciated figure. He thus ignored the Western legends by which Mary was daily fed by angels in the desert.
The Penitent Magdalene is a wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello, created around 1453–1455. The sculpture was probably commissioned for the Baptistery of Florence. The piece was received with astonishment for its unprecedented realism. It is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. The wood used by Donatello is that of White poplar.
All this, and more. Those are eyes that have seen all there is to see in this world and beyond; this is a body who has experienced all there is to experience in this life and the next. That Donatello could render all that in the inert wood of a white poplar tree is a testament not only to the greatness of his artistic vision, but the profound eye he cast upon the deepest recesses of the human psyche. Renaissance art, as if you needed any convincing, is about far more than just pretty pictures.
The road to salvation awaits everyone who is open to God; but as Donatello vividly reminds us, this is a path littered with physical deprivation and psychological torment. The sculptor certainly pulls no punches: his Magdalene is in the throes of mental turmoil, he tortured physical form reflecting an indescribable spiritual anguish writhing within. The passing years have done little, it seems, to relieve her grief, inconsolable at the wicked depths to which her fellow humans sank in leading Christ to his bloody end. The Magdalene is beaten by wretched time, by the rigours of the wilderness, by the harrowing path she has taken through life. And yet she’s still here, erect and defiant in the face of it all, unbending still. Her inscrutable gaze seems to be looking far into the distant past. What is she thinking of? Her opulent life as a courtesan? The first moment she saw Christ and experienced the divine rapture of conversion? The years following him faithfully as he spread the word across the world? The indescribable horror of Christ’s bloody body, so deformed that it hardly registered as human, nailed to a cross atop Golgotha, the hill of skulls? Or the unimaginable joy of seeing him healthy and whole once again, strolling along the roads of Jerusalem after his Resurrection?
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c. 1386 – 1466), better known as Donatello, was an important early Renaissance sculptor from Florence. He studied classical sculpture and used this to develop a fully Renaissance style, which his periods in Rome, Padua and Siena introduced to other parts of Italy over his long and productive career. He worked in stone, bronze, wood, clay, stucco and wax. Though his most famous works are statues in the round, he also developed a new, shallow type of bas-relief for small works. A good deal of his output consisted, moreover, of larger architectural reliefs.
Donatello’s 15th-century statue of Mary Magdalene commands attention. The ravaged figure, with her gaunt features and imposing size of near two meters, is at once enthralling and repulsive. She is a Magdalene different from those most typically encountered in art history.
This sculpture, made entirely out of polychrome wood, presents an exceptionally intense look at humanity, and is a perfect example of Donatello�s talented hand. It is titled �Mary Magdalene�, a biblical figure, whose life was depicted as less than virtuous. She stands with her hands almost folded, perhaps penitent before Jesus Christ.
Donatello beautifully portrayed Mary Magdalene in her ascetic journey to redemption, an inspiring variation from the more common version which focused on her deemed corrupt and immoral lifestyle.
The Penitent Magdalene is a piece that seems intent on creating a visceral reaction in the viewer. The statue was carved after Donatello himself suffered a long bout of illness in Padua. It seems likely that Donatello’s own reckoning with his mortality informed his piece portraying Mary.
Donatello’s Mary is also shockingly haggard. Idealized portraits in history paint her as being fed by angels and protected from the ravages of age, yet Donatello leads viewers to the assumption that her life of adultery and prostitution has stolen her beauty. She is deeply wrinkled and clothed in rags while her slightly open mouth reveals missing teeth.