Mary Magdalene

7:00 AM

Donatello, Mary Magdalene, 1453-1455


Donatello’s collection of classical, perfectly proportioned sculptures make his departure from that formula all the more shocking. His Mary Magdalene, grim, unapologetically realistic, sacrifices those niceties to create a grim figure of human suffering and loss, but also of redemption. Wearing only her long, knotted hair, Magdalene looks slightly upwards, her lips parted and hands joined in prayer.

It is possible that Donatello himself - over sixty years old at the time of sculpting - might have suffered a debilitating illness before creating this work, and that his own suffering changed how he treated Mary Magdalene’s penance. Certainly Donatello had never created anything like this stark, emaciated figure. His contemporaries, too, were shocked. The fashion in Florence at the time was smooth, glazed clay statues such as those produced by Luca della Robbia. The public had no idea how to react to this radical new style.

Personally, I find the Penitent Magdalene stunningly beautiful. The emotion in Magdalene’s face and the raw empathy of the piece mean that it still holds meaning today. This piece was one of the first in our Art History course to provoke that emotional reaction, in contrast to those first stiff, fumbling efforts away from the Byzantine style. It has lost none of that impact today.
 Editor's Note: The students were assigned to write about the artwork that has impacted them the most. These pieces will run for  about two weeks. 

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