Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Sala della Maddalena
Original location
Baptistery of Saint John, altar of the Magdalene
Poplar wood, stucco, pigments, gold
Sculpture, painting, gilding
Height: 185 cm; Width: 51 cm; Depth: 45 cm;
Poplar wood, stucco, pigments, gold

Sculpture depicting the penitent Mary Magdalene, a Renaissance masterpiece by Donatello, dating back to around 1455 and coming from the Baptistery. The figure, slightly larger than life size, is worked in the round and is made from a single trunk of white poplar wood, with parts in tow and plaster, painted and partially gilded.

The subject depicts the evangelical figure of Mary Magdalene, who tradition identifies with the converted prostitute who later became the disciple present at the crucifixion and to whom Christ first appeared after the resurrection. However, Donatello depicted her here at a later time, reported only by medieval legends, when, after the ascension of Jesus, she would have gone into a hermit of penance in the desert. With raw naturalism Donatello represented a woman whose proportions still reveal the beauty of her youth, but who is now disfigured by fasting and the sun. Her body is emaciated, even drained to the bone, her skin is as if baked by the sun, her teeth are horribly incomplete, long messy hair falls from her head, blending in with rough fur. Magdalene is standing, with a barely perceptible movement of her right leg she advances uncertainly, clawing her feet on stony ground, she has her hands clasped in prayer, her gaze, slightly turned to the left, is absorbed and enraptured in the void and her mouth is half open, in amazement or as if whispering something.

The sculpture has been remembered in the Baptistery since 1500, but there is no evidence that it was its original destination. The iconography of a hermit penitent assimilates her to both Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of the Baptistery (also a penitent in the desert, dressed in camel fur). In its original position on the left side of the main altar, Donatello's Magdalene represented a powerful invitation to repentance of sins and conversion: in that position, moreover, she turned her gaze towards the altar and therefore, ideally, towards the eucharist, that is, the Christ, her beloved master.

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Sala della Maddalena