Donatello, Mary Magdalene penitent

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;

Partly colored and gilded wooden statue with additions in oakum and chalk, depicting a penitent Saint Mary Magdalene. The work is one of Donatello’s masterpieces, created circa 1455, possibly for the Baptistery. Although Mary Magdalene is only mentioned a few times in the Gospels, she is one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples. She was both present at the crucifixion and, critically, was the first person to meet the risen Christ. For centuries Christian tradition identified Mary Magdalene with the “sinner” (guilty of prostitution) in the Gospels, saved and converted by Jesus. Her latter years were supposedly spent in the wilderness as a hermit. Donatello’s statue emphasizes his subject’s long hair, which virtually merges with the rough pelt of her single penitential garment, worn over an emaciated body ravaged by fasting. From its probable original position in the Baptistery, to the left of the main altar, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene would have represented a powerful incentive to repent sins and convert. The statue would also have been facing the altar and thus, ideally the mystery of the Eucharist.

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Sala della Maddalena