Donatello (Florence 1386 –1466), Penitent Magdalene, 1453-55, height 188 cm, poplar wood with traces of polychrome, Florence, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
22nd of July: Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene appears at the beginning of chapter 8 of Luke's Gospel: “Now it happened that after this he made his way through towns and villages preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources.” And then, especially, as it is said in chapters 19 and 20 of the Gospel of John, she was at the foot of the cross, she was in the garden where they laid down the body of Jesus, and she was the first to see the risen one and ran to announce it to the apostles.
The evocative and particular representation proposed here stems from the confusion that had existed about Mary Magdalene since the early centuries. She was also identified with the sister of Lazarus, and with the sinner, well-known in the city, who bathed the feet with her tears, perfumed them and dried them with her hair.
That's why in the art of the late Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene also appears as a penitent: according to a legend, she was a great sinner who, after her conversion and encounter with the Risen One, had gone to live as a hermit in the south of France, near Marseille, where she announced the Gospel: the cult of the penitent Magdalene fascinated many artists, who considered her the female counterpart of John the Baptist; the statue of Donatello is an exceptional example of this.
Mary Magdalene is only covered by her hair. Her outer beauty has abandoned her. Her face is marked by fasting and nightly vigils in prayer, but she is illuminated by inner beauty, because she has found peace and joy in the Lord. The statue of the penitent Magdalene of Donatello, sculpted for the Baptistery of Florence, is an authentic masterpiece.
Donatello moves away from the traditional iconography of the character to stress, as it always happens in his sculptures, the representation of the interiority and human feeling. Mary Magdalene, usually represented as a young and beautiful woman, here is a figure devoured by the sign of the years and by fasting, by abstinence and other penances to which she has submitted. She is also represented naked, covered only by her very long hair wrapping her body. If on the one hand, Donatello presents the figure of an ungraceful old woman, on the other hand, the Florentine sculptor creates an image of absolute beauty from an expressive point of view.
Let us ask Saint Mary Magdalene to support us in our path and to help us recognise the Lord Jesus when he manifests himself to us!