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Penitent Magdalene by Donatello | The artist

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello, is one of the greatest Florentine sculptors. A prolific and versatile early Renaissance figure working in stone, metal, wood, terracotta and bronze. This innovative artist developed sculpture from the Gothic style he was educated in, creating anatomically accurate figures that are astonishingly lifelike. He pioneered the use of the single vanishing point perspective system in relief sculpture and created the first male nude statue since classical antiquity. His expressive and naturalistic works astounded early viewers and influenced sculptors for centuries.

Penitent Magdalene by Donatello | The history of the work

Probably commissioned for the Florence Baptistery, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene is greeted with amazement for its unprecedented realism. Almost life-size, it represents Mary Magdalene, who is described in the Gospel of St. Luke as a woman who lived a sinful life.

‘Who lived a sinful life … [and] stood behind [Jesus] at his feet weeping [and] began to wet his feet with his tears. Then she dried them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.’ After reciting one of her parables,

Jesus told her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The Story of Donatello’s Penitent

Magdalene Magdalene is a popular theme in art during the Renaissance and after. According to the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a repentant prostitute from her past, who after Jesus’ Crucifixion spends 30 years in the desert atoning for her sins. Western legends tell that it was not subject to the dangers of time and that the angels took care of feeding it in the desert. For this reason, most Western artists portrayed her as an ageless beauty, but Donatello’s version bears more resemblance to Eastern Orthodox icons of Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents, who was ragged and emaciated . Donatello shows her what she might have looked like without any spiritual protection: wrinkled, dressed in rags, with her long, tight hair intertwined and her mouth slightly open to show us her missing teeth.

Penitent Magdalene by Donatello | The inspiration for the work

There are no known official documents of the time on the work, so its original location has never been verified, but during around 1480 it was seen in the Baptistery of Florence by Charles VIII of France when he camped nearby with his army.

The fact that the figure is not fully finished on the reverse suggests the possibility that it was originally in a frame against a wall.

Donatello was over 60 when he created this statue, after spending a decade in Padua and suffering from a long illness. Probably for this understand the tiredness and weakness associated with age and disease. This incredibly realistic interpretation of the subject is unprecedented. Indeed for centuries most artists still represent holy figures as beautiful and ageless. Mary Magdalene’s difficult life stole her beauty, or so Donatello leads us to believe.

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