Art History: Penitent Magdalene by Donatello



Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, not the Ninja Turtle, was a Renaissance era Italian Sculptor. He worked in a variety of materials including stone, bronze wood and clay. It is believed he started his art training as a goldsmith. His work mostly focused on religious figures and iconography. One of his most well known sculptures is a fascinating bronze depiction of David but I have always been taken by his Magdalene.



The Penitent Magdalene is a poplar wood sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is an interesting figure in the bible. Our understanding of her is now questioned and, in my opinion, Donatello seems to humanize her in a way that many don’t. She was a “woman of sin” (prostitute) who was tremendously beautiful but possessed by demons. Jesus cast out those demons and she went on to become one of his most ardent followers. The Bible says she exiled herself to a cave. All alone, surviving only on “heavenly nourishment” as form of penance. While most sculptures of the time focused on her legendary beauty, Donatello instead focused on her piety. She is slender, but not emaciated. She is not covered in rags but her own famously long blonde hair. She possesses all her trademark features but they are not the focus. She is not defined by her looks but something else. She perseveres. The wood adds a tenderness and temporal quality while her gestures and stance belie a deeper piety and emotional depth.