A Haggardly Beautiful Mary Magdalene

Donatello, Mary Magdalene, late 1430s?

This Mary Magdalene was sculpted by Donatello. Artistically and materialistically, the sculpture departs from his smooth bronze and marble work. Mary stands over 6′ tall, made of wood and gesso.  More than stone or marble, I believe the wood and gesso enabled Donatello to sculpt something staggering, unique and psychologically telling. The piece is a slight enigma to the art history world — we don’t know exactly when it was made, for whom, and where it was originally placed.

Mary’s face is the most telling psychological part of the sculpture. Her lips are parted, as if she’s caught in mid-action or sentence. Her hands aren’t quite joined together, and she gazes outward with intensity. She seems to be completely, introspectively fixated on Christ; meditating with an awestruck expression at the things he did for her.

It is evident from her facial features — her hallowed cheeks, missing teeth, sunken eyes, mangy hair — that her both her sinful life and her reformed life as an ascetic have each taken their toll on her soul, manifest through her physical appearance. This was a deliberate choice on Donatello’s part. He could have easily created a seductress for his Magdalene, a strong and capable woman with long, flowing hair and unsurpassed beauty. But he didn’t. Donatello sculpted Mary’s appearance to tell a story of repentance and redemption. Her body bears witness to the physical deprivation she endured as an ascetic after her Lord ascended to heaven. She stands before the viewer as a penitent follower of Christ.

Donatello, Mary Magdalene, 1430s?

It is Mary’s hair that tips the viewer off as to who exactly she is upon first viewing. Her hair, now tangled and ratty, covering her whole body, tips the viewer off: this Mary anointed Christ’s feet with oil and tears, dried them with her hair, repented, and eventually became an ascetic. As told in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene once poured precious perfume on Christ’s head and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). (There is a dispute among scholars as to which of the many women Christ knew did this, but for our purposes, it is Mary Magdalene.) Mary Magdalene was, by tradition, a beautiful harlot who later became an ascetic. According to the Golden Legend, she left her sinful life to become an ascetic in the south of France because “Jesus wished to sustain her naught but with heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.” Her past and present are wrapped up together in one image and her entire life is out in the open for the viewer to see.

Donatello, Mary Magdalene, 1430s?

In the moment that the viewer sees her, Mary appears to be caught up in a personal moment between her and Christ. She doesn’t confront or invite the viewer directly with her gaze, but the openness of the form of the sculpture invites the viewer into her space. The viewer is taken into this moment of quiet and internal conversation, if not to pray with her, then to contemplate her story — and more importantly, perhaps, one’s own spiritual life.

Mary Magdalene is currently displayed in a circular enclosure that one can circumambulate. Whether or not that is how she was originally displayed, art historians don’t know. However, this current display is important because the sculpture can be seen from every possible angle, and every angle of Mary’s face yields new insight into her psyche and the psychological fervor of the moment . Her disheveled appearance and the tortured expression on her face are the result of not only the physical demands of her penance (life as an ascetic), but also the result of the memory she’s reliving—the moment when Christ forgave her. She is caught in a moment of thankfulness, of receiving grace, and glimpsing hope. This moment is also expressed through her hair (which covers and clothes her whole body) because it serves as

“a reminder of her former beauty and sensuality, an emblem of her honouring of Christ and of her repentance, and a symbol of her neglect of worldly things during her life as a hermit saint.”  – Bonnie A. Bennett

What other works that you’ve seen call the viewer to piety and introspection?

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