Donatello: ‘Penitent Mary Magdalene’

Donatello ‘Pentinent Mary Magdalene’ Museum of the Opera dell Duomo Florence

photo: Sailko

We now look at a wooden statue of Donatello in this museum, the Mary Magdalene. This statue is quite different from what we have just seen. Donatello produced it at an older age, presumably sixty-six years old.

Donatello ‘Pentinent Mary Magdalene’ c. 1455      Zoom in      Back

Typical for Donatello’s late work is his pessimistic view. Moreover, he no longer cares about the usual conventions of art. He is extraordinarily stubborn as we can still see when we look at his pulpits in the San Lorenzo. Antonio Billi’s Libro suggests that this statue was made in competition with a Magdalene by Brunelleschi (Janson, H.W., ‘The Sculpture of Donatello’ Princeton University Press, Princeton/ New Jersey 1963 p. 358).
The statue Brunelleschi had made of Mary Magdalene was lost in 1471 by fire. According to the ‘Legenda Aurea’ Magdalene lived in the desert for thirty years without food and clothing to do penance for her sinful youth. Her hair grew so much that it became a garment (Wikipedia).

photos: Georg M. Grouta; zoom: Sailko; back: Steven Zucker
photos: Steven Zucker

Mary Magdalene      Zoom out

When you stand face to face with Mary Magdalene, it seems as if death is already announcing itself to her. Leathery skin, emaciated, hollow eyes, and a mouth that mumbles but cannot make an intelligible sound. The hair is dirty and full of tangles. And just like in the medieval legend she is wearing a dress that only consists of hair. 

Vasari was very enthusiastic about this statue:

“In the same house of worship [Baptistery], opposite this tomb, one sees from the hand of Donatello a penitent Mary Magdalene of wood, very beautiful and very well made: an emaciated Donatello ‘Head of Mary Magdalene’ in Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo figure due to abstinence, while all her parts form a perfect whole of an anatomy that is very well understood in every respect.” Translated from: Vasari, G., “De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione.” Contact, Amsterdam 1990 deel 1 blz. 195

Until 1966, the year of the great flooding in Florence, the statue stood in the Baptistery. After the disaster, the monochrome colour seemed to have polychrome colours underneath it. The skin was flesh-coloured and the hairs gilded.

Mary Magdalene

This statue by Donatello was, like many other statues of Mary Magdalene, carved from wood in Tuscany. Old sculptors who worked with wood always applied a layer of lime (gesso). This was necessary to create a stable surface for the paint. Donatello sometimes used gesso with pieces of cloth to create the strands of the long hairs that run over her arms.

“The wood used by Donatello is that of white poplar. Wood was still used for crucifixes for its lightness. It was also cheap and convenient for transporting long distances, and was usually painted.” Source: Wikipedia

The limestone layer is thus used as if it were clay to model. The restoration after the great flood showed that some hair strands consisted of only gesso. For example, the carving of wood has been enriched by Donatello with the possibility of modelling and adding something to the wood.

photos: Georg M. Groutas

In Mary Magdalene (and John the Baptist) Donatello did not partly hollow out the wooden figures from behind as usual. He made sure that there was a space in the lower body so that the wood could work without causing cracks. Although both figures are not meant to walk around, they are much freer than similar statues of his predecessors.

The way Donatello treated the block of wood was novel (no longer a cavity at the back of the sculpture), but working with polychrome colours was not. The colours used are naturalistic. Donatello applied gold to the hairs so they are still visible even when it is quite dark. The effect of gold, gold plating, in a dark room is amazingly large. The gold stands out and because of the reflecting light it seems to change constantly.

Continuation Florence day 3: Donatello and Luca della Robbia: Two cantorie