Penitent Magdalene, a wooden sculpture of Saint Mary Magdalene by Donatello is thought to have been inspired by the then Bishop of Florence, Sant' Antonio.
Donatello carried on the tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as a figure from history that was perceived to have had long flowing hair. Although there were other images of the cave-dwelling saint in the 13th and 14th century depicting her as being attractive, Donatello decided to carve and mould the saint in a punitive state; ravaged and emaciated from living a life of fasting and solitude. The Penitent Magdalene by Donatello is thought to have ended depictions of Mary Magdalene as being attractive and influenced other artists to render her in a more unfavourable tone for decades later. Many members of the Renaissance would look to Donatello for inspiration as he was the first to start many of the new trends found within this highly significant movement. He also took on a variety of different mediums, making his output apply to all of the different sculpture sub genres.
The sculptor was able to hone his talents with wood over a number of decades and The Penitent Magdalene would come towards the end of his career, when he had evolved to the highest level. The piece was completed around 1453-1555 and can today be found in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, which is to be found in the Italian province of Tuscany. The city itself was integral in the early and mid periods of the Renaissance and Donatello would become a major part of that. This artistic era was all about pushing the boundaries, with some masters trying out many different disciplines across their lifetimes. Donatello stuck with sculpture throughout, but his variety of content and materials was equally diverse and impressive. His legacy was also strong and highly influential on later generations of sculptors, right across the country.
Donatello's career was filled with free standing statues such as this as well as a good number of reliefs, which is a technique that involves the work being crafted onto the side of a wall. It is the former which have become the most famous, with items such as David as well as the incredible piece found here being regarded as some of the most important contributions to 15th century sculpture. Italy was truly dominant in this discipline at that time, though there were also some highly skilled craftsmen in the more northern regions of the continent who would also inspire Italian painters to start using oils for the first time. The display of real emotion was a key part of the success of the Italian Renaissance and there was no-one who was more skilled at this than Donatello. His career would also cover a number of different parts of Italy as he went in search of the most artistically challenging and interesting commissions in order to develop his own skills just as far as he could.
In the early 15th century, when Donatello sculpted this figure, there was a push by the Roman Catholic Church to promote penitence amongst the faithful. This influence can be clearly seen by the posture of the Penitent Magdalene, her hands nearly joining, as if in prayer, her open mouth like she is begging for forgiveness. Previous depictions of Mary Magdalene’s long flowing hair were a sign of her beauty, but Donatello decided to give her hair a matted and unkempt look thus taking beauty from her and keeping her more in line with the church's changing opinion of her. One can see variations over time such as this throughout art history, with examples including how religious figures can sometimes be given more human-like appearances (Murillo), where as at other times they would purposely be differentiated, visually, from us mere mortals.
Difficulties of Sculpting with Wood
The hair on the sculpture doesn’t fall smoothly but more in matted ropes, sticking to her face and clinging to her wasted body and the absence of feminine features highlighted by the belt around her thin waist. To construct life-sized figures, Donatello and other artists from that time used one solid piece of wood to start with. These life-sized figures were usually hollowed out but not in Donatello's carvings, which pointed to the fact that Donatello had not been trained in woodworking techniques, so was free from restrictions that more classically trained artists found themselves bound by. What is evident though, is the fact that Donatello grasped and understood the problems that came with working with wood on this sort of scale. It was one of his most impressive features, that this was a sculptor who could achieve the highest of standards across a variety of materials, with his oeuvre including work in clay, wood, marble and bronze.
Innovations within this Sculpture
The position of the figure in the trunk of wood was done in such an ingenious way, it brought the chance of the wood cracking down to a minimum. Previously artists had shaped the figure then hollowed out the pith at the centre to minimise cracking but since Donatello had not been trained in such techniques, he solved the problem in his own unique way. He shaped the main body of the work from white poplar wood and the finer points were then finished with gesso (stucco). What is striking about the Penitent Magdalene by Donatello is the height of the carving (188cm) and that some of the strands of hair are either individually or partially modelled. The main, notable aspect of this work which made it quite so memorable was in how realistic the overall depiction was, helping to shape future periods of the Italian Renaissance. As with other famous sculptures, the audience were somewhat suspicious as to how a humanbeing could create such an impressive and realistic sculpture, and it took some time for them to accept that it's quality was purely down to the techniques and innovations of a gifted artist.
Damage to The Penitent Magdalene
This came to light after the carving was damaged in the Florentine flood of 1966. During the restoration of the flood-damaged carving, it was discovered that the Penitent Magdalene is essentially a nude figure with strands of hair nailed or pinned to the main body of the carving. Sadly, over one hundred people lost their lives that year, and this is considered the worst flood in the city since 1557. There are signs around Florence today which signify the extraordinary level to which the water level rose at that time, reminding everyone of this harrowing event in which the Arno river became completely overwhelmed. Sadly, this sculpture was far from the only item to be damaged within the flood, and it has taken years to repair many of the frescoes and tempera artworks as well as other sculptures and historical buildings which were stored in Florence at the time. It is likely that the same galleries and museums would be better prepared today, with contingency plans in place for such events, and also technology normally offering more of a warning of abnormal weather.
Donatello's other Sculptures from the same period
Sometime between 1400 and 1410, before he created the Penitent Magdalene, Donatello created a Crucifix for the Franciscan basilica of Sante Croce. It is regarded as his first masterpiece as a truly independent artist and was completely carved from a solid piece of pear wood. The Magdalene came much later in 1453–1455, and by this stage the artist was in his late sixties and coming towards the end of his career. His bronze David was produced around a decade earlier, though most of his best known artworks actually came before that. For instance, Saint George came in around 1415-1417 and Zuccone arrived in 1423–1425. It is not quite clear as to why his productivity slowed in later years and there is always the possibility that some items may have been lost or destroyed during that period, such is the number of years that have passed since then as well as the relative fragility of some of these sculptures.
Sculptor's Competition with Brunelleschi
The work that he executed on that piece may have influenced how he proceeded with the work that he carried out on the Penitent Magdalene. There is no doubt that some artists of the Renaissance at the time were eager to emulate Donatello and it was rumoured that both he and the artist Filippo Brunelleschi were in a contest to produce the best Crucifix. Brunelleschi did carve a crucifix from pear wood as well, but this was done later to Donatello’s, between 1410 and 1415. The use of pear wood was an uncommon wood to be used in Tuscany at the time and the fact that his crucifix was also not hollowed out does leave credence to the fact he may have been trying to better Donatello using the same techniques. Whilst competing against each other, Donatello and Brunelleschi were also establishing themselves as two of the most significant contributors to Renaissance architecture and sculpture.
Influence of Donatello's Penitent Magdalene
The Penitent Magdalene by Donatello can be said to have influenced how artists carved and modelled for decades after. The complete crucifix carvings from solid wood by Donatello and Brunelleschi show that both had the capabilities to complete carvings without hollowing out wood. The fact that Donatello used both carving and modelling showed to other artists that the experimentation of the Florence Renaissance and some independent thinking could indeed produce astounding works of art. He offered so much to later generations of of artists that his legacy went far beyond just his own work. This level of innovation ensured that he was respected by other artists and also continued to receive a steady stream of commissions throughout his lifetime, never falling in popularity even across the centuries that followed after his passing.
Where is the sculpture today?
This tall statue can be found at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy. This museum hosts a number of pieces that were originally intended to be shown at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral (Duomo) of Florence. Although the museum is relatively small, its collection is of the highest quality, with many of the great names of the Renaissance featured here. Among the other attractions to be found here you will see the likes of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral, The Deposition by Michelangelo as well as some work by another respected sculptor, Luca della Robbia. It is therefore a fitting location in which to discover Donatello's classic artwork, and provides an important selection of works which rivals anything found elsewhere in the city in terms of the names involved and the quality of the items themselves.
Which other artists have depicted The Penitent Magdalene?
There was a lesser known artwork by Caravaggio known as Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene) from c. 1594–1595 which is today held at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome. There were then a number of different interpretations by Georges de La Tour, perhaps inspired by Caravaggio's work. Perhaps most famous of all in terms of paintings would have to be Titian's Penitent Magdalene from 1531 which remains one of his most famous paintings of all. In all there have been many interpretations of this theme within the Renaissance and Baroque eras, but with painting dominating. Donatello's sculptured version is perhaps the best of all to have come from that discipline, and ranks above his most respected works of all. Mary herself appears countless numbers of times within these art periods with other scenes also proving popular with artists from that time.
Large Image of The Penitent Magdalene
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.