The one thing we can be certain about Donatello (1389-1466) is that he never does the same work
twice. Even when he is asked to produce sculptures that have similar themes, such as the Cantoria
and the Prato outdoor pulpit, both with dancing putti, he makes sure the works are unalike and can be distinguished from one another.
He never repeats the same statues, even when they are both assumed to be prophets:
But his need to innovate means that he chooses different subjects to tackle as well:
Judith and Holofernes
He makes an equestrian statue in Padua, a marble bas-relief (now in the MFA, Boston), and bronze pulpits in the Florentine church of San Lorenzo.
and in none of these does he follow convention. He enjoys the originality of the new subject, the creativity of making a new composition with new emotional content and new material.
But in one statue he outdoes himself as an innovator and creator: his statue of MARY MAGDALENE, carved out of one trunk of poplar wood between 1453 and 1455, now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence:
The statue of Mary Magdalene is unusual in its material since few artists work in wood in 15th-century Italy, and few wooden statues survive the centuries. Donatello does other works in wood, but never repeats a Mary Magdalene. His Mary Magdalene is also one of the most unusual portraits of old age. We have no documents for its commission; the only record of its location was in the Florence Baptistery before it was moved to the Museo dell'Opera. Was it made, like other painted images of Mary Magdalene, for the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi in Borgo Pinti in Florence? and then moved to the Baptistery when its powerful effect on viewers was noted?
The statue has been newly cleaned and some of the brown paint has been removed to reveal traces of gold leaf on the hair; the gilding is put back in the recent restoration and she has new shine that was intended by the artist. If you look closely at certain sections from certain angles, you can see the young woman before life caught up with her. The wisps of hair against her skin on her left and right cheeks suggest what beauty there might have been in an earlier age. In Donatello's hands we see the young woman inside the old one.
Even her tanned arms still seem young and vital.
But the rest of this portrait is a horrifying documentation of the ravages of age. She is missing teeth, her skin sags on her face, her cheekbones show, her veins in the neck protrude, her chin lacks the force to keep her mouth closed.
Her eyes are not seeing properly, her bare feet are mangled by wear.
She stands alone, absorbed in the prayer she is mouthing, oblivious to anyone around her, especially the viewer. Her hands encapsulate the spirit of air she is about to become.
Donatello has chosen to depict, not the young Mary Magdalene seen in painted Crucifixions in the 15th century, such as Botticelli's, where she holds Christ's feet:
but an old and haggard saint, emaciated by her fasting in the desert after Christ's death and Resurrection. She has no clothes, wears only her hair, which has grown long enough to cover her, and she lifts up her hands in prayer. She has turned away from the material world, the world of the body by which she was thought to have earned her living, and she faces old age and death with a spiritual intensity that seems to burn within her.
In the 15th century Mary Magdalene had acquired stories that were not entirely connected to her by name in the Bible. The stories associated her with the prostitute Christ saved from stoning, with the woman who anointed Christ's feet with her hair and oil. She is, of course, the woman who witnesses Christ's Crucifixion, and she is the first person to see Christ after his Resurrection (Luke 7:36-50), where she meets someone in the garden of Christ's tomb, whom she thinks at first is the gardener. When she realizes it is Christ risen, she reaches for him. He says, "Noli me Tangere," "Do not Touch me, I have not yet arisen to the Father."
Magdalene's stories get conflated with the stories about another female saint, the ascetic St. Mary of Egypt, who lived her life in the desert as a recluse.
Donatello draws on all of these facets of Mary Magdalene's life from visual images of her that
he might have known. Her long hair, then, is a reminder to the viewer of her using her hair to bathe Christ's feet. Her long hair covering a naked body reminds the viewer of the life of sin of the
woman who sold her body for sex.
The space between her hands reminds us of the Noli Me Tangere story; the hands do not touch because Christ had said, "No not touch me."
Her lifted praying hands also remind the viewer of her penitence after Christ's death, her desire for absolution from her sinful past life. The emaciation of her body shows a turning away from the life of the body to the life of the spirit, the fasting of the saint in the desert. Her brown skin and nakedness reflect her life outside worldly comforts, without clothes or protection from the sun. The length of her hair suggests the long life she has endured after witnessing the death and Resurrection of someone she loved and believed in. Her hands and mouth offer up a prayer that her suffering be at an end.
The viewer of Donatello's Magdalene cannot help but be moved, by her age, by her wistfulness, by her longing, by her anxious gaze. Donatello lived with his mother all his life in a small place near the Florentine Baptistery. His mother's name was Orsa Bardi, so Magdalene was not
her name saint, but we cannot help but see the aging of his own mother in this work. He has filled this wooden statue with a life that has been lived long and hard, softened only by single wisps of hair along the cheeks. He knew how to portray a penitent Magdalene who readies herself for the life of the spirit after death because he had watched his own mother grow old and leave her flesh behind. If her hair is turning to gold, Donatello wishes it so.
We are not the only viewers to be moved by his depiction of Magdalene. In his own century,
artists reproduced in paint the gaunt, hair-covered figure out of tribute to the master who made her:
Pollaiuolo, Assumption of Mary Magdalene, S.Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, Florence, 1470's.
church of Santa Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence.