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Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Donatello, Mary Magdalene, c. 1455, wood, 188 cm (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral in Florence, looking at a sculpture by Donatello. This is "Mary Magdalene," and it's unusual in that it's wood. - [Beth] Wood is softer than stone, easier to sculpt, and often is painted and looks very lifelike and therefore can have an emotional impact that stone or bronze doesn't have. With Donatello, we might think about his bronze figure of David, or we might think about his stone sculpture of St. George. - [Steven] But wood feels more organic. It feels, in a sense, more like flesh. - [Beth] So we're looking at the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, who appears in the gospels as a close follower of Christ, someone who loves Christ, and someone who is also a sinner, specifically associated with the sin of prostitution. - [Steven] And although Mary Magdalene is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, most of what we understand of Mary Magdalene's life has developed over time. And what we're seeing in Donatello's sculpture is a woman who fulfills the 15th century understanding of Mary Magdalene rather than an understanding that is based only on the gospels. - [Beth] Often in art history, we see Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, very emotional, weeping, sometimes even embracing the cross itself. We often see her in scenes of lamentation by the feet of Christ, recognizable by her long hair. We also see her in scenes of the entombment. And we also know that Mary was the first person to see Christ after his resurrection, and she goes to touch him, and he says, "Don't touch me, for I have not yet arisen." - [Steven] But what's so interesting is that Mary Magdalene is one figure in a narrative, in an ongoing story. But what Donatello has done is to isolate her, to remove all of that narrative apparatus and all of the figures that traditionally surround her so that she stands alone. - [Beth] There is an earlier altarpiece here in Florence that shows the standing figure of Mary Magdalene alone, but that image is surrounded by stories of her life. - [Steven] Since so much has been stripped away from her, what is left to identify her? She's dressed only in her incredibly long hair, which is a traditional attribute of this figure. - [Beth] According to the stories of Mary Magdalene, after Christ's death, she spends 30 years in the wilderness repenting, living the life of a ascetic. So it makes sense to me that she is so thin and so frail. This is a figure for whom the spiritual is everything. And the way that Donatello depicts her reminds us of the primacy of the spiritual over the physical. - [Steven] He's attenuating the body. Look at the length of the hands that comes together in prayer, but the fingers don't quite touch, creating this beautiful volume in between those hands. And notice the way that the artist brings locks of her hair across her face, accentuating her already high cheekbones. By this time in Donatello's career, the artist fully understood the anatomy of the body and how to portray a body in perfect proportion, even having explored the way in which the ancient Romans had understood the human body. But here, the artist is taking that knowledge and then willfully distorting the body, attenuating her, making her much longer than a normal human being would be. And he's doing this for a specific emotional effect. - [Beth] Mary Magdalene is often represented repenting for her sins with her hands in prayer, but she's still beautiful. She's still young. And I think the decision to represent her as old, as emaciated is a really radical decision. This almost willful turning away from anything sensuous, anything beautiful very much speaks to this issue of Mary Magdalene's repentance. It reminds me of figures of the Buddha, who spend many years as an ascetic, looking for transcendence, often shown emaciated. And I think the central tension in this sculpture is between the frailty of her body and at the same time these arms, her upper arms especially, which look youthful and strong. And so there's this tension between a kind of strength and a kind of physical frailty. I think we're meant to identify with her as a model of how one can sin, but still be forgiven and attain salvation and eternal life in heaven. This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult Renaissance sculptures, and I'm not surprised that it's by Donatello, who was often interested in depicting the intensity of human emotion. (upbeat jazz music)