The Early Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello was born in Florence, Italy in the late 14th century. After working with others and on a few of his own projects, Donatello started to develop his own style that moved away from Gothic and more towards a classical style.
In about 1457, Donatello created the sculpture of his version of Mary Magdalene. The Bible tells the story of Mary being a woman of sin, or a prostitute, who was delivered from the bondage of seven demons by Jesus Christ. At one point in her life, Mary Magdalene chose to live in a remote cave as a sort of hermit, “surviving solely on heavenly nourishment.” She eventually became one of Jesus’s most devoted followers and also the leader of a group of female disciples; she herself being considered a very special disciple. She and her group of female disciples can often be seen depicted in Christian paintings at the base of the cross during the Crucifixion of Christ.
There are some versions of the story of Mary Magdalene that contradict the others and speculate that she was, in fact, the wife of Christ and bore his children. This version contradicts the others because of the fact that most have her witnessing the resurrection of Christ on the third day, and she was so happy that she became a virgin once again.
In the early days of the Renaissance in Florence, the image of Mary Magdalene was popular with the mendicant orders- the Franciscans and the Dominicans for example. She was considered the perfect example of a devout faith in God and Jesus Christ, therefore, she was the perfect symbol for all other women of the faith. This could be one potential influence for Donatello’s creation of his Mary Magdalene. There is also speculation that he was commissioned to create the sculpture for the convent at Santa Maria di Castello, where prostitutes went to stay and repent for their sins.
Donatello’s depiction of Mary is quite striking in the fact that he has shown her in the state she would have been in while she was living her days out as a hermit in some remote cave. Her face and entire body appear almost completely emaciated and gaunt, and she is in a stance/gesture of piety. Her physical being is meant to trigger emotion in any Christian who looks at it; Donatello clearly meant to make a statement with this piece. Mary’s face shows the struggle of spending her time alone and starving in the cave, but also shows her complete look of determination and devotion to her faith.
The sculpture is about two meters tall and is made out of wood. Mary appears to be dressed in rags but it almost seems as if her hair flows into her garment. The stories about her say that she was known for her long, flowing hair. Her hands are held out in front of her, pressed together in a gesture of piety.
Donatello’s depiction of Mary caused some speculation at first and still does because she is generally shown as young and beautiful with her long, blonde hair. Also, because her purpose was most likely to be placed in a convent that supported the repentance of prostitutes.