The sculptor Donatello was a pioneer of the Italian Renaissance, literally a ‘rebirth” of Greco Roman ideals of reason and beauty. His bronze statue of David standing dreamily over the severed head of Goliath was one of the most influential works in art history – the first “beautiful” nude and first life-size, free standing sculpture since the fall of Rome.
The fees for Donatello’s prolific commissions are heavily documented in Florentine archives, but little else is known about him except that he was apprenticed to a leading sculptor and goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and became a friend and protégé of the powerful merchant prince Cosimo de’ Medici. Pugnacious, bearded faces (including that of Goliath) in several of his works may have been self-portraits. The erotic aura of his startling young David has led to speculation that Donatello was a pederast. Despite homosexuality being both illegal and persecuted, there was evidently a thriving gay subculture in Florence, clustered around the salons of Neoplatonic philosophy. It was from this sophisticated milieu promoting Greek love that Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo would emerge.
Donatello’s chief sculptures are of men: resolute Saint George in armor; grim Habakkuk (Zuccone), an Old Testament prophet; vigorous Gattamelata, a mercenary warlord astride his splendid charger. Donatello’s two most important female sculptures have masculine attributes: the Hebrew heroine Judith, raising a heavy scimitar over the languid body of an enemy general; and Mary Magdalene, standing watch with her square jaw, lopped bangs, sinewy calves, and boyish biceps.
The wooden statue of Mary Magdalene is so harsh and imposing (over six feet tall) that it often draws gasps from people seeing it for the first time. Donatello apparently executed it upon his return to Florence in 14534 after a ten-year stay in Padua. It marks a radical shift in style from his prior work. Nothing here appeals to or seduces the eye; on the contrary, we sense a despairing recoil from the physical. Donatello abandons nearly all his classical formulas and invokes instead the ghoulishness of northern European late Gothic, with its frightful apparitions of devils and gargoyles. In contrast, a work produced fifteen years earlier, his wooden statue of the ascetic John the Baptist, shows the fiery saint speaking and proselytizing, expressively engaged with other people.
In the Gospels, Mary of the Galilean town of Magdala is a devoted disciple who appears at key moments in Jesus’s story. Roman Catholics (but not all Christians) identify her with an adulteress whom Jesus saves from stoning and with the woman from who he casts out seven demons. She anoints his feet with precious oil, stands with his mother and Saint John at the foot of the cross, helps to discover Jesus’s empty tomb, and is the first to see him after his resurrection. The idea that Mary was a prostitute began in a medieval sermon by Pope Gregory the Great. Legend claimed that Mary Magdalene accompanied the Virgin Mary to Ephesus, where they died, or to southern France, where Mary Magdalene became a hermit in a cave. European art has often shown her as voluptuous, half-naked penitent with flowing red or blonde hair, its loosening and exposure signifying both her promiscuity and her contrition.
Donatello’s gaunt Mary Magdalene, his last know statue, is one of the most extreme surviving depictions of this saint. Carved from white poplar wood with details in plaster gesso, the statue was once painted and its auburn hair gilt. A flat brown paint, applied for protection long afterward, hid the colors (including Mary’s blue eyes) for centuries. During the catastrophic 1966 flooding of Florence’s Arno River, muddy, oily waters broke into the Baptistery and submerged the statue, dissolving its dull coating and revealing tantalizing traces of Donatello’s original polychrome. During restoration, the saint’s diadem, added decades after Donatello’s death and visible in many photographs, was not reattached.
What was Donatello, then in his late sixties, announcing to Florence by this stunning work? Taste in the city had become far prettier, more delicate and refined, as in the ceramic sculptures of children by Desiderio da Settignano. Was the aging Donatello, as divine judgment loomed, renouncing his past sexual adventures and proclaiming his remorse? There is a harrowing sense of isolation and desolation in his Mary. Is she a self-portrait? – capturing a feminine sensitivity beneath his masculine, muscular brashness. Or is this wizened, gap-toothed crone the artists own grieving mother, burdened by his notorious escapades and refusal to marry and doing penance for her son’s sins?
Draped in her long mass of hair, Mary Magdalene seems frozen in place, consumed with agonizing thought. She is a sleepless sentinel, like Jesus at Gethsemane. Her staring eyes are sunk in deep hollows, while her mouth gaps in dementia or shock. Her nasal muscles constrict and retract, as if she were stifling sobs or repulsed by a bad smell, the stench of mortality which similarly afflicts Hamlet. Her skull, like a memento mori, is surfacing through her sunken cheeks. Fasting has stripped away her female curves. There are emaciated, nearly skeletal Buddhas in Asian art, but they are images of contemplative ecstasy with none of the squalor and degradation seen here. Mary is a pariah, both feeling and causing disgust. She has been reduced to near-animal existence, shown by her foot gripping the rock edge like a bear claw.
That Mary Magdalene is sculpted of perishable wood, rather than Donatello’s usual costly bronze or marble, alludes to the Cross as well as to earthly decay: her spirit is crucified on the flesh that betrayed her. Her cascade of hair, tied rope-like at her waist (as on a monk’s robe), seems liquid –as if she were bathing in her own tears. With her weathered, leathery skin (unlike the fine white alabaster of Florentine ladies), she seems like a stony outcropping, beaten by the elements. Her still graceful hands, with their elongated fingers, almost meet in prayer, like a Gothic arch. But time has stopped in a moment of self-recognition or doubt. Perhaps she is paralyzed by a fiery vision, the annihilation of the damned. She is like Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at God’s destruction of the wicked Cities of the Plain. Was Donatello saying, through Mary, that he too had looked back and seen his own Sodom burn?
Glittering Images; A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia; Pantheon Books, N.Y. 2012