The Disconcerting St. Mary Magdalen

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalen, whose life as recounted both in the Gospels as well as in apocryphal stories of her has proven to be an endless source of inspiration to artists over the centuries. In the West in particular, we are accustomed to seeing images of the Magdalen where she is portrayed as a beautiful young woman with long, luxuriant hair. Whereas some of the earliest saints from the canon may be known only by name, with little knowledge of their deeds, Mary Magdalen was not only a source of reflection because of who she was, but also because of where she appears in the Gospels.

Sometimes she is shown alone, in imagined portraits of her accompanied by iconographic indications of her identity, such as in the panel by Piero di Cosimo which I wrote about during Holy Week. The 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour is probably most famous today for his series of reflective solo images of the Magdalen, lit only by a candle, as in the example shown in another piece I had written about this time last year. Other times the Magdalen is shown in action, as it were, based on the artists’ understanding of the Gospels. She may be shown washing the feet of Jesus with her hair, for example, or in older sculptural groups she was often shown clinging to or prostrate at the foot of the cross.

Both these archetypal solo images and group compositions allow the viewer to reflect on a woman whose life changed in a profound way upon her meeting Jesus Christ. However, because of the natural tendency of the true artist to want to create something beautiful, the Magdalen is always shown as a kind of reformed woman of ill-repute. She is always young, beautiful, and often richly dressed or adorned. Christ may have changed her internally, but painters and sculptors tended to show this through her actions or attitudes, rather than her appearance.

This is why, viscerally arresting as it is at first glance, Donatello’s great sculpture of St. Mary Magdalen Penitent reproduced below is such a profound and shocking image for us to consider. Commissioned for the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence and carved circa 1455, this polychrome poplar wood statue is, frankly, horrifying. At the same time it is, strange to say, a hauntingly beautiful image because of what it represents.

Donatello’s Magdalen is portrayed with gaunt features and emaciated limbs; she has apparently lost some of her teeth. Her beautiful, long hair is now matted, dried out, and unkempt; her richly colored silk robes have been replaced by what is probably a shift made of camel’s hair. There is nothing of the proverbial “happy hooker” about this woman to attract us to her. If anything, she reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West from the film version of “The Wizard of Oz”.

In his “Lives of the Artists”, Giorgio Vasari describes the tremendous visual impact this statue made upon artists such as himself: “which is very beautiful and well executed, for she has wasted away by fasting and abstinence to such an extent that every part of her body reflects a perfect and complete understanding of human anatomy.” The stark realism of the sculpture impressed the Florentine public in Donatello’s day as much as it did Vasari, who lived many years later. In his admiration for Donatello’s capturing of the human figure however, Vasari loses sight of the spiritual dimension of the image.

In this piece Donatello reaches within himself to come up with an internal expression of suffering and penitence expressed in a plastic form. One could be forgiven for thinking that this sculpture was, in fact, Spanish, for Spanish polychrome sculpture was very often a no-holds-barred affair when it came to representations of suffering. What Mary Magdalen may have been, Donatello declares in this work, she is no longer: the courtesan has now become the penitent ascetic. Perhaps because he himself had aged, or perhaps because he himself had experienced great suffering in his own life, Donatello was able to get inside the mind of the penitent and reflect what was going on inside himself.

While artists like de la Tour may have titled their paintings “Penitent Magdalen”, there is very little in the way of external suffering in such images. These Magdalens are still plump, attractive, and sensual, so that the change that is occurring within their soul affects them only inwardly. Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen is ravaged by her penitence; her sin has caught up with her and she is ridding herself of it. It may not be pretty to look at, but yet it is exceedingly beautiful that someone could reject the stain of sin to such a degree that they would voluntarily take on this extraordinary amount of suffering.

Today Catholic websites will be flooded with very pretty images of the Magdalen in honor of her feast day, and there is nothing wrong with that. But taking the time to reflect on this decidedly not very pretty image by Donatello would seem to be more to the point in properly honoring St. Mary Magdalen. Our faith ought to make us exceedingly uncomfortable at times, and not fat, lax, and contented.

Over the past several decades many of us Catholics have become Christians co-opted into neo-pagan secularism, and to such a degree, that we push the virtue of suffering into the background, as some sort of unpleasantness from another age which we would rather forget. We abstract or effectively whitewash our crucifixes to show no or as little blood as possible, or we replace them entirely with poorly-executed images of the Risen Christ. We turn the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass into a low quality campfire sing-along, which the poorest-funded Cub Scout Troop would find embarrassing, where all of the songs are about ourselves. We would rather not go to mass at all than have to humble ourselves before the Divine by recognizing our lowly and sinful nature – let alone make the tiniest gesture of genuflecting when we arrive or leave our pew.

None of this exceptionally selfish, ungracious, and flat-out bad behavior is something that The Magdalen would understand. As a witness to the salvation of mankind, hers was a privileged position that brought about a profound change in her, humbling her and leading her to reject the temptations of the world. Ours is a Faith founded upon the blood sacrifice of God Himself, and built up over the centuries by the prayers and suffering of martyrs and penitents. Perhaps we do not have to deprive ourselves to such a degree as shown in this image of the Penitent Magdalen. On the other hand, given the self-satisfied materialism and moral relativism that is, frankly, poisoning Christianity, perhaps there ought to be a movement to place copies of Donatello’s sculpture or holy cards of it in every church.

St. Mary Magdalen Penitent by Donatello, c. 1455
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
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