On Gilded Ugliness: Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen and Issues of Beauty, Sanctity, and Sexuality in Fifteenth Century Florence
By Theresa Huntley
Master’s Thesis, Queen’s University, 2008
Abstract: The sins of the flesh and the mortification of the flesh characterize the biography of the saint known as Mary Magdalen. The polychrome wooden sculpture by Donatello from c.1455 was described by Vasari as: “wasted away by her fastings and abstinence.” The extreme emaciation of the figure contrasts with the image of the beautiful and mournful Magdalen frequently seen at the foot of the cross in medieval crucifixion scenes. With virtually no documentation concerning its commission, much of the scholarship on this particular piece focuses on dating and the intended installation site.
This thesis aims to examine the relationship between the emaciated style and the manner of polychromy in Donatello’s Penitent Magdalen as an example of the redeeming power of penance. On a figure known for a life of sin and prostitution but also redemption, the gilding juxtaposed with a haggard and ugly body creates a dynamic relationship between sanctity and beauty (or the lack thereof) and demonstrates the effect of penance on the sinner. The extreme emaciation and rough finish of the piece, in tandem with the gilding of the hair, created an effect of light that was significant to the Renaissance understanding of the saint’s character but also to a larger discourse on female sexuality and spirituality. The multifaceted character of Mary Magdalen and Donatello’s depiction of her was understood by Quattrocento Florentines on a variety of levels. Higher social classes would readily grasp the sculpture’s affinity with Petrarchan tropes and philosophical ideas, particularly in terms of light imagery and descriptions of love.
But the average viewer would also make more prosaic associations between the figure of the Magdalen and popular preaching and prostitution. Through an examination of the cultural climate of fifteenth century Florence, this investigation will situate Donatello’s uniquely emaciated and gilded sculpture in the visual tradition of Magdalen imagery, motifs of female spirituality in Donatello’s career, the literary tradition of describing female beauty, and societal concerns about prostitution and female sexuality.