What on earth was Donatello thinking when he created this portrait of Mary Magdalene?

Ever since the early church fathers libeled her as a reformed prostitute, on no scriptural evidence whatsoever — the idea popped into their little patriarchal heads about 500 years after the death of Jesus — artists have loved depicting the Magdalene as a babe repenting over her checkered sexual past.

Donatello’s Magdalene is no babe — she’s a human ruin in old age. It’s hard to imagine that she is still looking back in wracking despair at the sins of her youth, especially since she has in the intervening years had her sins washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb.

Perhaps she is recalling, as she must have often, the horror of Calvary, when she saw her beloved teacher murdered on a cross. Perhaps she is reliving the sorrow of preparing the rabbi’s broken body for burial.

According to the Gospels of Mark and John, Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus.  Perhaps she has, at the time Donatello chooses to portray her, outlived all the other witnesses to the miracle and thus feels a kind of existential aloneness as the last of those who can testify to it from direct experience.

Whatever Donatello was thinking, he has created the most powerful and haunting image of the Magdalene in all of art.

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