Donatello carried on the tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as a figure from history that was perceived to have had long flowing hair. Although there were other images of the cave-dwelling saint in the 13th and 14th century depicting her as being attractive, Donatello decided to carve and mould the saint in a punitive state; ravaged and emaciated from living a life of fasting and solitude.
The Penitent Magdalene by Donatello is thought to have ended depictions of Mary Magdalene as being attractive and influenced other artists to render her in a more unfavourable tone for decades later.
In the early 15th century, when Donatello sculpted this figure, there was a push by the Roman Catholic Church to promote penitence amongst the faithful. This influence can be clearly seen by the posture of the Penitent Magdalene, her hands nearly joining, as if in prayer, her open mouth like she is begging for forgiveness.
Previous depictions of Mary Magdalene’s long flowing hair were a sign of her beauty, but Donatello decided to give her hair a matted and unkempt look thus taking beauty from her and keeping her more in line with the churches change of opinion of her.
The hair on the sculpture doesn’t fall smoothly but more in matted ropes, sticking to her face and clinging to her wasted body and the absence of feminine features highlighted by the belt around her thin waist.
To construct life-sized figures, Donatello and other artists from that time used one solid piece of wood to start with. These life-sized figures were usually hollowed out but not in Donatello's carvings, which pointed to the fact that Donatello had not been trained in woodworking techniques, so was free from restrictions that more classically trained artists found themselves bound by. What is evident though, is the fact that Donatello grasped and understood the problems that came with working with wood on this sort of scale.
The position of the figure in the trunk of wood was done in such an ingenious way, it brought the chance of the wood cracking down to a minimum. Previously artists had shaped the figure then hollowed out the pith at the centre to minimise cracking but since Donatello had not been trained in such techniques, he solved the problem in his own unique way.
He shaped the main body of the work from white poplar wood and the finer points were then finished with gesso (stucco). What is striking about the Penitent Magdalene by Donatello is the height of the carving (188cm) and that some of the strands of hair are either individually or partially modelled.
This came to light after the carving was damaged in the Florentine flood of 1966. During the restoration of the flood-damaged carving, it was discovered that the Penitent Magdalene is essentially a nude figure with strands of hair nailed or pinned to the main body of the carving.
Sometime between 1400 and 1410, before he created the Penitent Magdalene, Donatello created a Crucifix for the Franciscan basilica of Sante Croce. It is regarded as his first masterpiece as a truly independent artist and was completely carved from a solid piece of pear wood.
The work that he executed on that piece may have influenced how he proceeded with the work that he carried out on the Penitent Magdalene. There is no doubt that some artists of the Renaissance at the time were eager to emulate Donatello and it was rumoured that both he and the artist Filippo Brunelleschi were in a contest to produce the best Crucifix.
Brunelleschi did carve a crucifix from pear wood as well, but this was done later to Donatello’s, between 1410 and 1415. The use of pear wood was an uncommon wood to be used in Tuscany at the time and the fact that his crucifix was also not hollowed out does leave credence to the fact he may have been trying to better Donatello using the same techniques.
The Penitent Magdalene by Donatello can be said to have influenced how artists carved and modelled for decades after. The complete crucifix carvings from solid wood by Donatello and Brunelleschi show that both had the capabilities to complete carvings without hollowing out wood.
The fact that Donatello used both carving and modelling showed to other artists that the experimentation of the Florence Renaissance and some independent thinking could indeed produce astounding works of art.