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Donatello, Mary Magdalene, c. 1455, wood, 188 cm (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano music) Man: We're in the museum of the Duomo in Florence and we're looking at a Donatello. It's not marble. It's not bronze. It's wood. It looks so frail. It's a sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Woman: It's a very difficult sculpture to look at because it's ugly. Mary Magdalene is shown as a hermit with her hands about to be clasped in prayer and she's old and wrinkled. Her body is exposed to us. She's got these muscular arms. Man: But thin also. Woman: The skin on her chest and neck, and her face look like the skin of an old woman. It's difficult to look at. Man: I think it's difficult because there is a whole series of contrast that we're not used to being shown in sculpture. You have a body that clearly was once very beautiful. She's got high cheek bones. She's tall and graceful. But you're right. The body has weathered. This life has taken its toll. And it's almost as if she's wasted away. All that's left is a pure spirituality. The kind of pure faith. She's clothed only in her very long hair, which is one of her attributes. When we see a woman by, for instance, Christ's feet with long red hair we know that's Mary Magdalene. Here that hair has grown out. In fact, even her belt is actually her hair wrapped around her. I think it's so interesting the choice of materials. I started out by saying this is wood. There's something about the organic quality of wood and its frailty, it's ability to soften, to rot, that seems somehow appropriate here. Woman: Actually I'm amazed that it's in as good condition as it is given the fact that it's wood. Man: Now if you look you can see that it's been painted. It's been guilded. You can see that long hair had been painted red and gold and there are traces of that, that are still left. There's a look on her face, which is so intense and yet at the same time almost as if she has left this earth already. Woman: I see this very much as part of Donatello's interest in the specifics of an individual, just like we saw with Habakkuk. This really intense specificity that's so different than the gothic and the medieval and deep sympathy for humanity that comes out of humanism of the early Renaissance. Man: His sympathy is infectious. There's however kind of power here as well. Her hands are so long and so elegant, they almost create a kind of cathedral as she brings them together. She is the church itself in some ways. She's an enormously important figure. She sees Christ first when he is resurrected. She is the figure that sees him crucified, that doesn't run away as so many of his followers did. Woman: And she's someone who makes a very direct choice to leave a worldly life, to leave a life of the sensuality of the world for the spiritual. Man: Think about how important that is as a message in Florence in the fifteenth century when you have a culture that has put enormous emphasis on material luxury, and here is somebody that functions as a conscience to the city. You know, there's something else that's interesting though. This is a late sculpture by Donatello. He's left behind the proportional accuracy of say Saint Mark. This is a figure that is almost gothic again in the length of her body. There is a willingness here to put front and center this spirituality and the symbolism of the figure as opposed to emphasizing the anatomical accuracy. Woman: Although she still stands in contropposto still there is that attention to the body that can only come from the early Renaissance. Man: It is Donatello in a sense playing loose with his own rules. (piano music)