The great Florentine sculptor Donatello of the early Renaissance is known for his work in stone, but the image below demonstrates he could deal with wood too! The carving portrays Mary Magdalene after years as an ascetic hermit, living in a cave and doing without in penitence for her life of sin. In the good old southern Protestant tradition in which I was raised, we all knew Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, the first to proclaim of Jesus “he is risen” after he rejoined his heavenly father. Would it surprise you to discover that the major religions are not exactly in agreement about this interpretation, and that she has been viewed very differently through the years? She is considered a saint by many religions, is one of the most frequently named women in the Bible, and in the years after the crucifixion was frequently cited as the “apostle to the Apostles”…but never specifically identified as a lady of the night. Indeed, it was not until 591 that Pope Gregory the Great first ventured the opinion that she was a member of the oldest profession. The story may have gained traction as it was useful in reinforcing a point the church was trying to get across…that the way to salvation was through acknowledging and repenting your sins, and here was a poster child that already had brand recognition among the faithful. It was not until 1969 that the Vatican quietly backed away from that interpretation, though that’s not to say that all other religions have necessarily followed suit. In any case, whether the subject was a lady of sporting morality or not is beside the point to me in regarding the art…it remains a powerful portrayal of the human condition, and a monument to an artist nearing the end of his life but obviously still in full command of his gift.