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Gregor Erhart | La Belle Allemande, 1515-1520

This unusual figure represents saint Mary Magdalene as a mystic ascetic. According to legend, the repentant sinner lived a secluded life in the cave of Sainte-Baume, clothed only by her hair.
Every day she was raised up in the sky by angels to hear the heavenly chorus. The statue appeared on the German art market in the 19th century and was purchased by the Louvre in 1902.

1945: James Rorimer devant la statue Eve, trois tableaux de Cranach et trois Rembrandt dans une salle du dépôt de Berchtesgaden. Sur la gauche, la statue de Gregor Erhart, Sainte Marie Madeleine, dite aussi La Belle Allemande. | Photo by Horace Abrahams/Getty Images

A statue seen in the round

The saint was originally held up by carved angels. Encased in an oval metal structure, the wooden statue was suspended from the vault of a church, perhaps the church of saint Mary Magdalene in the Dominican convent of Augsburg, which was rebuilt in 1513-15.

It must have been seen in the round, since the back is as carefully carved and colored as the front. The statue was later taken down and the angels were removed.

Between Gothic and Renaissance

This Mary Magdalene is attributed to Gregor Erhart (1470-1540) through comparison with the Virgin of Mercy of Kaisheim carved by the sculptor in 1502-03 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, destroyed in 1945).
Trained in Ulm, in Swabia, by his father Michael Erhart (mentioned in Ulm from 1469-1522), Gregor moved to Augsburg in 1494 where he became an important master sculptor.
The generous, refined style of Saint Mary Magdalene, her peaceful grace and gentle face are indeed part of the Swabian late-Gothic tradition.
But the thrusting hip, which suggests a classical contrapposto, the harmonious proportions, and the fullness of the naked female body reveal knowledge of Dürer's work and a search for formal beauty that is specific to the Renaissance.
Gregor Erhart's genius was to interpret the traditional image of the saint being carried to heaven by angels in an unprecedented manner in sculpture.
Far from the Gothic convention of a thin, unreal figure, he reveals feminine curves, scarcely hidden by the rippling mane of golden hair which flows over her shoulders and spreads across her back.
The modeling of the body - the slight hollows of tensed muscles and faint grooves on the fleshy parts - shows great sensitivity. The beauty of the face, with its firm regular features chiseled from the lime wood with great subtlety, is accentuated by the original polychromy, which is pale and very refined in the Gothic tradition.

The carnal presence of this life-sized statue must have been very imposing in the church. But the sensual, almost profane image that it offers today, bereft of its carved angels, should be tempered.
The languid pose and the meditative expression are intended to convey the penitent's mystic ecstasy, while her marvelous beauty and glossy golden locks are meant to evoke her holy radiance.
The conception of this female figure is thus in phase with the spiritual content of the religious image, idealized in the medieval tradition.
Gregor Erhart here produced his masterpiece, a brilliant creation of Nordic humanism in the late Middle Ages, on the threshold of the Renaissance. | © Musée du Louvre

Gregor Erhart (1470-1540) è stato uno scultore Tedesco in legno ed in pietra di formazione tardo gotica e successivamente influenzato dallo stile rinascimentale.
Santa Maria Maddalena, scultura policroma in tiglio del 1510, è una delle più famose, si trova al Musée du Louvre.
Rappresentata come un'asceta mistica, penitente, vestita soltanto dei suoi capelli, vissuta nella Grotta di Sainte-Baume. Ogni giorno un coro d'angeli, lo sollevava per udire il coro celeste.
Così fu inizialmente rappresentata sostenuta dagli angeli e sospesa sulla volta della Chiesa, molto probabilmente quella a lei dedicata nel collegio domenicano di Augusta, costruita nei primi anni del 1500. Nel 1900 la statua apparve sul mercato d'arte tedesco e quindi acquistata dal Musée du Louvre ma privata degli angeli che furono rimossi.
Privata degli angeli, ci appare oggi come immagine sensuale, quasi profana. L'espressione meditativa e la posa languida, sono destinate a trasmettere l'estasi mistica della penitente, mentre la sua meravigliosa bellezza e i riccioli d'oro, hanno lo scopo di evocare la sua grandezza di santa. Una creazione geniale di umanesimo nordico, nel tardo medioevo.