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Duccio, Maesta (front), 1308-11 (Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

During this period, and for hundreds of years, Italy was not a unified country, but rather was divided into many small countries we call city-states. Florence, Siena, Milan, Venice—these were essentially independent nations with their own governments—and they were at war with each other. These city-states also had independent cultures with their own distinct styles in painting and sculpture. Siena had a unique style that emphasized decorative surfaces, sinuous lines, elongated figures and the heavy use of gold. Duccio was the founder of the Sienese style and his work was quite different from the Florentine painter Giotto. Giotto emphasized a greater naturalism—creating figures who are more monumental (large, heavy and with a greater sense of accurate proportion) and a greater illusion of three-dimensional space. 

Contemporaneous description of the procession that brought this painting to Siena Cathedral (or Duomo):

At this time the altarpiece for the high altar was finished and the picture which was called the "Madonna with the large eyes" or Our Lady of Grace, that now hangs over the altar of St. Boniface, was taken down. Now this Our Lady was she who had hearkened to the people of Siena when the Florentines were routed at Monte Aperto, and her place was changed because the new one was made, which is far more beautiful and devout and larger, and is painted on the back with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. And on the day that it was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession, accompanied by the nine signiors, and all the officers of the commune, and all the people, and one after another the worthiest with lighted candles in their hands took places near the picture, and behind came the women and children with great devotion. And they accompanied the said picture up to the Duomo, making the procession around the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture as this. And this picture Duccio di Niccolò the painter made, and it was made in the house of the Muciatti outside the gate aStalloreggi. And all that day persons, praying God and His Mother, who is our advocate, to defend us by their infinite mercy from every adversity and all evil, and keep us from the hands of traitors and of the enemies of Siena. (English translation: Charles Eliot Norton, Historical Studies of Church-Buildings in the Middle Ages: Venice, Siena, Florence (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880), 144-45; Italian text: G. Milanesi, Documenti per la storia dell'arte senese (Siena: 1854, I), 169)

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in the museum of the Cathedral of Siena and we're looking at, probably the single most famous work of art from Siena. Certainly one of the most important works of art from the 14th Century. This is Duccio's Maesta. Dr. Harris: The title means The Virgin Mary in Majesty. Dr. Zucker: We see her very large, in the center of the main panel. She is by far the largest figure anywhere in this painting. Dr. Harris: This is a polyptic, it's made out of many, many panels, not all of which are here in the museum unfortunately. The Maesta is painted on both the front and the back, so Mary's on the front and stories of Mary's life are on the front, but the story of Christ is on the back. Dr. Zucker: In a sense, this is a freestanding painting, it is this large sculptural object that has all of this imagery all over it. Dr. Harris: The figures, the Saint's, and Prophets, and angel's are almost life-size. Dr. Zucker: It's true, there are three rows of them and they're lined up almost as if it were for a class picture. There are four local Saint's in front and then angels and Saint's in the second row and I think an unbroken row of angels in the back. We would have originally seen a predella below. That is a step of small paintings and then above the large panel there would have been a series of scenes as well. We think that the predella would have held scenes of the early life of the Virgin Mary. Then above, her death and ascent into Heaven. Dr. Harris: And there would have been a really elaborate frame. Dr. Zucker: In the previous century, Siena had won a significant battle against it's arch rival, Florence. Now, both Siena and Florence were wealthy city states and as they were independent nations. They were often at war with each other. Siena had believed that they won because of the grace of Mary. Many years later, the town of Siena, commissioned their most famous painter, Duccio, to create a very large painting dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It would have stood exactly on the altar of the Cathedral, in the crossing, just under the dome. As you approach the high altar you would be able to make out, just at the bottom, an inscription that read, "Holy Mother of God, be the cause of peace "to Siena and to the life of Duccio, "because he has painted thee, thus." Now, Siena was very much a competitor with Florence and the great Florentine painter of the day was Giotto. He had painted a major cycle telling the story of the Virgin Mary, of Christ's parents, of Christ, himself, and in some ways the Maesta was a kind of answer to that; We can do this too, we can be as comprehensive and have a masterpiece. Dr. Harris: I think they proved that, they did something that rivals what Giotto did in the Arena Chapel. Dr. Zucker: But while Giotto's painting was fresco, fresco didn't make sense for the Cathedral of Siena because the Cathedral of Siena is made of alternating blocks of black and white marble. Dr. Harris: It has a very decorative interior that wouldn't have worked with fresco and so it made sense to do a panel painting for the altar piece. Dr. Zucker: You have to remember that at the end of the Medieval, Mary had taken on an enormously important role. She was the bridge that normal people could access Christ through. You would speak and pray to the Virgin Mary and she would perhaps speak to her son on your behalf. Dr. Harris: Right, she had the role of an intercessor or someone who intercedes between God and mankind. Dr. Zucker: As is traditional, she is garbed in this intense blue, which must have been fabulously expensive given all the Lapis that would have been required to produce that ultramarine paint. There is this beautiful embroidered gold in this drape behind her. Dr. Harris: There are a lot of decorative surfaces that was something that was particular to the Sienese style. Dr. Zucker: There is a real sense of delicacy and subtlety. Look, for instance, at the clothing that Christ is swaddled in. There's a kind of transparency around his leg, there's a beautiful modulation of light and shadow, there's real chiaroscuro that's being used here, not only striations of gold. This is not the earlier work of Cimabue. This is an artist, Duccio, who's moving steadily and carefully and obviously very conscientiously towards creating a sense of real mask and real volume. Dr. Harris: The drapery around Christ is so softly and beautifully modeled. Look at how Christ with his left hand pulls at the drapery and you see those folds that pull towards him. Dr. Zucker: Yes, that's right. Dr. Harris: And the modeling that we see under Christ's chin and neck. He really is three dimensional in the way that we begin to see artists like Giotto, also in the early 1300s creating forms that are three dimensional. Dr. Zucker: And look at the face of Christ, there is a look of awareness of the kind of wisdom that is piercing. He seems to look directly at us and it is the stare of a fully conscience adult. Dr. Harris: The angels are remarkably animated, some look at Mary, some look away, some look at us; there's a kind of informality. Dr. Zucker: It's true, that informality is so unexpected. Dr. Harris: Yeah, you would expect something a lot more rigid, this is the Court of Heaven after all. Dr. Zucker: Which is really quite wonderful and gives it a sense of complexity. Dr. Harris: I'm also noticing the lovely curls that make up the wings of the angel's that somehow actually start to almost feel like feathers. Dr. Zucker: They create a sense of volume, those wings are not flat. Dr. Harris: If we look down at the ground we see the throne opening out moving into our space. Dr. Zucker: Now remember, in the Medieval era, Cathedral's and churches, in general, were not open for people to walk through as they are now. The lay people, that is every day people, would have gone to the front of the church only. The area of the altar at the back of the church, would have been reserved for those that were associated directly with the church. It's interesting to think about the Maesta in relationship to this. It meant that the public would have had access to the side of the painting that focused on the Virgin Mary. Dr. Harris: The intercessor between man and the divine. Dr. Zucker: But a more privileged view perhaps was available to the monks, to the priest, to those that were associated directly with the church. Let's walk around to the back and take a look at those panels. (piano playing)