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Duccio, Maestà

Duccio, Maestà, 1308–11, tempera and gold leaf on wood, 7 x 13 feet (Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena)

A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Contemporaneous description of the procession that brought this painting to Siena Cathedral:

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).
Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(slow piano music) - [Steven] 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". - [Beth] The title means the Virgin Mary in majesty. - [Steven] And we see her very large in the center. She is by far the largest figure anywhere in this painting. - [Beth] This is a polyptych. It's made out of many panels, not all of which are here in the museum, unfortunately. The "Maesta's" 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. - [Steven] So in a sense, this is a free-standing painting. It is this large sculptural object that has imagery all over it. - [Beth] The saints and prophets and angels are almost life size. - [Steven] There are local saints in front and then angels and saints in the second row. And I think an unbroken row of angels in the back. Now we would've originally seen a predella below. That is a step of small paintings. And then above the large panel, there would've been a series of scenes as well. We think that the predella held scenes of the early life of the Virgin Mary, and then above, her death and ascent into Heaven. - [Beth] And then there would've been a really elaborate frame. - [Steven] In the previous century, Siena had won a significant battle against its arch rival, Florence. Now both Siena and Florence were wealthy city states that is they were independent nations, and they were often at war with each other. Siena 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've stood exactly on the altar of the cathedral in the crossing, just under the dome. As you approached 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. - [Beth] And I think they proved that they did something that rivals what Giotto did in the Arena Chapel. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] 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 alter piece. - [Steven] And 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 pray to the Virgin Mary and she would perhaps speak to her son on your behalf. - [Beth] She had the role of an intercessor or someone who intercedes between God and mankind. - [Steven] As is traditional, she is garbed in this intense blue, which must have been fabulously expensive, given all the lapis that would've been required to produce that ultramarine paint. There is this beautiful embroidered gold in the straight behind her. - [Beth] There are a lot of decorative surfaces. That was something that was particular to the Sienese style. - [Steven] There is a 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 consciously towards creating a sense of real mass and real volume. - [Beth] The drapery around Christ is so softly and beautifully modeled. Look at how Christ with his left hand pulls at the drapery 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. - [Steven] 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 conscious adult. - [Beth] The angels are remarkably animated. Some look at Mary, some look away, some look at us. There's a kind of informality. - [Steven] It's true. That informality is so unexpected. - [Beth] You would expect something a lot more rigid. This is the court of Heaven after all. I'm also noticing the lovely curls that make up the wings of the angels that somehow actually start to almost feel like feathers. - [Steven] They create a sense of volume. Those wings are not flat. - [Beth] And if we look down we see the throne opening out, moving into our space. - [Steven] In the medieval era, cathedrals and churches in general were not open for people to walk through as they are now. And the lay people, that is everyday people, would have gone to the front of the church, only. The area of the altar, the back of the church would've been reserved for those that were associated directly with the church. And it's interesting to think about the "Maesta" in relationship to this. It meant that the public would've had access to the side of the painting that focused on the Virgin Mary. - The intercessor. - That's right. - [Beth] Between man and the divine. - [Steven] A more privileged view perhaps, was available to the monks, to the priests, to those that were associated directly with the church. Let's walk around to the back and take a look at those panels. The back of the "Maesta" is astonishing. It's every bit as large as the front, but has many, many more panels. - [Beth] But Duccio isn't conceiving of each one entirely separately. He's thinking about how to unify all of these scenes together and make them really legible for a viewer. - [Steven] A great example of that is if you look at the three central scenes. At the bottom, you have Christ in the garden. He's asking his apostles to remain awake while he has a private meditation with God. But after the apostles left, where you see them a second time, this time fast asleep, not having heeded his request at all. I do want to make note of the three central trees in that image. Those trees are echoed in the image just above, which is the arrest of Christ. This is the betrayal, and you can see Judas who has already been paid pieces of silver by the Roman authorities to identify Christ with a kiss. You see Christ being abandoned by his followers, or most of them, who flee. But Peter comes to his rescue. And on the left side, you can see Peter taking out his knife and slicing off the ear of one of them. - [Beth] So we have a continuous narrative in both of those panels. - [Steven] We do, especially since we see those trees the second time and this is a vertical orientation. The trees themselves are vertical. They are echoed in both scenes, but what's most interesting, I think, is if you go one more step up, you see a double height scene, and this is the crucifixion. Now of course the crucifixion is incredibly important and so is given much more room, but those three trees now have become three crosses. - [Beth] So Duccio is thinking about ways that he can visually bring the scenes together, uniting formal elements between the panels. - [Steven] Let's take a look at the first double panel. You might think about it the way that an illuminated manuscript will sometimes have a large opening capital letter. - [Beth] It gives us an idea of where to begin. - [Steven] That's right. - [Beth] This is the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. And we see Christ entering rather humbly into the gates of Jerusalem. And we can identify Christ 'cause he's larger than the other figures and wears a halo. - [Steven] He's riding in on a donkey. All the elements that are delineated in the gospels are here. You have people in the trees who are there to take a look. You have people laying down cloth before him in honor of his arrival. - [Beth] It's a triumphant entry. - [Steven] It really is. You can see his apostles following behind him and the people of the city literally pouring out of the gates. - [Beth] In order to give us a sense of a real crowd coming to see Christ, you'll notice that there's actually a reverse perspective because the figures in the back are larger than the figures in the foreground and also higher, which would not be the case in correct perspective. But Duccio's given this wonderful impression of a real crowd of people pressing to see Christ and his followers entering Jerusalem. - [Steven] There does seem to be a love of architecture and the rendering of architecture almost for its own sake. I mean, look at those beautiful lancet windows. - [Beth] And it's this interesting combination of architecture and a space for the figures to occupy, but then also this gold background that indicates the heavenly and the spiritual. So this mixture of both. - [Steven] You mentioned the gold background, and as you look across, not just this panel, but all of the panels on the back of the "Maesta", not to mention the panels on the front of the "Maesta", there is just an enormous amount of gold. It is literally a treasure. And one can only imagine what it would've looked like in the stark white and black marble space of the cathedral. Unfortunately, this painting was taken off of the altar and was ultimately in the 18th century, cut up for private purchase. This was a moment when the so-called Italian primitives became sought after by some collectors. The result is we don't have all the paintings in Siena but many of them are scattered in museums around the world. There is one panel, for example, at the Frick Collection. And it would be lovely to understand these paintings in one place. (gentle music)