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Duccio, The Rucellai Madonna

Duccio, The Rucellai Madonna, 1285-86, tempera on panel, 177 x 114" or 450 x 290 cm (Uffizi, Florence) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(smooth jazz piano music) - [Male Narrator] We're in the Uffizi looking at an enormous panel painting. This is by Duccio, and it's known as the "Rucellai Madonna." The Virgin Mary, if she were to stand up, would be three times the height of a normal person. - [Female Narrator] We have to remember that these names, like the "Rucellai Madonna," are not the actual names that these paintings were given when they were made. This painting was later moved to the Rucellai Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. It came to be known as the "Rucellai Madonna." - [Male Narrator] And we're not precisely sure of its original location within the church. We do know that it was made for a confraternity, that is, a group of people who were not priests. - [Female Narrator] They were basically a religious brotherhood. There were many such confraternities in Florence at this time, and they engaged in charitable works. In the case of this confraternity, the Laudesi, who commissioned Duccio to paint this Madonna and child, they were devoted to singing hymns in honor of The Virgin Mary. - [Male Narrator] And they would sing those hymns both within the church and on the streets of Florence. But they wanted a painting to focus their prayer. - [Female Narrator] There's some recent scholarship that suggests where this painting was between two chapels in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, that is, a church whose monks were dedicated to the Dominican order. - [Male Narrator] Followers of St. Dominic. The Dominicans, like the Franciscans, are referred to as mendicants, that is, begging orders. These are people who gave up their worldly possessions in order to be more like Christ. - [Female Narrator] To live in poverty as Christ had recommended. - [Male Narrator] Ironically, these orders became very wealthy, largely because the merchants of Florence became followers and would give them gifts, and this would give them access as well. Access, for instance, to prime real estate close to the high altar within the church, in which they could be buried. - [Female Narrator] And had prayers said for them after their death, prayers that would hopefully release them sooner from purgatory and allow them to get to heaven. - [Male Narrator] This object is something that is possible really only because of the extraordinary wealth that is being generated in the mercantile culture of late 13th century Florence. - [Female Narrator] It's important to think about that space of the church, of entering a sacred space, of the sound of prayers, of singing the praises to the Virgin Mary. Very different from the hum of voices here at the Uffizi. - [Male Narrator] It would've been a relatively dim space, there would have been incense, and of course, the sense that you were in architecture that was representative of heaven. The people who commissioned this, the confraternity, would not have had access to much of the church. They wouldn't have been able to go beyond what Italians call the tramezzo, that is, a choir screen that divided the church. On one side, everyday people in the nave, and then closer to the high altar, an area that was reserved for priests and other people directly involved with the church, although also perhaps some wealthy or politically powerful Florentines. - [Female Narrator] So we're looking at Mary holding the Christ child. Those two figures are surrounded by six angels, and if you look closely at the angels, although they're each in kneeling positions and none of them are really on the floor except for the two bottom angels, nevertheless there's a feeling that the angels are carrying this throne, they're bringing it down to Earth to be the focus of our prayer and devotion. - [Male Narrator] Making the Virgin and child, this important spiritual image, accessible to the laity. - [Female Narrator] Look at how the angels are each holding the throne slightly different. The angel on the left who delicately holds the column in the back, but also has her front arm holding one of the horizontal beams of the throne. - [Male Narrator] And if you look at the angel on the lower left, you can see its fingers just reaching under the throne. And so, to your point, it seems as if the angel is just lowering that throne into our world. What I'm struck by is the delicacy of the colors that those angels wear. We see greens and blues and violets, all against this beautiful, rich, gold background that is meant to express the light of heaven. - [Female Narrator] And the throne, which is so highly decorated, these gold lines that give us a sense of the volume, the roundness of these columns that create the throne. - [Male Narrator] But the throne seems as if it's made of gilded wood, it seems as if it could actually be constructed, this is something that a carpenter could build. - [Female Narrator] And Mary has behind her a cloth, which is supported by some finials and arches at the back of the throne, and that idea of the cloth of honor, often something that we see in the back of the enthroned Virgin Mary. - [Male Narrator] Framing her. And then we have the two primary figures. Mary, impossibly tall, impossibly elegant, holding the Christ child, who raises two fingers in a sign of blessing. - [Female Narrator] And he looks out his right. Mary seems to look in the opposite direction, toward her left, but also out toward us, as though the divine is being delivered to us here on Earth. - [Male Narrator] Look at that brilliant blue cloak that she wears, a cloak that is made of lapis lazuli, an extraordinarily expensive semi-precious stone that was at this time mined only in Afghanistan, imported to Italy at great cost. This is the most expensive material in this painting. - [Female Narrator] Here, material splendor is suggesting, symbolizing the glory of heaven. The gold on the throne, the gold hem that meanders in these lovely circular patterns around the edges of Mary's garment, the gold on the halos, the gold striations or lines that we see on the drapery around Christ's legs, and that rich tapestry behind her, and even that gold-embroidered pillow that she sits on. All of this suggests to us a divine world that must have been so different than the everyday world of the people of Florence in the late 13th century. - [Male Narrator] Although this painting was produced for Santa Maria Novella in Florence, it was actually painted by Duccio, who was a Sienese painter. Siena and Florence were rival cities in what we now call Tuscany. Both wealthy republics, but occasionally at war. - [Female Narrator] Often we think about these paintings as being altarpieces, as standing on top of altars. But this is so tall, this is so vertically aligned. Most altarpieces were horizontally aligned and would have had the Virgin Mary and child in the center and angels and saints on either side. Here, the saints are situated in roundels in the frame itself. - [Male Narrator] The representation of wealth is not only through the materials, the lapis lazuli, the blue, or the gold leaf, it's also in the representation, for example, of that silken cloth that hangs over the seat of the throne that seems as if it's been embroidered in gold, and may have been intended to suggest expensive cloths that had been imported from the East. In fact, if we look carefully at the hem of the Virgin Mary, you can see that there's writing in it. This is fascinating, it's not actual writing. It's sometimes called pseudo-script. It's lines that are meant to look like letters, but not letters of the Latin alphabet. These are meant to reflect the kinds of letters that the Italians thought of in the Eastern Mediterranean, that is, Arabic or Hebrew or some amalgamation of the two. - [Female Narrator] Jerusalem lies to the east, the important Byzantine Empire lies to the east. Europe did not see itself as the center of the world the way that it will in just a couple of centuries. - [Male Narrator] And like that cloth, and like that pseudo-script, the form of this image itself was clearly influenced by Eastern icon painting, that is, the painting of the Byzantine tradition. - [Female Narrator] As we're thinking about Duccio's interest in space, in illusionism, we also notice that we can look through the openings in the throne to see the textiles that lie behind it. We look at Duccio, and we think about what's to come. The way that divine figures begin to appear more and more human, and begin to occupy spaces that are more and more naturalistic. And so we have this suggestion of space, and even some modeling, some movement from light to dark, for example, in Mary's right knee, that presses through that drapery as she shifts her body just slightly to one side. - [Male Narrator] These are innovations that will be picked up by a later generation of artists, people like Giotto. And so we can begin to see at the end of the 13th century, and then into the early 14th century, this interest in showing divine figures as having some sense that they exist in space. And just as the angels seem to be bringing this throne down from heaven to Earth, so the figures begin to seem to occupy a world that we recognize. - [Female Narrator] And therefore, we begin to empathize with these divine figures who more and more seem very much like us. - [Male Narrator] Despite the fact that this figure is three times our height. (smooth jazz piano music)