Siena: Duccio’s Maesta

On Monday morning, June 6, we’re off to Siena, the artistic and cultural rival of Florence prior to the the Black Death, the great plague of 1348 that affected much of Europe and decimated Siena.  But the first half of the fourteenth century was Siena’s golden age, and we will be viewing a number of major paintings that set the stage for Renaissance art even though they were created prior to 1348.

Here’s a photograph looking down on the Piazza del Campo in the center of old Siena, with the bell tower of the Palazzo Publico, or town hall, rising up over the Tuscan countryside.  We’ll be visiting this building, and the intrepid among us might climb the tower to take the view.

But my post this week is devoted to a painting that we will see earlier in the afternoon at the museum of Siena Cathedral.  Here, we will view the masterwork of the Sienese artist Duccio di Bouninsegna–his Maesta, painted in 1308-11 for the cathedral:

Duccio’s assistants carried this magnificent work through the streets of Siena from the artist’s studio to the church amid cheering throngs of Sienese citizens on a sunny day in June 1311.  Seven hundred years later, almost to the day, we’ll be there.  The Maesta was an object of both religious veneration and civic pride–for where else had such a magnificent work of art been created?

Indeed, it was the largest altarpiece ever painted at the time (I don’t believe it has been surpassed in scale and sumptuousness), and apparently it was the first example of a Maesta–an image of the Virgin Mary enthroned “in majesty” surrounded by not only angels but also a full court of prophets and prophetesses, with Mary and Jesus being venerated as heavenly royalty.

A note on medium: the Maesta is a panel painting, egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of wood.  In contrast, the works at the Church of Saint Francis at Assisi are frescoes–painted directly into wet plaster on the walls of the church.  Fresco and panel were the two major modes of painting in Tuscany in the late medieval period and during the Renaissance.

Duccio’s Maesta is the first work known to have had a predella (the row of small scenes at the bottom of the main scene of an altarpiece).  In the case, the predella scenes deal with Christ’s birth and infancy.

This altarpiece was additionally spectacular because it had painted scenes on the back as well as the front.  In the Cathedral, it stood in open space that that on holy occasions worshippers could pass around it and view it from both sides.  Here’s a diagram reconstructing what the arrangement was probably like:

Duccio’s Maesta was long ago removed from the Cathedral itself and, over time, was dismembered.  The framing we see in the pictures above is conjectural.  Most of the individual paintings are presented in a special gallery of the Cathedral Museum.  The parts have not been reassembled, so we will be viewing the work in a state of desconstruction, as components that we can make whole only in our imagination.

Here are the two major pieces as they exist today, front and back:

The back side depicts the final days of Christ’s earthly life.  The story begins in the lower left corner with the Entry into Jerusalem:

This is the “Palm Sunday” scene, with throngs meeting Jesus and his disciples at the city gate and laying down palm fronds.  Sienese painting is known for its emphasis on architectural spaces, and this work is a prime example of that, with the open door leading into a mysterious dark space in the lower right and the tunnel of the arched city gate.

And here are two other well-known scenes from the back:

From the middle of the bottom row comes this scene of the Agony in the Garden, depicting the moment when Christ tells his disciples to keep watch while he enters the garden of Gethsemane to pray.  The narrative unfolds from the center, where Christ speaks to the disciples.  From there, the story proceeds outward to the right and left: Christ is seen praying at the right, the disciples have failed their duties by falling asleep at the left.  Christ ascends, the disciples descend.

Just above Agony in the Garden is this scene . . .

. . . depicting the Kiss of Judas, the moment when Judas betrays his master by identifying him, by means of the kiss, to the soldiers.  There is a lot going on here:  Judas delivers the kiss, the soldiers close in, Peter (in the greenish robe) acts to protect his master by wielding his knife and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers (but Jesus sees to it that the ear is immediately healed).  To the right, Jesus’ other disciples flee the scene–swept out of the composition by the wave-like rock formation.  Consider the gorgeous colors in this piece–the sherbet-like citrus and lime tones, and consider the elegance of the figures–slender, twisting this way and that, with the gold edge of Christ’s robe serving as an abstract diagram of all the curves and counter-curves of the composition.  This is what golden age Sienese  painting is known for: elegance, grace, and delicate beauty despite, in this case, the somber subject.

It’s somewhat inadvertent that I’m making this post on Easter day, but since I am, Happy Easter to you all!  I’ll be back before long with glimpses of several other major paintings that we will be seeing in the course of our day in lovely Siena.

For now, ciao ciao.



6 Responses to “Siena: Duccio’s Maesta”

  1. Just back from the studio in a state of collapse from shoveling yet more mildewed material into the recycle bin. But, after reading your Easter Bunny blog I feel as though I found the golden egg. My God, so to speak, you really make your trip to Italy sound as though your Gulley Jimson days have inspired you to communicate that colorful music of the mind. I like the part about cutting off the ear and putting it back on. Van Gogh should have kept the faith! Of course, Christ might look at cutting someone else’s ear off with more compassion than doing it to yourself. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to everything you blog in future.

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