Duccio di Buoninsegna, Virgin and Child in Majesty (Maestà)
main panel from the Maestà Altarpiece, from Siena Cathedral
1308-11 Tempera and gold on wood, 7'x13' (214 x 412 cm)
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
|Form: Before you read this section, read in Stokstad
the section called, Technique, Cennini on Panel Painting.
Form: The overall composition of this work is symmetrical. The largest figures of Mary and Jesus are at the center of the composition and they are flanked by two rows of angels and Saints overlapped as if they are standing on bleachers. In order to create space, Duccio uses the same convention of vertical perspective we saw in Pisano's pulpit. The figures that are highest up in the picture plane are furthest back.
This painting was rendered with tempera paint and gold leaf. Tempera is a medium which is made from egg (sometimes just the yolk sometimes the whites) glue and ground up minerals that serve as pigment or colorant. The egg actually glues or binds the pigments to the surface. The paint is applied in small distinct brush strokes that show the brushwork when looked at closely.
The background is gold leaf on a wooden panel that has been painted with a a combination of glue and marble dust or chalk referred to as gesso. The gold leaf is then incised and punctured with designs (Stokstad calls this punchwork.) Gold leaf has also been added to the drapery as a means to highlight the folds.
The rendering of color and value in this painting is fairly limited. There is no distinct source of light and very little tonal variation on the faces or drapery of the individual figures and there are no real differences of character or appearance from one face to the next.
Duccio's rendition of the Virgin is very similar to the one from Auvergne and Cimabue's. This painting, like the sculpture, is both naturalistic and stylized. Again the rendering of the face and hands was an attempt by the sculptor to represent convincing human forms however, the faces show no real expression and the bodies are completely covered with an almost Byzantine style of drapery that almost completely conceals both figures' bodies. The child Jesus is not rendered as a child buy rather a stiff looking miniature adult. The poses of both figures are stiff and fairly wooden but in the case of Mary, this is appropriate if you look at her role in terms of the work's iconography.
Iconography: As in the French Gothic sculpture Mary is depicted as the "Throne of Wisdom." The arrangement of the composition places Mary at the center of the image and in the most important location. So the use of symmetry and the placement of figures can indicate their status. Notice that Mary is framed and as such "backed up" by the angels. The less important figures of the prophets are literally beneath her and Jesus.
Color and the gold leaf used also serve as iconographic reminders of Mary and Jesus' status. Gold leaf and red and blue pigments were made from precious stones and materials and are symbols of there status.
Context: According to the Brittanica,Maestà (Italian: "Majesty"), double-sided altarpieces executed for the cathedral of Siena by the Italian painter Duccio. The first version (1302), originally in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, is now lost. The second version (Oct. 9, 1308-June 9, 1311), painted for the cathedral of Siena and one of the largest altarpieces of its time, consisted of a wide frontal panel with the Virgin and Child adored by the patrons of Siena and surrounded by saints and angels. Beneath was a predella with seven scenes from the childhood of Christ; above were pinnacles with scenes from the life of the Virgin; and on the back were scenes from the life of Christ. The main panel and the bulk of the narrative scenes are now in the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana, Piazza del Duomo, Siena, but isolated panels from the altarpiece have found their way to the National Gallery, London; the Frick Collection, New York City; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The work in which the genius of Duccio unfolds in all its brilliant fullness and the one to which the painter owes his greatest fame, however, is the "Maestà," the altarpiece for the main altar of the cathedral of Siena. He was commissioned to do this work on Oct. 9, 1308, for a payment of 3,000 gold florins, the highest figure paid to an artist up to that time. On June 9, 1311, the whole populace of Siena, headed by the clergy and civil administration of the city, gathered at the artist's workshop to receive the finished masterpiece. They carried it in solemn procession to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets to the cathedral. For three days alms were distributed to the poor, and great feasts were held. Never before had the birth of a work of art been greeted with such public jubilation and never before had there been such immediate awareness that a work was truly a masterpiece and not just a reflection of the religious fervor of the people. Duccio himself was aware of the work's significance; he signed the throne of the Virgin with an invocation that was devout yet proud for the time: "Holy Mother of God, grant peace to Siena, and life to Duccio because he has painted you thus."
The "Maestà" is in the form of a large horizontal rectangle, surmounted by pinnacles, and with a narrow horizontal panel, or predella, as its base. It is painted on both sides. The entire central rectangle of the front side is a single scene showing the Madonna and Child enthroned in the middle of a heavenly court of saints and angels with the four patron saints of Siena kneeling at their feet. The back is subdivided into 26 compartments that illustrate the Passion of Christ. The front and back of the predella contain scenes of the infancy and the ministry of Jesus, and the pinnacles, crowning the entire work, represent events after the Resurrection. In all, there are 59 narrative scenes.
The rigorous symmetry with which the groups of adoring figures at the sides of the Virgin are arranged in the imposing scene of the central panel is inspired by compositions of the Byzantine tradition and gives evidence of Duccio's keen architectural sensibility by its power to draw attention to the "Maestà" as the true focal point of the cathedral's spatial and structural organization. Like elements of a living architecture, the 30 figures, through the slightest of gestures and turnings of the head, are intimately related, their positions repeated to give a feeling of intense lyrical contemplation. The consonance of feeling that arises from this contemplation gives the facial features of each a distinct, spiritual beauty, reminiscent, especially the faces of the angels, of the more idealistic creations of Hellenistic art. The Madonna, slightly larger than the other figures, seated on a magnificent and massive throne of polychrome marbles, inclines her head gently as if trying to hear the prayer of the faithful. Duccio thus succeeds in reconciling perfectly the Byzantine ideal of power and dignity with the underlying tenderness and mysticism of the Sienese spirit. The scenes in the predella, pinnacles, and back are filled with the Byzantine iconographic schemes from which Duccio finds it difficult to detach himself, and they are developed with a deeper concern for their narrative significance. The scenes are not, however, merely descriptions or chronicles. They include many touches from daily life, which provide a lyrical synthesis that harmonizes the character and gestures of the figures with their landscape and architectural surroundings.Briitanica EncyclopediaAt 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 a Stalloreggi . 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.
This account reminds us how we should remember the integral role of a major work like this in the civic life of the city. Notice also how the adoration devoted to this new image is comparable to that shown the relics of a patron saint of a community. It is important to remember that the Virgin was the patron saint of Siena, and as such she was the center of the civic and religious life of the city. Kneeling beside the throne of the Virgin are the other patron saints of Siena: Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius, and Victor. The order of the altarpiece and the privileged position given to the Sienese saints, especially the Virgin, would have been clearly understood to reflect the ideal order of the city of Siena which would stand before it in the Duomo. The civic implications are further brought out by the original inscription: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD BESTOW PEACE ON SIENA AND SALVATION ON DUCCIO WHO PAINTED THEE.
The reference in the account above to the Madonna with the Large Eyes , or in Italian --Madonna degli Occhi Grossi-- relates to a painting done about 1200:
This work was seen to be a miracle working image. The Sienese appeals to this image of their patron saint were believed to have lead to the salvation of the city from the Florentines in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Why do you think the Sienese would have wanted to have replaced such a revered image with the Duccio altarpiece?
Quoted directly from:
Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311
This panel in the National Gallery, Washington DC
|Form: In general the composition is fairly symmetrical
yet it is very crowded and almost seems disorganized. Most of the
figures are placed in the foreground of the picture plane and the space
created is not very illusionistic. Space is created by placing the
figures in the foreground lower in the picture plane. In order to
show the recession of space, the figures are layered and the placed in
a vertical perspective.
The rendering of each of the figures is fairly naturalistic and the clothing, drapery and poses are somewhat reminiscent of Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel and carvings such from the Parthenon's pediment. Several of the figures, such as the main one which depicts Mary and the child (Jesus) are repeated because several scenes are simultaneously being represented. This kind of continuous narrative is common in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art.
Iconography: This is a nativity scene that at first appears to take place in a manger but it also contains the baptism of Christ as well. The center of the scene Mary reclines in a pose very reminiscent of the Goddesses from Parthenon. In the lower left foreground of the image is the baptism of Christ.
The next major difference is in the style and amount of artwork. In general, the Gothic style is extremely organized, diagrammatic, and stylized. It tends to take cues from Byzantine and Romanesque art, in which the figures' relative size to another figure is based upon its' importance in the spiritual hierarchy. For example, when Jesus or an Angel is shown, they are relatively larger than all the other figures whom are depicted in a particular scene. This shows how important they are, they loom above the mere mortals, faithful and sinners alike.
Context: It is easy to guess that Duccio probably used, almost directly Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel as his schema. This was not considered plagiarism by the Gothic artists but rather a compliment and a continuation of a time honored Byzantine tradition. Her pose and drapery almost exactly mimic Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel but the drapery is somewhat less lifelike. This also demonstrates the desire to continue older visual traditions and to not always have a revolutionary and innovative stylistic break with earlier traditions.
Duccio di Buoninsegna, (Maestà)
detail Christ Entering Jerusalem
(Maestà, reverse of the top panel called "verso")
1308-11Tempera on wood
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
|Form: Probably the most significant stylistic and
formal element of note is the awkward construction of space. Here,
Duccio attempts to create some sort of space but is a bit confused as to
how to do it. He uses vertical perspective to create space initially.
He places the figures that are closest to the viewer the lowest in the
picture plane and those further back higher up. The use of vertical
perspective seems to tip the ground plane up and places the viewer in a
helicopter or tower in which they are about 15 feet off the ground looking
down on the scene.
He also uses overlapping and a size scale difference between foreground and background. Some of the figures in the crowd overlap and hide the figure's behind them but this really doesn't happen with the figures of the apostles, probably because he wanted to make sure the viewer was able to see all their faces. The figures in the background are significantly smaller but the scale of the building and the way in which the apostles who follow Jesus are bunched up is a bit illogical. There is not enough space on the ground for all the apostles nor the crowds to be standing together.
Context: In order to understand the iconography of this scene one needs to go to the Bible passage on which it is modeled first:
Matthew Chapter 21
11 And the crowds replied, "This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee."
Links to more about this altar
Duccio paints with tempera paint. According to the
A tempera medium is dry pigment tempered with an emulsion and thinned with water. It is a very ancient medium, having been in constant use in most world cultures, until in Europe it was gradually superseded, during the Renaissance, by oil paints. Tempera was the original mural medium in the ancient dynasties of Egypt, Babylonia, Mycenean Greece, and China and was used to decorate the early Christian catacombs. It was employed on a variety of supports, from the stone stelae (or commemorative pillars), mummy cases, and papyrus rolls of ancient Egypt to the wood panels of Byzantine icons and altarpieces and the vellum leaves of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
True tempera is made by mixture with the yolk of fresh eggs, although manuscript illuminators often used egg white and some easel painters added the whole egg. Other emulsions have been used, such as casein glue with linseed oil, egg yolk with gum and linseed oil, and egg white with linseed or poppy oil. Individual painters have experimented with other recipes, but few of these have proved successful; all but William Blake's later tempera paintings on copper sheets, for instance, have darkened and decayed, and it is thought that he mixed his pigment with carpenter's glue.
Distemper is a crude form of tempera made by mixing dry pigment into a paste with water, which is thinned with heated glue in working or by adding pigment to whiting, a mixture of fine-ground chalk and size. It is used for stage scenery and full-size preparatory cartoons for murals and tapestries. When dry, its colours have the pale, mat, powdery quality of pastels, with a similar tendency to smudge. Indeed, damaged cartoons have been retouched with pastel chalks.
Egg tempera is the most durable form of the medium, being generally unaffected by humidity and temperature. It dries quickly to form a tough film that acts as a protective skin to the support. In handling, in its diversity of transparent and opaque effects, and in the satin sheen of its finish, it resembles the modern acrylic resin emulsion paints.
Traditional tempera painting is a lengthy process. Its supports are smooth surfaces, such as planed wood, fine set plaster, stone, paper, vellum, canvas, and modern composition boards of compressed wood or paper. Linen is generally glued to the surface of panel supports, additional strips masking the seams between braced wood planks. Gesso, a mixture of plaster of paris (or gypsum) with size, is the traditional ground. The first layer is of gesso grosso, a mixture of coarse, unslaked plaster and size. This provides a rough, absorbent surface for ten or more thin coats of gesso sotile, a smooth mixture of size and fine plaster previously slaked in water to retard drying. This laborious preparation results, however, in an opaque, brilliant white, light-reflecting surface, similar in texture to hard, flat icing sugar.
The design for a large tempera painting traditionally was executed in distemper on a thick paper cartoon. The outlines were pricked with a perforating wheel so that when the cartoon was laid on the surface of the support, the linear pattern was transferred by dabbing, or "pouncing," the perforations with a muslin bag of powdered charcoal. The dotted contours traced through were then fixed in paint. Medieval tempera painters of panels and manuscripts made lavish use of gold leaf on backgrounds and for symbolic features, such as haloes and beams of heavenly light. Areas of the pounced design intended for gilding were first built up into low relief with gesso duro, the harder, less absorbent gesso compound used also for elaborate frame moldings. Background fields were often textured by impressing the gesso duro, before it set, with small, carved, intaglio wood blocks to create raised, pimpled, and quilted repeat patterns that glittered when gilded. Leaves of finely beaten gold were pressed onto a tacky mordant (adhesive compound) or over wet bole (reddish-brown earth pigment) that gave greater warmth and depth when the gilded areas were burnished.
Colours were applied with sable brushes in successive broad sweeps or washes of semitransparent tempera. These dried quickly, preventing the subtle tonal gradations possible with watercolour washes or oil paint; effects of shaded modelling had therefore to be obtained by a crosshatching technique of fine brush strokes. According to the Italian painter Cennino Cennini, the early Renaissance tempera painters laid the colour washes across a fully modelled monochrome underpainting in terre vert (olive-green pigment), a method developed later into the mixed mediums technique of tempera underpainting followed by transparent oil glazes.
The luminous gesso base of a tempera painting, combined with the accumulative effect of overlaid colour washes, produces a unique depth and intensity of colour. Tempera paints dry lighter in value, but their original tonality can be restored by subsequent waxing or varnishing. Other characteristic qualities of a tempera painting, resulting from its fast drying property and disciplined technique, are its steely lines and crisp edges, its meticulous detail and rich linear textures, and its overall emphasis upon a decorative flat pattern of bold colour masses.
The great Byzantine tradition of tempera painting was developed in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries by Duccio di Buoninsegna and Giotto. Their flattened picture space, generously enriched by fields and textures of gold leaf, was extended by the Renaissance depth perspectives in the paintings of Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Carlo Crivelli, Sandro Botticelli, and Vittore Carpaccio. By that time, oil painting was already challenging the primacy of tempera, Botticelli and some of his contemporaries apparently adding oil to the tempera emulsion or overglazing it in oil colour.
Following the supremacy of the oil medium during succeeding periods of Western painting, the 20th century saw a revival of tempera techniques by such U.S. artists as Ben Shahn, Andrew Wyeth, and George McNeil and by the British painter Edward Wadsworth. It would probably have been the medium also of the later hard-edge abstract painters had the new acrylic resin paints not proved more easily and quickly.