Christmas -- Essay
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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

-- The Metropolitian Museum of Art

Duccio's "Madonna and Child," tempera and gold on wood in its original frame, at New York's Metropolitian Museum of Art
A golden tenderness

Duccio's 'Maesta' is both painting and prayer


Even for Christians, it is hard in the 2lst century to imagine the jubilation with which Duccio di Buoninsegna’s grand “Maestà” was carried from his workshop through the streets of Siena to the high altar of the city’s cathedral on June 9, 1311. The painter was at the height of his fame. The piece was enormous and detailed, with an enthroned Virgin and Child surrounded by saints and angels on the front and the Passion of Christ on the back. We might have some idea of the occasion, perhaps, if we recall what we read about the dedication of Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2002, or perhaps the procession organized that same year by the artist Francis Alÿs to celebrate the move of the Museum of Modern Art’s great collection “into exile” at its temporary home in Queens, N.Y. But in 1311, Duccio, the almost completed cathedral, the new altarpiece and not least the intense spirituality of Siena formed a unique constellation.

Throughout the 13th century Siena had competed culturally and economically with Florence, its rich and powerful rival to the north. Controlling the roads to Rome, Siena managed to defeat the Florentines at the Battle of Monaperti in 1260. It became the banking center of Europe. But Pope Alexander IV excommunicated the entire city for its Ghibelline (pro-imperial) policies. Guelph (pro-papal) Florence avenged itself with a decisive victory at the Battle of Colle Val d’Elsa in 1269. At this point, historians now see, Siena’s decline began. Duccio (c. 1260-1318), however, experienced the city still in its glory. He did not live to witness the devastation of the Black Death in 1348. (Estimates on the loss of life range from 65,000 out of a total population of 80,000 to 70,000 out of 100,000.) Nor did he know the great spiritual figures born later in the 14th century, St. Catherine or St. Bernardine. And we may presume that he could not have imagined the humiliation of Siena’s annexation to the Grand Duchy of Florence under Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1557.

For centuries afterward Duccio’s name suffered neglect and only began to be recognized again in the later 19th century. Giotto (1267-1337) was long taken to be the founder of Renaissance painting, with Cimabue (c. 1240-1302) as his great forerunner. In part this resulted from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects having wrongly attributed the “Rucellai Madonna” -- a cornerstone of Italian painting, in his view -- to Cimabue rather than Duccio. Vasari saw that the painting began to achieve spatial depth and the modeling of its central figures. But he knew almost nothing about Duccio himself and claimed not even to have been able to find the famous “Maestà.” The important “lives” were after all really Florentine! Yet the “Rucellai Madonna” was indeed from Duccio’s hand, commissioned in 1285 by the Confraternity of the Laudesi at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Many would call the “Rucellai Madonna,” now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the most beautiful panel picture of the 13th century.

Some 10 or 15 years later, for the devotional use of an unknown patron, Duccio painted a luminous small “Madonna and Child.” (It is exactly the size of a sheet of legal stationery.) An American no longer has to cross the ocean to see it since the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired it in 2004 for the staggering price of $45 million. Behind a small illusionistic parapet, the standing Virgin gently holds her son cradled in her left arm. She wears a blue cloak over a golden veil and tunic. The child, in red-orange tunic and purple cloak, reaches his right hand up to draw back his mother’s veil, as if wondering why her affecting, melancholy gaze moves beyond him. (The gesture was imitated for more than two centuries.) Both formally and emotionally ravishing in its original engaged frame, the little painting now clearly stands with Giotto at the beginning of the Renaissance -- and has become a place of pilgrimage for many.

-- KPA/United Archives/WHA

Duccio's "Madonna and Child with St. Dominic and St. Aurea," in the collection of the National Gallery, London

Another small Duccio, a somewhat larger and more complex triptych, has been such a painting of pilgrimage for even longer at London’s National Gallery, which acquired it in 1857, as the artist’s reputation was beginning to revive. Here, in an arched space, two pairs of small angels attend on either side of Mary, two with hands folded in prayer, the others swinging censers. The Virgin is dressed in blue and gold, with her emblematic stars. She holds her son in her left arm, and he again draws her veil with back his right hand while holding part of it in his left. A slightly overhanging tympanum shows Old Testament figures, and the shutters or wings of the triptych present St. Dominic to the left and St. Aurea to the right. The delicacy of feeling and brilliant color of the central panel are heightened by the figures of the saints in the wings, especially Dominic in his stark black and white robes. Like the Met’s painting (in which the Christ Child’s face and movement are perhaps better done), this devotional object conveys to this day a reverence and peace beyond words.

We do not know exactly when the triptych was executed. But it is almost surely from the same period as Duccio’s “Maestà,” and since the contract for that work exists, we know that it was painted between 1308 and 1311. Like any masterpiece, the “Maestà” combines complexity and simplicity with extraordinary grace. Enormous in size, it was designed to be seen from both sides, the front with the “Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints” facing the people and the back, with many smaller panels portraying the ministry of Jesus, his passion and resurrection centered on a crucifixion and facing the clergy. For all the detail, there is an overall effect of grandeur and grace on the front, while the back meditates on the redeeming love of God in Christ.

With the two sides separated for presentation in Siena’s Cathedral Museum, one comes first before the “Virgin Enthroned” -- and would wish to kneel. Ten apostles look down from something like a gallery above the main painting. Wearing a blue cloak with a golden veil over a red tunic, Mary is seated on a grand marble throne that is draped with a patterned cloth of honor. Her face is serene, utterly tranquil, her bearing more formal than in the devotional pictures, and her hands done with greater realism. The child, who looks actually to be about 4, sits on her left knee wearing a transparent undergarment and a gold-starred pink cloak. In the predella are seven scenes from the infancy of Christ, and in the pinnacles above, scenes from the death and glorification of the Virgin.

-- KPA/United Archives/WHA

"Virgin and Child Enthroned Among Angels and Saints," the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

Twenty angels stand about the throne, two each leaning endearingly over its top on both sides. A second row includes, to the viewer’s left, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist, and, to the right, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and St. Agnes. Kneeling in the front row are the four saint protectors of the city: Ansanus (the Roman soldier who introduced Christianity to the region in the late third century and was martyred in 303), Bishop Savinus, Crescentius and Victor. Each figure is placed so as to direct your attention, and reverence, to the larger Virgin and Child. Yet there is also a lovely rhythm in the turn of heads and eyes. The feeling evoked is of profound serenity and peace, a golden tenderness that both emanates from the beautiful Virgin and surrounds her -- in halos, cloaks and background.

What exactly are we seeing here? It is not, of course, strictly speaking a Nativity scene, and still less really a vision of heaven (the Lord is a child). Is it an empress’ court? The throne of a queen? The levee of a young princess with her child? At Notre Dame de Chartres, a century earlier, that course of imagery can fairly easily be traced, running from Romanesque to high Gothic. But what we see here is rather a vision, a moment of wondrous worship that cannot be felt fully apart from prayer. The painting was made not for a museum but for the High Altar. It embodies grace, speaks of mercy, quiets heart and eye, enfolds you in its calm.

The artist has recreated a theme of mother and child that is as old as the third-century catacomb of St. Priscilla. It developed in the sixth century as Maria Regina, Mary crowned as an empress, and which Romanesque sculptors treated as the Virgin in Majesty, Majestas Mariae. But Duccio’s abundant generosity has given us something unique, something one must call mystical, something so transcendent that familiar words, however true, seem woefully inadequate: the Holy Mother and her Divine Son. “Holy Mother of God,” he wrote in abbreviated Latin at the base of the throne, “be the cause for Siena’s peace -- and life for Duccio, who has painted you so.”

How could such a prayer fail to be heard? How can we not, in our own great and many needs this Christmas, make the prayer our own?

Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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