Friday, January 01, 2021

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 10): The Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna

Since the feast of the Circumcision traditionally has a number of Marian overtones, on the basis of which it was transformed into the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, in the post-Conciliar reform, today we continue our ongoing series on the cathedral of Siena with one of the most important high medieval images of the Virgin Mary, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi except the first.)
In September of 1260, the city of Siena and its allies faced off against the armies of Florence and its allies at the battle of Montaperti, one of the crucial events in the long conflict between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions that marked so much of medieval Italy’s history. Before the battle began, the Sienese betook themselves to their cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, and swore to honor Her as the queen of the city if She would by Her prayers obtain victory for them. Despite being outnumbered three-to-one, they inflicted a devastating defeat on the Florentines. In fulfillment of their vow, they then commmissioned a new side-altar for the cathedral, of which this painting, now attributed to the Sienese artist Diotisalvi di Speme, and dated to 1267, was the altarpiece. It is commonly known as the “Madonna del Voto – Our Lady of the Vow” in Italian, or somewhat more formally as “Advocata Senensium – Advocate of the Sienese” in Latin.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Since 1662, the image has been housed in a chapel which extends off the right aisle of the church, commissioned by the Sienese Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67), and decorated by his favorite artist and personal friend, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In 1308, however, the city decided to commission a much larger altarpiece, this time for the cathedral’s main altar, from one of its native sons, the painter Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-60 ca. – 1318 ca.). The term “Maestà – Majesty” is used generically in Italian for any large image of the Madonna enthroned with the Child Jesus in Her lap. The motif was very popular in Duccio’s time, and also done by some of his most important artistic contemporaries such as Cimabue and Giotto. In the central panel, She is dressed rather more like a nun than a queen, a choice appropriate for the painting’s original context. To either side of the throne are arrayed Angels and Saints; the four figures kneeling in the foreground are the patron Saints of Siena.
Duccio belongs to the generation of painters of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, similar to Giotto and Cimabue, who may be thought of as the grandfathers of the Renaissance. Here we see how he uses color, the varying blues of the Virgin’s robe, to create a real sense of depth to Her figure as the knee sticks out towards the viewer. However, the baby Jesus is almost weightless, floating in Her arms, and there is no real sense of perspective in the throne itself, which splays outward.
One the left side are seen (left to right) Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Paul and John the Evangelist, with the local Saints Savinus and Ansanus, the latter being the evangelizer and bishop of Siena in the early fourth century, according to the local tradition.
On the right side are (left to right) Ss John the Baptist, Peter and Agnes, and kneeling in front of them, two more local Saints, the martyrs Crescntianus and Victor.
Despite the historical importance of the Maestà, by 1506, its style was considered extremely old-fashioned, and the entire work was removed from the high altar, and replaced by a large bronze tabernacle (shown in the first post in this series.) In 1771, it was moved to another church, dismantled, and some of the pieces reassembled to make two different altarpieces. Twenty-four years later, it was returned to the cathedral, and in 1878, brought to the museum which houses it to this day; in the process of these various moves and assemblages, several of the pieces were scattered or lost. Here we see the reassembled panels of the reverse side, which was originally set up facing the liturgical choir, while the main panel of the Virgin and Child faced the nave. (As seen today, several of them may not be in their original order.)
These panels depict numerous episodes from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. At the lower left: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciples’ feet, and the betrayal of Judas.
In the lower center section: at left, Judas and the chief priests, and Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper; in the middle, the Agony in the Garden (below), and the arrest of Christ (above); at the right, Christ before Caiphas, and the betrayal of Peter.
In the lower right section, Christ is beaten while blindfolded (upper left); the high priest rends his garments (lower left); Pilate speaks to the crowd (upper right); Christ speaks with Pilate (lower right).
In the upper left section, Christ stands before Herod, and is dressed in the white garment (lower left), Christ appears again before Pilate (upper left); the flagellation (upper right) and mockery (lower right).
In the upper central section: (lower left) Christ is sentenced by Pilate; (upper left) Christ meets His Mother on the way to Mt Calvary; (center) the Crucifixion: (lower right) the deposition from the Cross; (upper right); the Entombment.
The upper right section: (lower left) the Harrowing of Hell; (upper left) the women meet the angels at the empty tomb; (lower right) the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene; (upper right) the Disciples at Emmaus.
Other panels of the reverse side: Christ meets the disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28, 16-20); Christ comes to the disciples in the upper room (Luke 24, 47 etc.); Pentecost.
Stories from the Resurrection narratives of the Gospel of St John: Christ comes to the disciples on the eighth day: Christ and St Thomas; the miraculous draught of fishes.
The Temptation of Christ (part of a section of the predella whose other panels are now lost or dispersed.)
The last set of stories on the reverse side represent the events of an apocryphal narration of the Virgin’s Assumption, the titular feast of the cathedral: an Angel comes to the Virgin to tell Her that the time has come for Her earthly life to end: the Apostles come to speak to the Virgin and take their leave of Her; the Virgin among the Apostles shortly before She dies. The predella panels below shows the Adoration of the Magi, a prophet, and the Presentation.
In the upper section: the Dormition of the Virgin, with the Apostles gathered around; the funeral cortege; and the entombment. Below: the Massacre of the Innocents, the Flight into Egypt, and Christ among the Doctors, with prophets between the narrative panels.
The same room within the cathedral museum that houses the Maestà also has this altarpiece of the Nativity of the Virgin by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1342, which was formerly on the altar of St Savinus.

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