Friday, January 08, 2021

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 11): Artworks in the Cathedral Museum

Over the course of ten previous posts in this series, we have seen a great many (but by no means all!) of the artworks that grace the the cathedral of Siena, going back to the 13th century. Some of its more important artistic treasures, however, are no longer in the church itself, having been removed for preservation because of their great age, and replaced with copies. In this post, we will cover the room on the ground floor of the cathedral museum which houses several of these.
In 1287 or 1288, the Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, who would later paint the famous Maestà for the cathedral’s high altar, was commissioned to make this stained glass window (a rarity in Italy at the time) for the oculus of the apse. The central panel shows the Assumption, which is the church’s titular feast, with the Dormition of the Virgin below, and Her Coronation above it. To the left of the central panel are the Apostle Bartholomew, then much venerated in Siena as a protector of the city, and St Ansanus, its first evangelizer; to the right, the early local martyrs Crescentianus and Savinus; at the corners, the Four Evangelists.
In 1457, the sculptor Donatello, who had previously worked on the font of Siena’s baptistery, returned to the city to take up a new commission, a set of bronze doors for the churches façade, a project which was never completed. At the time, he also executed this tondo sculpture of the Madonna and Child for a door known as the Door of Pardon (Porta del Perdono), the church’s jubilee door. When the door was destroyed in 1660 to make way for the chapel of the Madonna del Voto, the tondo was of course saved.

This mid-14th century sculptural group of Christ in Majesty adored by two angels was originally placed over the large side portal of the so-called New Cathedral, the massive (and failed) expansion project which would have turned the church in its then-current size into the transept of a vastly larger edifice.

In the third post of this series, we saw the pulpit sculpted by one of the most important figures in the history of Italian sculpture, Nicola Pisano. Between 1285 and 1297, his son Giovanni served as the chief-of-works of Siena cathedral, and not only built the lower part of the façade, but also (with the help of a good number of assistants) made statues of several Biblical personages to decorate it. These were particularly vulnerable to weather damage, and have all long since been brought into the museum and replaced with copies.

Among them is this image of Joshua ben-Sirach, author of the Biblical book known to the Latin-speaking West as Ecclesiasticus. Despite the fact that he is one of the very few Biblical writers who explicitly identifies himself as the author of his own book, and despite the broad liturgical use which the Church makes of it, he very rarely appears as a subject in art. The verse written on the banderole in his hand, “Grace upon grace is a chaste and reverent woman” (26, 19), was likely chosen in reference to the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.

The prophet Simeon, with the words of the Nunc dimittis “for my eyes have seen Thy salvation” written on his banderole.

King David
The prophet Habakkuk, with the words “I will stand upon my watch” (2, 1) on his banderole.
The philopher Aristotle, whose inclusion in a group of mostly Biblical figures indicates the importance which the theologians of the time attached to his writings as a tool for the understanding of theology.

In the same vein, Plato, known principally to the Middle Ages as the teacher of Aristotle.
The Twelve Apostles (and a few other figures)
Another prophet
St Savinus, an early bishop of Siena.
These figures of the Virgin and Child, Patriarchs and Prophets, were originally mounted on the cathedral’s façade around the large circular window in its upper stage.
Surviving parts of the marble balustrade and metal grill that formerly separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church, removed in the early part of the 16th century.

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