Pieces of art are not isolated works; they are an integral part of society. Art mirrors, as well as influences, the society which produces it. The Maestá altarpiece, painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna for the Duomo (Siena’s cathedral), reflects the artist, the religious situation of the time, and the civic pride of Siena. This masterpiece also greatly influenced the community and artistic trends. The Maestá consists of a large number of panels, and is painted on both the front and back. The emphasis of the work is The Madonna and Child Enthroned, and is surrounded by saints and angels (Carli, 11). Beneath the main scene was the predella, which consisted of seven panels divided by figures of the prophets and showing scenes from the life of Christ. This narrative was continued on the reverse side, which was divided into twenty-six compartments surrounding the Crucifixion.
To fully understand this painting, one must have some knowledge of its creator. There are many voids in the knowledge of Duccio’s life, but the information that does exist is noteworthy. Records indicate that he was active for at least forty years, from 1280 to 1319 (Martini). He and his wife had eight children, many of whom became artists (Cole, Sienese Painting, 24). Although known in his time as ‘the most skilful painter one could find’, Duccio had many legal difficulties (Van Os, Sienese Altarpieces 1215-1460 col. I, 39). He received fines many times for various reasons, including failure to follow city ordinances, refusal to serve in the military, and an accusation of witchcraft (Cole, 26). His deviation from standard behaviour is evident in his inventive painting techniques (30). Duccio, who had many students and followers, represented a piece of Siena’s artistic community (Cole, 59; Siena Italy). Artists, while highly respected, were viewed as a manual worker (Weigelt, 1). One’s social position depended on their guild, and apprenticeship and entrance into the guilds was largely determined by family relations. It was ‘a highly legalistic’ system which resulted in many artists who were related either by blood or marriage (Cole, xi). These different groups, or workshops, engaged in fierce competition. The overwhelming size and beauty of the Maestá results from the desire to overshadow competing workshops (Van Os, 46). Despite this, there was a sort of ‘religious communal life’ shared by artists (Christiansen, 27). The guild regulations, made in a time when art was commissioned almost exclusively for religious purposes, dedicated their craft to the service of God and the Virgin Mary (Norman, 198).
This devotion to religious ideals is representative of the complete faith held by citizens in a community where to separation of church and state existed (Cole, ix). The cathedral itself was, and remains, an object of civic pride (Van Os, 7). During a prosperous period (following Siena’s victory over Florence at Montaperti), megalomaniac plans were made to start reconstruction on the Duomo (Van Os, 43, 141). If this plan had been completed (construction was halted by 1350 due to a variety of circumstances), the Duomo Nuivi would have been so large that the existing cathedral would be used for the transept (147). The Maestá, then, must be viewed as the beginning of an ambitious building project; this unprecedented project ushered in a time of reconstruction (43). While certainly inspired by religious devotion, the Maestá is a lasting display of urban chauvinism, a simple desire for pomp and splendour, and the propaganda endeavours of the competitive patrons (7).
At the centre of this pride and competition stood the Maestá altarpiece; this elaborate and double-sided altarpiece was completed nearly fifty years before Florence, Siena’s rival city, began effectively using dual sided altar paintings (Christiansen, 3; Giorgio). With its massive proportions (over 214 by 422 cm) and jewel-like appearance, the Maestá quickly became the most famous and prestigious altarpiece in Tuscany (Cole, Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance, 42).
Despite its secular significance, the Maestá was viewed as a pure sign of religious faith and devotion. First and foremost this painting was a holy object associated with the liturgies performed before it, and during the Middle Ages were believed to contain the power of the characters they represented (Cole, Sienese Painting, xii). Thus the Sienese admired the altarpiece as holding the power of the Virgin Mary (to whom the city was dedicated in 1260), who was believed to be a special protector of the city (Van Os, 12). On the front of the Maestá, the Virgin Mary is surrounded by four kneeling figures, the patron saints of Siena (Cole, 42). An inscription on the altarpiece reads, ‘O Holy Mother of God, grant piece to Siena and five life to Duccio, who painted you thus’ (Christiansen, 27). This blend of personal invocation and communal interest implores Mary to protect not only the individual worshippers, but the city as well (Cole, 42). This work was not only an altarpiece, but the city’s offering to the Virgin (43). Only a in a city which so devotedly believed that they were the Madonna’s chosen is this possible.
Within the structure of the church and state, many theological changes were taking place, including alterations in ceremonial events and modifications of doctrine (Can Os, 14, 17). The Maestá brought the average Sienese citizen into direct contact with the divine; it catered their need not only for physical proximity, but for emotional involvement as well (12). The Lateran Council in Rome in 1215 established the doctrine of transubstantiation (13). This belief that Christ was physically present in the Eucharist represented a way to bring the Saviour closer to the congregation, and this spurred priests to make the person of the Redeemer more prominent. The administration of mass was modified so that a physical framework became desirable. The Maestá was the perfect solution-it provided a spiritual and physical backdrop for church services. The enthroned Madonna, and her relationship with the Christ child, was emphasized partly because it suggests the theme of Christ’s resurrection/repeated rebirth in the Eucharist (14). The association with the Eucharist is also reemphasized by the placement of the Marriage of Cana at the centre of the predella (45). The Maestá had a dual purpose; it functioned as both the high altar and the alter of the Blessed Sacrament (Van Os, 145). The Maestá served as a sort of screen between the clergy and the congregation. The decorations on the reverse side, the Passion narrative, were much smaller and more intimate that the images facing the audience. Meant to be viewed only by the canons, it focused the clergy’s attention on their sacred duties.
One of their ecclesiastical duties was teaching a largely illiterate congregation about the Bible. This task was greatly aided by visual images, and the Maestá has much religious symbolism (Giorgio). One representative example is the Annunciation, one of the narrative panels on the Maestá, which reflects the time’s doctrinal beliefs (Van Os, 47).
The angel Gabriel appears to be in a hurry, and Mary is huddled back, as if afraid. This displays the beliefs of thirteenth century theologians, which they based on the scripture in which Gabriel instructs Mary to ‘not be afraid.’ It was assumed that this instruction was the heavenly messenger’s response to her fear. For her to be startled, even when she already knew why she was chosen, was interpreted as a sign of her humility. It was believed that Mary already had a special relationship with God, and that man owes God’s arrival on earth to her. This depiction is the first which uses the angel’s staff, the pot of lilies, and the Virgin’s book (open to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14), all of which became standard symbols in later depictions of this event (49).
Also symbolic are the four kneeling figures surrounding the Enthroned Madonna. They are Savius, the first bishops of Siena, Victor of Siena, and Crescentius and Ansasus, Roman martyrs (Van Os, 45). The Siena Cathedral housed relics for all of these figures. These figures and their relics were important because of the many pilgrims who visited the cathedral during their journey from Northern Europe to Rome (Christiansen, 3). These pilgrims played a large role in the commissioning of the Maestá. Without their attendance and financial support, Duccio could never have undertaken such a massive project, and the city itself could not have supported such a lavish cathedral.
When Duccio completed the Maestá it was taken in procession to the cathedral (Stokstad, 596; Van Os, 39). The chronicler Agnolo di Tura, who was present, wrote:
The Sienese took the panel to the cathedral at noontime on the ninth of June , with great devotions and processions, with the bishop…with all the clergy of the cathedral, and with all the monks and nuns…with the city officials…and with all the citizens…with lighted lamps in hand. And thus, the women and children went through Siena with much devotion around the Campo in procession, ringing all the bells for joy, and this entire day the shops stayed closed for devotions, and throughout Siena they gave alms…with many speeches and prayers to God and his mother, Madonna Ever Virgin Mary, who helps, preserves, and increases in peace the good state of the city of Siena and its territory, its advocate and protectoress of that city, who defends that city from all danger and evil.
This remarkable occurrence, an urban community essentially shutting down for a day so that everyone can celebrate the completion of a painted altarpiece, is unique in history (Carli, 11). It reveals the complete union of medieval art and society. This indicates the prosperity that Siena was experiencing at the time. Since it was built on a series of hills, with the Cathedral on the highest, it was better suited for banking and commerce than agriculture (Cole, Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance, x). The city’s wealth resulted from trade and banking; the Sienese served as the Pope’s bankers for many years, a lucrative appointment which greatly aided their economic situation and business connections (Cole Sienese Painting, xi). The large scale project of the Maestá reveals the urban self-assurance which existed during the prosperous Rule of the Nine, from 1287 to 1344 (Van Os, 7).
This prosperity resulted in a rich artistic period which allowed for greater artistic experimentation and freedom (Van Os, 44). Duccio initiated many of these changes. Art historian Christa Gardner-von Teuffel described the Maestá as, ‘a sublime synthesis of the formal and thematic developments which took place in alter piece painting in the course of the thirteenth century.’ Duccio and his workshop formed a distinctive style which drew from a variety of sources, including traditions and new ideas (51). He was one of the first to create the effect of unity through variety, and his Maestá was the first altarpiece to be supported by lateral buttresses. The narrative scenes on the rear of the Maestá followed Byzantine tradition, but in a new way (Carli, 10). The outlines are softened and the people are more realistic, an indication of a renewed interest in humanism and anatomy beginning during this period (Cole, Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance, 49). They were also influenced by the contemporary sculptor Giovanni Pisano, the cultural trends in Italy (including those of Florence, where Duccio had previously worked), literary works, ancient Greece, illuminated manuscripts, Giotto (an artist who worked just slightly before Duccio), and gothic influences (Carli, 10-11; Weigelt, 10). Yet many features of the Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance, are the unprecedented result of an innovative artist. Duccio created a visual cohesion and unity to the altarpiece through his balance of the individual and the group, and the interplay of emotions within the depicted event (Van Os, 53). Duccio is also known for his use of ‘restrained elegance,’ as he introduced a new delicacy and grace to Sienese art (30). Other artistic styles noteworthy in the Maestá include: the use of realistic architectural structure, the integration of colour, design, line, solid, and void, unity of action, and spatial complexity (Van Os, 44; Weigelt, 11, 13). As a result, the Maestá profoundly influenced Sienese art (Van Os, 58). His artwork was, ‘like a rich mine from which scores of artists…took motifs, ideas, and inspiration.’
The Maestá, a dual-sided altarpiece painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna for the Siena Cathedral, provides a plethora of information about medieval society and emerging artistic styles. The customs, economics, pride, and religious devotion of the city are all evident in this piece, as is information about he artist himself. Art is not created to be hung out of context in a museum, it is an integral piece of society, both influenced by the past and determining the future.
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