Although Italy imported Byzantine influences from port cities of Venice and Ravenna, that impact was hugely amplified in 1204 with the capture of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the center of the Eastern Christian Church.

The brief tenure in Constantinople of the so-called Latin Empire ushered in an influx of Byzantine art and artists into Italy, radically shaping the development of Italian Gothic art.

Duccio Maesta.  Detail from front panel.

In the 14th century the two most influential city-states were Florence and Siena, which competed culturally, economically and militarily.

Unsurprisingly, a school of Italian Gothic painting developed in each city; while Giotto di Bondone, known as Giotto (c. 1267-1337), dominated in Florence, in Siena the most famous painter was Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255 – before 1319), known as Duccio.

Concurrently, rural monasteries were being superseded by urban cathedrals to more readily served the burgeoning populations of bankers and merchants.   This “age of cathedrals”, from roughly 1150 to 1400, consisted of building cathedrals (and re-building those destroyed by fire).

What better way to flaunt newly acquired power, influence and wealth (and of course, to show one’s piety) than to commission altarpieces? They were sought not only for the new cathedrals but also for private chapels and secondary altars.

An altarpiece is simply a devotional painting in tempera (powdered pigments typically mixed with egg yolk, water and glue) on wood panel.  From the 13th century onward, altarpieces became increasingly elaborate — and none more so than Maesta (majesty) by Duccio.

The republic of Siena was ruled by elders called the Nine (Nova), who believed the Virgin Mary had favored their 1260 victory over the Florentines in the battle of Monteperti.  Siena chose the Virgin Mary as its patron saint and protectoress of its city, and the Nine choose her for the altarpiece theme in its new cathedral completed in 1260.

Duccio and his assistants began work on this pretigious commission for the high altar in 1308, painting it on both sides because the main altar was in the center of the sanctuary.

Maesta was finished in 1311 amidst city-wide processions and celebrations.  As originally created, Maesta had a seven foot high central panel (Virgin and Child in Majesty or Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints) surmounted by 7 pinnacles above and a predella of panels (smaller narrative scenes pertaining to the main one) at the base.

Maesta remained on the main altar until 1506, when it was moved to the transept.  In 1771 the Duccio masterpiece was sawed into pieces to enhance its saleability. Several of the initial 50 panels in Maesta have been lost, while some are in art museums. The remaining altarpiece is now secure in a Sienese museum.

Duccio. Maesta.  Tempera and gold on panel, 1308-1311.  7′ x 13′ by 6 1/4″.  From Siena Cathedral.  Museo dell’Opera del Duoma, Siena, Italy.

The main panel depicts the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven surrounded by angels and saints, including four other patron saints of Siena kneeling in the foreground. She dominates the panel, swathed in the deep blue reserved for her by artistic tradition, and sits in a throne opened up as if to welcome viewers. The crowd surrounding her includes two apostles, John the Evangelist and Peter, while the ten other apostles are nestled into the arches above the Virgin.

The lower pinnacles (above the apostles) feature scenes of the Virgin’s last earthly days, with Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin on the left and the Burial of the Virgin on the right.  The bottom predella panels depict Christ’s earlier life, starting on the left with Annunciation and concluding with Christ among the Doctors on the far right.

This main panel exemplifies how Duccio melded Gothic and Byzantine elements.  He combined Byzantine tradition – a formal and symmetrical composition; standardized figures and facial types of many of the angels and saints; flat shapes – with hints of Gothic influence.
The four kneeling saints have individualized faces; figures are not all fully frontal; the typical hard body outlines are softened; and the saints seem to be conversing with eye contact.  Further, the drapery falls naturally, hinting at three dimensions underneath.

Maesta is the only signed Duccio artwork.  Note his signature wrapping around the base of the throne, which translates as,

Holy Mother of God, be the cause of peace to Siena, and of life to Duccio because he has painted you thus.

On the back of the Maesta altarpiece (above), Duccio experimented with naturalism and humanization of religious subject matter. He depicted Christ’s later life – his ministry (on the predella); his Passion on the main panel in 26 scenes; and his Resurrection and meeting with his apostles (on the pinnacles).

In the panel Betrayal of Jesus, Duccio collapses time and concurrently depicts three events within a traditional background:

  • Christ’s betrayal by Judas’ kiss;
  • the hasty exit by his disciples on the right; and
  • at the left, Peter removing the ear of a high priest’s servant.

Observe the graceful draping of the men’s robes, and the convincing mass of the men in them.  Duccio allows the figures to react with discernible emotion – there is fear in the eyes of the fleeing disciples; anger on Peter’s face and hatred on Judas’.  Of all Duccio’s famous paintings, Maesta most heavily influenced art history.