DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena)
Tempera on wood, 429 x 290 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The picture's name derives from the Rucellai Chapel of Santa Maria Novella where it remained, after being moved to several different places inside the church, from 1591 to 1937, the year of the Giotto exhibition. It was then transferred to the Uffizi. The panel was commissioned in 1285.
The painting has been the subject of much controversy among critics. In the fifteenth century it was thought to be the work of Cimabue, and this attribution, supported by Vasari, was accepted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The design of the frame decorated with roundels, the three pairs of angels flanking the throne and the sweeping gesture of the Child's blessing hand, show undeniable similarities to Cimabue's Maestà, now in the Louvre but at that time in the Church of San Francesco in Pisa. This may have been the inspiration of Duccio; Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives (not always completely reliable), documents a not improbable sojourn in Pisa.
The elements from Cimabue are enriched with delicate Gothic overtones, unknown at that time, but which were to become a permanent feature of Sienese art. The brilliance of colour, the curving outlines and the sinuous movement of the gilded edging of Mary's cloak are all new. The entire structure of the throne reflects the influence from beyond the Alps: the panels are slender mullioned windows, the foot-rest is supported by a light double arch, the back is crowned with delicate arching and little pinnacles.
The iconographical interpretation is also new in that the angels holding up the throne no longer form the crowning part of a solemn and magnificent background but are all looking towards the Virgin in attitudes of intense emotional participation.
The connection with the 1285 contract is borne out by the painted frame that fulfils a specific iconographical purpose in accordance with the intentions of the Confraternity of the Laudesi. This was founded within the Dominican order, around 1244-45, with the object of fighting heresy by means of an intensive preaching programme. In the medallion placed at the top is the image of Christ. On his left are twelve figures, mostly prophets and patriarchs, among whom are: John the Baptist immediately next to the Redeemer, King David crowned and with the psalms, the young Daniel holding a roll. On the right of the Virgin, the Apostles, to whom the Child is turning to give his blessing, represent the New Testament. Peter and John the Evangelist are the first of the saints, many of whom are complete with books and scrolls that refer to the Gospel and in a more general sense underline the importance of preaching.
The roundels in the lower section, more easily visible to the faithful, contain images of the saints to whom the Laudesi and the Dominicans were particularly devoted. In the centre is St Augustine of Hippo, whose rule guided the Dominican friars. On the left are Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic. On the right is Zenobius, early medieval bishop and patron of the city, accompanied by Peter the Martyr, the then recently canonized founder of the Confraternity. The significance of the frame and the medallions is therefore not solely ornamental but conveys the commissioners' desire for self-proclamation: the Dominican brotherhood was to be visualized as a lay group championing the cult of the Virgin.