The MaestÓ (1308-11)

1. History 2. Meaning 3. Structure
4. Problems 5. Interpretation 6. Analysis
7. The entire altarpiece

History of the Painting

The employment contract concerning the MaestÓ, drawn up on 4 October 1308 between the Cathedral workman Jacopo, son of the late Giliberto Mariscotti, and Duccio di Buoninsegna, is preserved in the State Archives of Siena. The contract contains a set of clauses which, rather than giving practical advice regarding the execution of the work, lay down certain rules of conduct: the painting should be entirely by the artist's own hand, he must undertake the task with all the skill and ingenuity that God has granted him, and must work uninterruptedly accepting no other jobs until the great picture should be completed. As further security he swore on the Gospel to abide by the agreement "bona fide, sine fraude". The daily wage was sixteen soldi, a substantial sum considering the vastness of the undertaking which would require years of work and large quantities of materials (preparation of the panels, colours, gold), for the cost of which Duccio was not liable. No expense was to be spared. Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a chronicler of the mid-fourteenth century, records that "it was the most beautiful picture ever seen and made, and cost more than three thousand gold florins". The figure was certainly exaggerated but was nevertheless very large, one of the highest paid to an artist.

About three years later the MaestÓ was ready to be shown to the worshipping crowds of the faithful. An unknown contemporary writer gives an account of what happened in Siena on 9 June 1311, which for the occasion was declared a public holiday: "and on the day that (it) was carried to the Cathedral, the shops were closed and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Comune, and all the people, and in order all the most distinguished were close behind the picture with lighted candles in their hands; and the women and children were following with great devotion: and they all accompanied the picture as far as the Cathedral, going round the Campo in procession, and according to custom, the bells rang in glory and in veneration of such a noble picture as this, . . . and all that day was spent in worship and alms-giving to the poor, praying to the Mother of God, our protectress, to defend us by her infinite mercy from all adversity, and to guard us against the hand of traitors and enemies of Siena".

The picture remained on the high altar until 1505, when owing to repairs it was placed beside the altar of St Sebastian, now the altar of the Crucifixion. Because of this move Vasari, perhaps rather inattentive in spite of the effort he claimed to have made, did not manage to see it in 1568: "I tried to discover where the picture now is, but for all my diligence I was never able to find it". On 1 August 1771 the altarpiece was dismembered. In order to separate the two painted surfaces it was roughly sawn into seven parts and split up in correspondence with the single panels, sparing neither the predella nor the crowning section. The poplar boards, glued together and tightened with nails, proved very hard to cut away and the result was ruinous; the figures of the Virgin and Child on the front were damaged by the blade striking through. The panels were carelessly deposited "in some mezzanines on the third floor of the house of the Opera del Duomo . . . in a low, dark place" and were then reassembled and placed in the Cathedral again, in the chapels of Sant'Ansano and the Sacrament. As a consequence of all this, not only was the carpentry destroyed (frames, pinnacles, dividing elements) but several compartments of the predella and crowning section were lost - eight of these turned up in foreign museums and collections. In 1878 those parts still in Siena were brought together again in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, where they have remained to the present day.

Eight of the missing panels are scattered around various museums in America and Europe: Annunciation, Healing of the Blind Man, and Transfiguration (National Gallery, London), Nativity between the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and the Calling of Peter and Andrew (Washington, National Gallery of Art), Temptation of Christ on the Mount (Frick Collection, New York), Christ and the Samaritan (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), Resurrection of Lazarus (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas).

Meaning of the Painting

As already stated, the sacred picture takes on a new meaning: side by side with its religious significance (publicly decreed in 1260 when the Virgin was elected supreme protectress) is the political aspect, referring to specific local events. It is no accident that the saints surrounding Mary include the city's four patrons (from the left Ansano, Savino, as well as Crescenzio and Victor), easily recognisable by their names in writing and depicted, significantly, on their knees in supplication: if the Virgin is the intercessor between Christ and humanity, it is Siena who is praying and the patron saints intercede for her. The words painted on the step of the throne clearly confirm everything that the iconography is meant to convey: "Mater Sancta Dei sis causa Senis requiei sis Ducio vita te quia pinxit ita" (O Holy Mother of God, grant peace to Siena and life to Duccio who has painted you thus). The focal point is the urban reality, a community united only in a very general sense, and extremely varied in its social make-up with sharply divided secular and ecclesiastical powers. The members of the local government ("the Signori of the Nine") and their officials also took part in the procession, along with the community of the faithful and the clergy. The event therefore goes beyond a solely religious context and involves the entire populace. The Comune met part of the expenses for the celebrations, such as paying the "players of trumpets, bagpipes and castanets" who accompanied the long procession with their music. This seems to pave the way for when, a few years later in 1315, Simone Martini's MaestÓ fresco was painted not in a church (the usual place for veneration), but in the Town Hall, in the Sala del Mappamondo, where the Council of the Nine carried out its governmental duties. In this profane setting the sacred element merges with the earthly dimension, becoming the symbol of the city.

Structure of the Painting

Originally Duccio's MaestÓ, painted on both sides, was complex in its structural organization. The central panel, showing on the front side the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints and on the back side, in twenty-six compartments, Stories of the Passion of Christ, had a predella with episodes from the Early Life of Christ alternating with six prophets on the front, and scenes from His Public Life on the back. It was surmounted by panels (on the front, the Last Days of the Virgin, on the back, stories of Christ after the Resurrection) that culminated in pinnacles representing angels. An inventory of 1423 shows that the painting had been provided with a baldachin with three small tabernacles and carved angels; when set in motion by a special mechanism the latter held out to the priest the necessities for celebrating Mass: "a panel painted all over with figures of Our Lady and numerous Saints, with the three little vaults at the top in four iron borders, and three small tabernacles with tiny golden angels in relief inside, coming down to celebrate the holy mass with the eucharist and vessels and hand cloths". A small picture in the tax office, of 1482, representing the offering of the city keys to the Madonna, shows the Cathedral interior where part of the MaestÓ is visible, painted as described in the inventory; above, on the left, the round window can also be seen.

The division of the altarpiece in the eighteenth century has made it difficult to determine the exact structure of the original work and the sequence of the sections in the predella and crowning parts. In any case, the loss of four panels which, in pairs, made up the centre of the crowning section means that any reconstruction is incomplete. It is thought that these panels were: on the front, the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin; on the back, the Ascension and Christ in Glory. In the opinion of Alessandro Conti, Duccio's hand can be recognized in a Coronation of the Virgin in the SzÚpművÚszeti Muzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) in Budapest. He believes that this was the central panel of the crowning section. The fifteenth-century Commentary by Lorenzo Ghiberti, would seem to support the suggestion that the MaestÓ included this scene: "and on the front the Coronation of Our Lady and on the back the New Testament". Every trace has been lost of the first scene on the back of the predella which most probably represented a Baptism of Christ. Furthermore, if we accept Miklˇs Boskovits' suggestion that there were two painted panels on the shorter side of the predella, it would seem that the altarpiece is also missing a Baptist Pointing at Christ, which the art historian believes is in the museum in Budapest, as well as a Temptation in the Desert, the present whereabouts of which are unknown. A document in the Archives of the Opera del Duomo (of uncertain date, perhaps 1308-9) makes mention of some "little angels above"; on the basis of this information Stubblebine has suggested that the altarpiece had seven pinnacles with busts of angels above the topmost crowning. Four of these panels have come to light (Stoclet Collection, Brussels; Museum of Art, Philadelphia; the J. H. van Heeck Collection, 's Heerenbergh; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachussetts), but only the Angels in Brussels and Philadelphia are held to be Duccio's work.

Problems

Since thirty-two months are held to be insufficient timewise for the execution of the altarpiece, recent criticism has put forward alternative suggestions regarding the time of execution. Traditionally, the work was done between October 1308 and June 1311. On the one hand, John Pope-Hennessy has argued that since the contract of 9 October 1308 contains no practical suggestions on the execution of the altarpiece, it is not the first draft but a secondary agreement. The work would thus have begun before this date. On the other hand, John White maintains that 9 June 1311 should not be considered the terminus ante quem for the completion of the work because the predellas and crowning sections were carried out after its solemn removal to the Cathedral.

Another complicated problem is that of the painter's assistants. Although the contract includes the clause obliging Duccio to work "suis manibus", it is reasonable to suppose that he had help. For a work of this size it is likely that Duccio made use of artists in his workshop, which was much frequented according to Tizio, who wrote, circa 1530: "ex cujus officina veluti ex equo Troiano pictores egregii prodierunt" (from whose workshop distinguished painters emerged as heroes emerged from the horse of Troy). There is a theory suggesting a radical division of labour between the master of the workshop and his helpers and attributing different parts to Ugolino di Nerio, Segna di Bonaventura, the Master of the fresco of Casolo, Simone Martini, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. This theory, although interesting, has not received much support since it seems to ignore the whole concept of the medieval workshop. In surroundings where taste and inclination were identical, the stylistic alternatives adopted by the head of the workshop were realized in a spirit of close collaboration, aiming for overall unity rather than individual characterization. The works produced were therefore formally very similar, stamped by the same basic approach. Bearing in mind the strong diversity of expression apparent in the artists referred to by this theory, it seems impossible to be able to pick out such distinctly separate personalities in a work of such uniformity of feature.

Interpretation of the work

Due to its prevalently narrative character, the interpretation of the work progressed along specific rational lines. It began on the front side with the episodes from the Early Life of Christ, which were a suitable complement to the prospect, entirely devoted to maternity and the mother-and-son relationship. The narration continued on the back predella with episodes from the Public Life of Christ anticipating the events contained in the twenty six compartments of the Stories of the Passion, where from the Entry into Jerusalem to the Meeting on the Road to Emmaus, the most dramatic moments of the New Testament are illustrated in great literal detail. In the crowning section the stories of Christ after the Resurrection, carrying on from the last episodes of the main composition, completed the back of the work. Finally, the narrative ended with the Last Days of the Virgin on the front of the crowning section.

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