Analysis of the Maestą

Main panel, front
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints
Front predella
The Early Life of Christ
Back predella
Scenes from the Public Life of Christ
Main panel, back
Stories of the Passion
Back crowning section
Stories of Christ after Resurrection
Front crowning section
Last Days of the Virgin



Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints

The main feature of the altarpiece is its horizontal form. This is entirely new. Unlike the Rucellai Madonna and the Maestą in the Cimabue tradition, the Sienese painting is larger, the picture being extended in width. Originally, complete with predellas, crowning section, pinnacles and frames, it must have measured about five metres by five and covered the whole length of the altar, dominating the apse. Its formal grandeur is justified by the nature of the work: as a great devotional picture it was intended for common worship, for the gaze of the faithful. The inscription along the lower edge of the throne, by which the city consecrates its spiritual submission, is not the only confirmation of its votive nature. Accurate restoration (from 1953 to 1958) revealed that the faces of the Madonna and Child were badly damaged as a result of being "riddled with nails driven in to hold up rosaries and other ornaments". The altarpiece was therefore not only an object of sacred monumentality but fulfilled a specific cult role in direct and tangible ways.

The movements of the heavenly court are articulated with subtle symmetry: the characters surrounding the Virgin are divided into two ranks by the throne, which is the central axis of the entire composition. While the mirror-like correspondence of the two sides is broken up by tiny details (the gestures of the saints or the glance of an angel), Mary stands out from the rest of the group. Her extraordinary size proclaims her as the unchallenged protagonist, even in respect of the Child, who is neither making a gesture of benediction nor turning towards his mother but is silently watching the faithful. The angels, perfectly distributed spatially, acquire greater naturalness around the throne, on which they are lightly leaning. The throne itself, decorated with inlaid polychrome marble, is depicted in a frontal position with widened-out sides. Next to the angels, from left to right, are saints Catherine of Alexandria, Paul, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Peter, and Agnes, recognizable by their symbols and names painted on the lower edge (the inscriptions are missing only for Paul and Peter). On the bottom row are the four patron saints, also identifiable by their names: Ansano, baptizer of the Sienese and decapitated in the Val d'Arbia in the fourth century; Savino, a martyred bishop; Crescenzio, a boy martyred under Diocletian, whose remains were transferred to the Cathedral in 1058; Victor, a Christian soldier, native of Syria, proclaimed patron after 1288. Above, in little arches whose frames have been lost, are the apostles distinguished by their abbreviated names against the gold background. Again from left, they are, Thaddeus, Simon, Philip, James the Greater, Andrew, and Matthew, James the Less, Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthias. The use of gold as a precious complement to the glorification of Mary is essential. The background, the haloes, the garments of the Child, of Catherine, Savino, and Agnes, the cloth covering the back of the throne and the Cosmatesque inlays of the latter, all dazzle the onlooker with their splendid glitter. The fabric of the garments and the backcloth axe embroidered with a continuous small golden pattern which gives the effect of real material. Little space is left for the use of other colours. In harmony with the profusion of gold, the choice falls on warm tints (shades of opaque reds, greens, blues and browns) while the Virgin is wrapped in a mantle of an intense ultramarine blue.

The Early Life of Christ

An analysis of the style confirms the theory that the predellas and crowning sections were executed after the main panels; the spatial solutions, the slender forms and the harmonic interchange between the action and the setting reveal firmness and confidence. Again, there is stylistic evidence that the episodes of the Early Life of Christ were the first to be painted. Critics generally agree over the reconstruction of the predella. From the left were the Annunciation; Isaiah; the Nativity; Ezekiel; the Adoration of the Magi; Solomon; the Presentation in the Temple; Malachi; the Massacre of the Innocents; Jeremiah; the Flight into Egypt; Hosea; the Disputation with the Doctors.

ANNUNCIATION

The episode of the Annunciation, told only by Luke, is set in vividly articulated architectural surroundings, where consistency of line and colour lend harmonic energy to the whole. Gabriel is portrayed in movement, in the act of greeting (his hand and right foot are the opposite ends of a perfect diagonal), while Mary appears to be drawing back. She is illuminated by the ray of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a small white dove, penetrating from a cusped arch. The unreal perspective of the vase of lilies, reminiscent of Oriental art, has often been noted. The panel is in the National Gallery of London.

NATIVITY

Although remaining faithful to Byzantine iconography, the Nativity scene pays greater attention to space, which is well distributed and amplified by the measured rhythm of the gestures. The narrative is enriched with descriptive details, combining facts drawn from Luke and from the apocryphal gospels, such as the two midwives bathing the Child (probably Salome and Zelomi) and the ox and the ass, while Joseph is portrayed in his usual thoughtful attitude, sitting outside the grotto.

ISAIAH AND EZEKIEL

The statues carved on the Cathedral facade have been identified as the most likely models for the figures of the prophets. In spite of their small size they preserve a solemn aspect, and the linearity of contour is enhanced by the gleaming gold ground. The words written on the angel's scroll are unfortunately illegible, but the prophet Isaiah's can be read: "Ecce virgo concepiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel (Isaiah 7, 14: And a virgin will conceive and bear a son and his name will be Emmanuel). Ezekiel's scroll reads: "Porta haec clausa erit; non aperietur, et vir non transibit per eam" (Ezekiel 44, 2: This gate shall be kept shut: it shall not be opened, and no man may pass through it). The panel with the Nativity and the two prophets is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

ADORATION OF THE MAGI

In the Adoration of the Magi the detail of the king holding his crown on his arm while bending to kiss the child's feet is taken from the pulpit by Nicola Pisano. It is equally interesting to note the two camels, an evident reminder of the eastern origins of the Magi, while a star, badly damaged through loss of colour, shines above the grotto.

SOLOMON

The prophet with a crown could be either David or Solomon, but the inscription on the roll, referring to the Adoration of the Magi, seems to be more appropriate to the latter: "Reges Tarsis et insulae munera offerunt; reges arabum et Saba dona adducent" (Psalms 72, 9: The kings of Tarshish and the islands shall bring offerings; the kings of the Arabs and of Sheba shall present gifts).

PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE

In the Presentation in the Temple the consecration rite takes place in a graceful architectural setting of marble enlivened by polychrome inlays, that reproduces the ecclesiastical environment with strong allusion to contemporary religious buildings.

MALACHI

The next prophet is Malachi, whose figure in Carli's opinion is reminiscent of the Plato by Giovanni Pisano on the Cathedral faēade, and who announces the theme of salvation: "Veniet ad templum sanctum suum dominator dominus quem vos queritis, et angelum testamenti quem vos vultis" (Malachi 3, 1: The Lord whom you desire will enter his holy temple, and the messenger of the convenat whom you yearn for).

MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS AND JEREMIAH

The scene of the Massacre of the Innocents (which also portrays Herod in the act of ordering the slaughter) is fully explained in the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah, where one can read: "Vox in Rama audita est, ploratus et ululatus multus: Rachel plorans filios suos" (Jeremiah 31, 15: A cry is heard in Rama, a groaning and bitter lamentation: Rachel is weeping for her sons). The despair of the weeping mothers who form an animated group is dramatically conveyed; they are in contrast to the rhythmic, unhurried gestures of the two soldiers who continue the destruction unmoved.

FLIGHT INTO EGYPT AND HOSEA

The Flight into Egypt also includes two scenes. On the left is the figure of Joseph asleep. The writing on the scroll consisting of the words of the angel who appeared to him explains his warning dream: "Accipe puerum et matrem eius et fuge in Egitum" (Matthew 2, 13: Take the child and his mother and go into Egypt). The harsh rocky crags and small green trees are the background to the journey (the boy leading the donkey is not mentioned in the canonical gospels), while Hosea's roll gives the following comment on the scene: "Ex Egipto vocavi filium meum" (Hosea 11, l: I have called my son out of Egypt).

DISPUTATON WITH THE DOCTORS

The last compartment of the front predella is devoted to the Disputation with the Doctors, recounted both in the gospel according to Luke and in the apocryphal writings of Matthew and the Infancy of Christ. The interior of the temple, dominated by a gaily coloured floor (described by Brandi as a "Caucasian carpet"), includes sophisticated details such as the four Cupids enclosed in little niches and the capitals of the slender pillars silhouetted against the gold background.

Scenes from the Public Life of Christ

Originally the Scenes from the Public Life, which formed the subject of the compartments of the back predella, began logically with a Baptism of Christ, now lost. Of the various suggestions as to the original order, the most generally accepted one is the following: the Baptism (lost), the Temptation on the Temple, the Temptation on the Mountain, the Calling of Peter and Andrew, the Wedding at Cana, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, the Healing of the Blind Man, the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.

TEMPTATION ON THE TEMPLE AND TEMPTATION ON THE MOUNT

The panels illustrating the second and third temptations of Christ (the first one, in the wilderness, is thought to have been on the smaller side, imagining the predella as a three-dimensional structure) display considerable progress in the composition and arrangement of space. The tiled floor and the pillars, visible in the interior of the building in the Temptation on the Temple, are rendered successfully in perspective; they accompany the polygonal form of the building, without breaking up its rigorous geometry.

In the Temptation on the Mount the majestic grandeur of all the kingdoms of the world is depicted with superb skill. The imaginative power of the architecture, in clear and luminous shades, is extraordinary: loggias and battlements alternate with round belltowers, red-tiled roofs and Gothic windows, all protected by solid encircling walls. The panel is in the Frick Collection in New York.

CALLING OF PETER AND ANDREW

The panel with the Calling of Peter and Andrew is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Although adhering to the iconographic schemes of Byzantine and local art (clearly related to the scene on the same subject in the thirteenth-century Altarpiece of St Peter in the Pinacoteca at Siena) it pays greater attention to the overall composition. The distribution of space is regular and the surroundings simple; the figures are felicitously placed between the transparency of the sea and the gold of the sky.

WEDDING AT CANA

The panel with the Wedding at Cana is livelier and greater importance seems to have been given to the descriptive details than to the narration. The eye is drawn to the cheerfully laid table, embellished with the precision of a miniaturist, and to the quick movements of the servants. Without the presence of the bride and groom the picture has a genuine commemorative purpose: that of celebrating the first miracle performed by Christ. In the foreground are small casks out of which water is gushing, fat-bellied water jars, jugs and glasses now full of wine.

CHRIST AND THE SAMARITAN WOMAN

Once again urban architecture, accurate and regular in its structural lay-out, lends colour to the scenes. In Christ and the Samaritan Woman (in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid) the geometrical compactness of the city of Sichar and the well on which Christ is sitting are in contrast with the slight figure of the woman.

HEALING OF THE BLIND MAN

The same use of space through a delicate balance of scene is to be found in the Healing of the Blind Man. The followers of Christ are grouped in front of a massive crenellated building, while the figure of the blind man, repeated in two distinct narrative moments, is placed in a more open area: the short stretch of road. The compartment is in the National Gallery, London.

TRANSFIGURATION

The abundant use of gold in the Transfiguration, giving it an atmosphere of luminous transparency, is most appropriate to this scene. Peter, John and James, with Moses and Elijah, surround Christ, who is standing immobile in his lavishly highlighted robe. This last particular is conspicuous in the episodes after Christ's death, as if to underline the miraculous nature of the appearances. The painting is in the National Gallery. London.

RAISING OF LAZARUS

On the bottom right of the Raising of Lazarus is what remains of a fairly drastic change of mind. Originally the tomb was a horizontal sarcophagus placed at the foot of the hill on which Lazarus was probably sitting. The result was evidently not to the artist's satisfaction and the sarcophagus was transformed into a sepulchre dug out of the rock. This change also affected the resurrected figure, which as a consequence assumes a peculiar oblique position. The spontaneous gesture of the character sitting beside the open tomb and holding his nose is remarkably lifelike. The picture is in Texas in the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth.

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