Analysis of the Maestą (Page 2)

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

Stories of the Passion

It is interesting to note the different function of the scenes represented on the two sides of the Maestą. The front side was a devotional image destined for the community of the faithful (which explains its size, clearly visible from every corner of the church), while the back was essentially a narrative cycle intended for the closer observation of the clergy in the sanctuary. The main element of the back consisted of fourteen panels, originally separated by little columns or pilasters (of about 4 cm) which were lost, together with the outside frame, in the dismembering of 1771. Except for the Entry into Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, each panel contains two episodes. The central part of the lower row with the Agony in the Garden and Christ taken Prisoner is twice as wide as the other compartments (but the same as the Crucifixion panel) because the events portrayed are composed of different narrative units. Numerous contrasting theories have been advanced by critics for the order of interpretation, rendered problematical by the variety of New Testament sources drawn on by Duccio. It is certain that the cycle began at the bottom left and ended at the top right, proceeding from left to right first on the lower row and then on the upper.


The scene Entry into Jerusalem is unusual because of the attention given to the landscape, which is rich in detail. The paved road, the city gate with battlements, the wall embrasures, the slender towers rising up above and the polygonal building of white marble reproduce a remarkably realistic layout, both urbanistically and architecturally. The small tree, withered and leafless, that shows behind Christ's halo, is the fig-tree that Christ found without fruit. Florens Deuchler has suggested that the literary source is a historical work of the first century A.D., the De Bello Judaico by Flavius Josephus which was well-known in the Middle Ages. The panel by Duccio is a faithful reproduction of the description of Jerusalem in Book V. Infrared photography during restoration has revealed several changes of mind regarding the area around the tree in the centre and the road.


Only John tells the story of the Washing of the Feet and the events should therefore be read from the top downwards, according to the order in which they occur in this gospel. The setting is the interior, in central perspective, of an unadorned room; the only decorative elements are the coffered ceiling and the multifoiled insert placed on the rear wall. This detail must also be imagined in the Last Supper, hidden by Christ's halo, since it reappears in Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles, which according to the gospel occurs in the same place.

Echoes from Byzantine art can be seen in the Washing of the Feet, in the crowded throng of the apostles and Peter's gesture, while Christ's position recalls Western models. The shape of the black sandals, aptly described by Cesare Brandi "as if they were precious onyx scarabs", is typical.


The Last Supper is dominated by the central figure of Jesus who, to the astonishment of the onlookers, is offering bread to Judas Iscariot (shown in other panels with the same features). An unusual experiment with space has been made with John, whose position is traditional: the head of the favourite disciple is painted in front of the figure of Christ, and his halo behind Christ's shoulders. Wooden bowls, knives, a decorated jug and a meat dish, and the paschal lamb, are set on the table, which is covered with a simple tablecloth woven in a small diamond pattern.


Following the story in John again, the scenes succeed each other from the bottom upwards although occurring simultaneously. While Jesus is giving the new commandment to the apostles (now eleven), Judas betrays him for thirty pieces of silver. In Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles, his sideways position, shown up by the half-open door, is in contrast to the closeknit group of disciples. They are all turning the same way in thoughtful attitudes, the soft drapery of their coloured robes animating the whole scene. As in the Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper Duccio has avoided haloes since the conspicuous shape of the golden discs might have created an overpowering effect, besides taking up most of the space in the picture.


The Betrayal of Judas is set in external surroundings where the space is arranged in varying degrees of depth. The group in the foreground, on the same level as the pillar on the right, is gathered in front of a loggia with cross-vaults and round arches. The polygonal tower, a little behind the central building, completes the background.


In the Agony in the Garden, Jesus is turning to Peter, James the Greater and John, shaking them and warning them not to fall into temptation, while the other disciples are sleeping. On the right, in accordance with the Gospel of St Luke, which is the only one to mention an angel appearing, he withdraws in prayer. In this quiet setting, both episodes are visualized through the gestures of Christ, Peter and the angel.


The Mount of Olives becomes the scene of unexpected agitation in Christ Taken Prisoner, containing three separate episodes: in the centre the kiss of Judas, to the left Peter cutting off the ear of the servant Malchus, to the right the flight of the apostles. The dramatic intensity of the scene, heightened by the crowded succession of spears, lanterns and torches, shows in the excited movements of the characters and the expressiveness of their faces. The landscape, after long being an anonymous feature of minor importance, takes on a new scenic role. The vegetation and rocky crags of Byzantine inspiration seem to be an integral part of the action: in the Agony in the Garden the three trees on the right isolate Christ, while in Christ Taken Prisoner they enclose the main episode, as if allowing the disciples to escape.


The rule of absolute autonomy being given to each single scene is successfully broken in this panel. The two episodes, told by John, occur simultaneously but in different places and the stairs, a material link in space, also connect the time-factor. While Jesus is brought before the High Priest Annas, Peter remains in the courtyard where a servant-girl recognizes him as a friend of the accused: his raised hand indicates the words of denial. The surroundings are full of vivid architectural detail: the doorway with a pointed arch opening onto the room with a porch, the Gothic window of the small balcony, the pilaster strips on the back wall of the upper floor and the coffered ceiling, this time with smaller squares. Peter, whose halo in a curious fashion includes the head and shoulders of the person next to him, is warming his feet at the fire in a highly realistic manner. Lastly, because of her vertical position and arm resting on the handrail, the figure of the serving-maid about to go up the stairs was evidently the cause of much indecision since several "changes of mind" have been discovered around the skirt.


According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, the compartment should be read from the bottom upwards. The scenes take place in the same surroundings, the lawcourt of the Sanhedrin, where Christ is brought before the High Priest Caiaphas and the Elders. In Christ Before Caiaphas, great importance is given to the person with raised hand and pointing finger looking significantly at the onlooker; the affronted gesture, isolated among a crowd of helmets and anonymous faces, catches the attention of the viewer. Caiaphas too is depicted in an attitude of wrath and indignation at the words of Jesus: with his hands on his breast he tears his red robes, showing the tunic underneath (this detail is told by Matthew and Mark).

Gestures are more agitated in the scene Christ Mocked where Christ blindfolded (according to the version in Mark and Luke) and immobile in his dark cloak, is mocked and beaten by the Pharisees. Outside the room, the cock painted at the top alludes to the second and third denials of Peter.


The order of the episodes is from the top (Christ Accused by the Pharisees) downwards (Pilate's First Interrogation of Christ). The surroundings for the scenes in which Pilate appears are new since the events take place in the governor's palace. The slender spiral columns of white marble and the decoration carved along the top of the walls seem to refer to classical architecture. Pilate too, portrayed with the solemnity of a Roman emperor and crowned with a laurel wreath, evokes the world of classical antiquity. It is interesting to note how the latter's face still bears the slashings caused by medieval religious fervour. The function of the beams placed on the capitals supporting a light and apparently unstable wooden roof is harder to explain. As in the gospel, the group of Pharisees, animated by lively gestures (again the hand with pointing finger), is depicted outside the building: the Jews avoid going inside in order not to be defiled and to be able to eat the Passover meal. In the upper scene, an overwhelming aura of solitude surrounds Christ.


The narrative continues on the upper row with two episodes passed down by Luke only. Pilate, on learning that Jesus belonged to the jurisdiction of Herod, sent the prisoner to the king to be judged by him. After questioning Jesus and treating him with ridicule and contempt, Herod sent him back to the Roman governor dressed in a conspicuous garment, the white robe that distinguished lunatics. Action proceeds from the bottom (Christ before Herod) upwards (Christ before Pilate Again); in the lower scene a servant is holding out to Christ the robe which in the upper scene he is already wearing. Although placed in different architectural surroundings (the governor's palace present in the last compartment on the lower row appears again), the arrangement of the two scenes is almost identical, both in the distribution of the characters and in their movements. Christ, gazing with extreme sadness at the onlooker, is withdrawn in total silence. Herod anticipates and repeats (Pilate's First Interrogation of Christ) the position of Pilate where the solemn movement gives a rather static effect. The king's throne with steps, its basic structure embellished and adorned, is more ornate than the governor's simple wooden seat.


The scenes should be read from top (Flagellation) to bottom (Crown of Thorns) even though at this point the pictorial narrative unexpectedly abandons the gospel order of events. Matthew affirms that the episode of Pilate washing his hands comes before both the Flagellation and the Crown of Thorns. Instead in the picture the order is inverted. However, it still adheres faithfully to the written source and the scenes are illustrated in minute detail. Considering that the Flagellation is barely mentioned in the gospels, the descriptive details show remarkable inventiveness, aimed at illustrating each moment of the Passion. The figure of Pilate disobeys all the rules of perspective: although obvious from the seat on which he is standing that he is inside the building, he manages to stretch his arm in front of the pillar, in a position parallel to the horizontal level of the floor.


The story continues from the bottom (Pilate Washing his Hands) to the top (Way to Calvary. An entire compartment is devoted to Pilate's action, although the story is told briefly and only by Matthew. Again, to lend vitality to each single movement, different planes of perspective are superimposed in the scene, both in the figure of Pilate, and in the large group crowding in front of the left pillar. The base of this should be parallel to that of the column next to it, but it is much further back.

The scene on the Way to Calvary, as Duccio represents it, has the specific purpose of acting as an intermediary between past and future events. On the one hand, the slender, erect figure of Christ, with his hands still tied, refers the onlooker to the various stages of the trial. On the other hand, the direction in which all the characters are moving (to the right, towards the panel with the Crucifixion) and the cross borne by Simon of Cyrene, allude to the terrible conclusion.


The emotional intensity of the Stories of the Passion, from Christ Taken Prisoner to the Way to Calvary, reaches its most dramatic moment in the Crucifixion which, placed in the middle of the upper row, dominates the whole of the back section. The slender cross stands out against the gold ground, dividing the crowd into two separate groups. On the left are Christ's followers, subdued and orderly, their faces drawn with grief, amongst whom are Mary of Clopas, Mary Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene (dressed in red with her long hair unbound) and John the Evangelist. On the right, before the cross on Christ's left the priests and soldiers are shown mocking and insulting, with rough movements. The fine modelling of the figure of Christ is reminiscent of the plasticism of Gothic ivories, while the strong contrast of movement which opposes the characters has evident connections with the Crucifixion on the Cathedral pulpit, carved by Nicola Pisano from 1266-68. The surroundings are bare and scanty, the jagged rocks clearly alluding to Golgotha.


The Deposition, with the same gold background as the Crucifixion (excluding any possibility of distraction), is represented as intense embracing. Joseph of Arimathaea and John support the lifeless body, while Nicodemus removes the nails from the feet and the Virgin reaches out yearningly to her son, looking into his closed eyes. One of the Marys holds Christ's arm to her face, while the others, their hands covered by their veils, are tragic masks of grief. The little stream of blood under the cross, also present in the previous scene, has a dramatic realism.

The same characters appear in the Entombment (of the three women, the one with the blue garment is missing), all leaning over Christ's body. Joseph arranges the shroud, John gently lifts Christ's head, Mary kisses him for the last time. Only Mary Magdalene expresses her despair emotionally, lifting both her arms to heaven.


The original order is difficult to establish because the episode of the Descent into Hell is not mentioned in the canonical gospels, but recounted in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus. Although there are some reservations, most critics agree that the panel should be read from the top downwards. The subtlety of posture in the scene of the Three Marys at the Tomb is outstanding. The women are portrayed in attitudes of wonder and fear; their delicate backwards movement and gesticulating hands show their astonishment at the sudden apparition. For the design of the three figures it would seem that Duccio was inspired by the Sibyl carved by Giovanni Pisano on the faēade of Siena Cathedral. Opposite, the angel is sitting quietly on the rolled-away stone and pointing to the empty tomb. His white robe (lighter than the shroud draped over the edge of the sarcophagus) wraps him in soft folds which show up well against the dark rocks and illuminate the whole composition.

The Descent into Hell (Christ in Limbo), an iconographic theme little diffused in Western painting, shows clear traces of Byzantine art in the abundant use of gold on Jesus' robe and the unimaginative layout of the scene itself. Having burst open the gates of hell, Christ arrives in limbo to set his forefathers free: while helping Adam to rise, he treads on a hideous Satan, who lies vanquished and blind with rage.


The two episodes are read from the bottom to the top. In the Appearance to Mary Magdalene the rocky landscape becomes a stage setting: the steep ravines isolate the intimate dialogue in surroundings of absolute solitude, while the trees (which have not appeared, since Christ Taken Prisoner) are the only witnesses. Jesus is portrayed as in the Descent into Hell, with a cruciform staff from which a standard is flying, while Mary Magdalene catches the eye with her vivid red mantle. The slant of the rocks accompanies and emphasizes the form of her bending body.

Only the Gospel of Luke mentions that Christ, dressed like a pilgrim, appeared to the disciples on their way to Emmaus. Duccio adhered to the Gospel text, reproducing the portrait of an authentic medieval pilgrim: he is distinguished by the knapsack on his shoulder, the pilgrim's staff and the typical wide-brimmed hat. As in the lower scene, the composition is directed towards the right, where there is a village on a hill. An interesting detail is the paved road appearing in two variations: partly with round cobblestones and, below the main gate, with regularly cut stones geometrically laid out.

Stories of Christ after the Resurrection

The order of the compartments dedicated to the Stories of Christ after the Resurrection was probably the following: from the left, the Appearance behind Locked Doors; the Doubting Thomas; the Appearance on Lake Tiberias, the Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee; the Appearance while the Apostles are at Table; the Pentecost. A seventh panel is supposed to have existed in the centre, perhaps containing the Ascension and culminating in a representation of Christ in Glory. Unfortunately nothing is known of either scene.


Both Appearance behind Locked Doors and Doubting Thomas take place in the same surroundings, the house where the apostles took refuge for fear of the Jews. The door in the centre, firmly shut with a horizontal bar (a detail which emphasizes the miraculous nature of the event), frames and shows up the dominant figure of Christ, towards whom the two groups of apostles are converging.

The Doubting Thomas is the only panel, apart from the The Funeral Procession from the front crowning section, still in its probable original form. The position of Thomas's feet is curious: the right foot is painted as if his legs were crossed under his robe.


In the Appearance on Lake Tiberias the vertical position of the figures of Christ and Peter is in opposition to the compact volume of the group of apostles, giving balance and harmony to the spatial distribution. The painting is superior in narrative description to the scene of the Calling of Peter and Andrew (very similar in its basic layout), and greater significance is given to the actions of the characters. The two disciples are bending over to lift the heavy catch in a most lifelike pose.


The Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee is simpler and barer and descriptive details are deliberately left out: Christ is entrusting the apostles with the task of spreading the faith (the books that two of the disciples are holding are a reminder of preaching) and nothing must distract attention from his words.


Rather than referring to the episode told by Mark (in which Christ reproaches the eleven for not believing those who said they had seen him after his death), the Appearance to the Apostles alludes to the story in Luke, where Jesus appears before the disciples and, to dispel all their doubts, eats with them. The detail of the fish painted on the plates repeats the gospel text to the letter.


In the Pentecost Duccio goes back to traditional iconographic schemes and includes the Virgin, of whom no mention is made in the Acts of the Apostles, the source of the episode. Mary's entire figure, illuminated by the highlights of her robe, becomes a form with strongly curved outlines contrasting with the loose drapery of the disciples' garments. The succession of haloes echoes the group in a shining golden frame, on which twelve tongues of flame are burning - the symbol of the descent of the Holy Spirit. The panel has obviously been cut on the left side, where the twelfth apostle is missing; only the red ray descending from above remains.

The Last Days of the Virgin

Various conjectures have been made to establish both the number of panels and their original layout: they were probably seven (six are remaining) and the missing part, from the centre, was probably an Assumption of the Virgin, with the Budapest Coronation above it. The stories of the Virgin, drawn mainly from the Legenda Aurea by Jacob di Varagine, are in the following order: from the left, the Announcement of Death, the Parting from St John, the Parting from the Apostles, the Death (Dormitio Virginis), the Funeral, the Burial.


In the simple architectural frame enclosing the scenes space is articulated with effortless accuracy. The beamed ceiling, the linearity of the horizontal pattern on the back wall, the slender arches opening onto the room where Mary is sitting, lend calm elegance to the surroundings. In the Announcement of Death the angel, his robe light and fluttering, offers the palm branch to the Virgin - the palma mortis is present in all the episodes as an emblem of death and a symbol of paradise to come. The gesture of affection and intimacy between Mary and John, the favourite apostle to whom Christ on the point of death entrusted his mother, gives an atmosphere of tenderness to the next scene (Parting from St John). Outside the room the disciples are present at a more restrained embrace between Peter and Paul (included in the stories of the Virgin according to a tradition handed down by a few of the literary sources).


In the Parting from the Apostles the spatial element is harmoniously articulated by the slender pillar in the foreground which, respecting the distribution of characters, divides the room into two. The prominent figure of the standing apostle, identified as Paul, is clearly outlined against the dark space formed by the open door, balancing the horizontal image of Mary.


The moving scene of the Death of the Virgin shows a traditional approach drawn from Byzantine models, combined with freshness of composition. A multitude of haloed figures, orderly and dignified, recall the solemn court of heaven in the prospect. Only the apostles in the foreground, Peter and John, are portrayed in more spontaneous attitudes, while Christ holds up the animula, the soul of Mary who has just died.


In the Funeral Procession the apostles, led by John with the palm, are carrying the bier on which the body of the Virgin is laid. At the same time a Jew attempts to desecrate it and is struck by sudden paralysis; this is caused by the movement of Peter who turns round in anger, disturbed by the sacrilegious gesture. The polygonal building of white marble already seen in the Entry into Jerusalem appears again, enclosed by battlemented walls against which the shining gold circles of the haloes stand out.


In the Burial of the Viirgin the background of deeply indented rocks with small leafy trees evokes the valley of Jehoshaphat where the burial took place. The disciples, grouped quietly round the tomb in attitudes of tender affection, show their heartfelt participation in the sad event, particularly the person on the left who is lifting his hand to his mouth in grief.

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