Representations of the Maestą
|Evolution of the subject|
The Maestą (Italian for majesty) is a short name used to describe a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. The subject is most common in the Dugento and Trecento (13th-14th centuries). It is not the same as Majestas Domini (Christ in Glory) which expression is reserved for the depiction of Christ in Glory, enthroned as Ruler of the Universe between the symbols of the four Evangelists. This subject was popular in the early Middle Ages, in the 12th century mainly in Gothic architecture, but uncommon after c. 1300 (giving way to theme of the Last Judgment) and very rare in Italy.
Evolution of the subject
The image of the Virgin and Child framed on either side by the figures of saints is found in Christian devotional art of East and West from early times. In late medieval and early Renaissance art its typical form was the altar-piece in which the figures were confined in separate compartments or panels. This developed in the 13th and 14th centuries into a unified representation in which the saints were grouped in one picture, standing, or occasionally kneeling. One type known as the Maestą, another as 'Sacra Conversazione', or 'holy conversation'. The saints are in attendance on the Virgin (usually enthroned with the Child, but also at her Assumption or Coronation; a Sacra Conversazione is sometimes depicted with the Crucifixion). Saints of different ages are shown together, regardless of the period in which they lived. There are many reasons for the presence of a saint in a Maestą or a Sacra Conversazione. He may be the patron of the church for which the work was commissioned (John the Baptist is a common example) or of the city of its donor (Bernardino of Siena; Mark and Nicholas of Venice) - often a clue to the painting's provenance. Works produced for the monastic Orders will include the founder and other saints of the Order (Benedict and his sister Scholastica; Dominic and Peter Martyr). Saints may personify moral and intellectual qualities, often in complementary pairs (Mary Magdalene as Penitence with Catherine of Alexandria as Learning). Another important class of the subject is the votive picture, donated to a church, monastery or charitable institution by way of thanksgiving for some favour received from heaven. The donor kneels beside his personal patron saint, who is often his namesake (as St Laurence was the protector of Lorenzo de' Medici), with maybe his wife and her patron opposite, and their children. The usual grounds for commissioning such paintings were deliverance from the plague (when Sebastian and other protectors from disease would be represented), military victory (warrior saints such as Maurice), or release from captivity, generally after military defeat (Leonard). It will be seen that a saint can have more than one role, which may often be determined by the company he keeps. (Paul, with Peter, symbolizes the founder of the gentile Church; with Benedict, Romuald and others Paul is a patron saint of the Benedictine Order.)
The representation of the Maestą is a characteristic subject in the 14th century Sienese painting. The most typical examples are summarized in a picture. For comparison, two representations from contemporary Florence are also shown.