The Mother of God Enthroned with the Christ Child, Amidst Angels and Saints
The Maesta (1308-11), showing the image of the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints and angels, is a masterpiece created by Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna for the Siena Cathedral. This work of art was created at the culmination of the Italo-Byzantine era in Siena, which is believed to be of the Sienese Gothic art1. The Virgin and Child was a very popular subject of paintings in eras of great artists. Being a masterpiece, I have chosen Duccio’s rendition of this subject in order to answer these questions:
What is the artist’s style of art? The medium he used and why? The colors he used and why?
Was this typical of Duccio’s era?
Why did he always select religious sceneries as his choice? Were his works well received?
In order to answer the questions, the painting will be discussed in terms of style, medium and cultural representation; the era in which the painter created his arts will also be looked into; and other works of arts using the same subject will be probed. In order to understand the cultural
context of Duccio’s era, Cimabue, another Italian artist considered his rival will be referenced.
1. “Encyclopedia of World Biography© on Duccio di Buoninsegna.” 2006. BookRags.
The sources that will be used include: Duccio, Virgin and Child Enthroned in Majesty; and information from online sources such as: Olga’s Gallery that contained a biographical section of the artist; BookRags that provides background information about Maesta; and the Web Gallery of Art that contains sections describing The Maesta and the artist Cimabue, who was considered Duccio’s rival during his time.
Description of the Art
The Maesta was painted by Duccio from 1308 to 1311 as an altarpiece for the Siena
The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mother and the Child Jesus in all their heavenly glory with both saints and angels surrounding the throne to show reverence. This artwork was commissioned for the cathedral in Siena to provide the people with inspiration and to show the city’s trust and faith for the protection that the Virgin Mother and her child would provide the citizens of this place from invaders and other enemies.
At the center of the painting are the Virgin Mother and the Child Jesus seating on what appears to be a marble throne with soft clothing to ease the hardness of the stone. The Virgin wears a deep blue cloak with gold linings. Underneath the cloak are a red dress and a pink headscarf. The child is wearing pink clothing and has a halo around his head. The Virgin’s facial features are tending towards realism, which according to written materials is uncommon during this period. Around the throne are twenty angels and nineteen saints. Upon closer inspection, one of the figures to the right of the canvas is Jesus wearing a red cloak and crown of thorns on his head. The angels are recognizable because they all share the same features, from their hair to the shape of their noses. The saints are mostly men, presumably the apostles, the pope, and some of the prominent biblical figures. All the figures have cloaks and each has a halo. Those figures whose feet are visible are not wearing footwear. None of the figures is
smiling. The throne and the figures below it are enclosed by two lines from both ends that culminate in a spire above the throne. On each side of the spire are five men who seem to be looking down from a balcony.
Duccio predominantly used varying shades of pink, yellow and gold as background color and as clothing. Deep color saturation can be observed in the Virgin’s blue cloak. Geometric and organic shapes are utilized in this painting. Lines are also used to separate ten saints from the other figures below. The painting does not have a three-dimensional quality. Since this a
tempera painting, the texture is matte.
The painting appears to be balanced since the figures and shapes are evenly distributed and they span the entire canvas. There are twenty figures on each side of the throne. The figures appear proportionate with only a slight elongation of the Virgin’s nose. The painting depicts an expectant mode among the figures around the throne. Four angels, two on each side, are looking away from the throne with questioning looks. Four figures, two on each side, are kneeling, while the rest are standing. Central to the theme is the Virgin and Child, who are located at the center. The deep blue color of the Virgin’s cloak draws the eyes towards the figure before taking stock of the other characters in the canvas. The color, the arrangement and the symmetry harmonize the painting.
The Maesta was made of tempera and gold on wood and measures 213 x 396 cm, as stated in the credit line. The tempera technique was the main medium used during the Byzantine era for panel painting2. While oil and other medium eventually took its place, Orthodox icons are still painted using egg tempera. Creating tempera was normally done by grinding powdered pigments into egg yolk, which dries and sticks quickly and firmly. The main advantage of tempera paint is that it dries rapidly. After the paint dries, it produces a matte finish. In Duccio’s Maesta, he used gold as finishing material and varnish for his painting to provide it with the necessary gloss befitting its placement in the altar of Siena’s cathedral. The drawback for using tempera is that it can rarely provide deep color saturations. However, despite the lack of color saturation, the colors do not fade or become yellowed with age as time passes.
Duccio, the leading painter of Siena, Tuscany, in that period was commissioned to create the Maesta to serve as an altarpiece for the city’s cathedral. The work is a reflection of the Byzantine influence of religious symbolism and the revival of realistic portrayal of figures.
2. “Painting.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
The Maesta was created towards the end of the Byzantine era and the start of the
Renaissance movement. The realistic portrayal of the figures would later evolve to become a distinguishing feature of the rebirth of classical learnings. Being an artist of the declining Byzantine era, Duccio, like his contemporaries, was entirely focused on expressing religious and church theology into artistic formats in an impersonal and carefully controlled manner3.
The fall of the Roman Empire gave rise to a different culture that allowed for Christian worship. The Byzantine rulers were predisposed towards Christianity and turned its capital, Constantinople into the art center of the world — making the religion the center of all artistic forms. The Byzantine Empire’s influence spread as the Eastern Orthodox Church expanded. Its reach, particularly in art, was spread in Sicily and Italy through trade and conquest.
Byzantine art largely differ from classical art by using the symbolic approach in the portrayal of figures. The subjects in artworks in this period were religious and imperial, probably because the seat of power was in the Church and the imperial house. The art of the Byzantine era was made up of scenes and forms that were relatively flat and highly stylized in appearance.
During the late Byzantine period, Duccio Buoninsegna was the major artist in Siena, who was born in the same place between 1255 to 1260. His art works laid the foundation for the Sienese school of art. His primary mediums were pigment and egg tempera. Following the tradition of artists of his time, Duccio painted religious scenes and subject matter. His most famous work is the Maesta with Twenty Angels and Nineteen Saints.
3. Rymer, Eric, “Byzantine Art.” 2004.
There are however, other artworks of the Virgin and Child. Two of which were Simone
Martini’s painting with the same title but made from fresco, and another was made by Cimabue di Pepo.
First, let’s compare Duccio’s Maesta with that of Martini’s. Martini was also a major Sienese painter whose works were influenced by Duccio. His art combined Gothic spirituality with vibrant and elegant lines 4.
His Maesta painting was created using fresco for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Martini’s work also shows the Virgin Mother with the Child Jesus sitting on throne while saints and angels surround them. While there are twenty angels, nineteen saints, and the adult Jesus in Duccio’s work, Martini has only thirty figures equally divided between each side of the throne. In Martini’s painting, the throne is under a canopy and raised on a dais, while Duccio had utilized lines to place ten saints on the upper portion of the canvas. The two paintings also differ in the color of the background. While Duccio used yellow, Martini’s background is black, creating for his painting an illusion of space. There is no deep color saturation in Martini’s Maesta, yet the Virgin’s clothes appear elegant and rich. The throne is also drawn differently in each painting. Very few of the angels are readily recognizable in Martini’s painting for they are placed among the saints. The figures in Martini’s painting look more realistic, particularly the facial features, compared with Duccio’s. The Virgin looked particularly regal with her straight aquiline nose, well proportioned to her face, and rich clothing. The throne room also has carpeting in Martini’s painting, while the throne seat has soft brocade covering. There is the illusion of softness in Martini’s painting compared with the hard look of marbles and gold in Duccio’s painting.
4. “Martini, Simone.” 2004. Questia.
While Duccio was the leading artist in Siena, his rival in Florence was named Cenni di Pepo Cimabue, who made his art using mosaics. Cimabue’s Maesta was made of fresco and was
commissioned for the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi5. In this fresco, the Child Jesus has the more natural posture and facial features compared with Duccio’s and Martini’s. Here, Jesus’ size is just right for a child to be held in his mother’s arms. In Duccio’s painting, the Child Jesus looked stiff and too big to be held by his mother. While Duccio’s saints and angels were drawn symmetrically and clearly on his artwork, Cimabue only painted five distinct figures, that of St. Francis and the four angels. St. Francis is naturally included since the fresco was made in the
church were he is patron saint. There are also four life-size angels portrayed with more details and with different faces. The saints are presumably those that are located on the left side of the throne and those faces that are drawn in the pillars. The throne is made of marble and gold with cushions. The throne appears to be placed on top of the rocks were St. Francis is standing barefooted. Cimabue’s work appears a little off-balanced owing to what look like pillars that are painted on each side of the throne. The background color is blue.
Different reproductions of the Madonna and Child are available in many forms at present. I have always assumed that a modern artist has first made a painting of the Virgin Mother with the Child Jesus in her arms. Being previously unaware of cultural and social influences on art, it didn’t occur to me that paintings like the Maesta could hold deeper meanings. Without really thinking who or what was the message behind the art, I merely accepted it as a religious painting.
The first time I saw Duccio’s Maesta, I noticed how the Virgin Mother’s figure was
5. “Life of Cimabue.” Olga’s Gallery.
bigger compared to the other figures in the painting. I assumed it was because of the fact that the
Virgin Mother is the queen of heaven. As I’ve read about the tradition of the Byzantine era and
the artistic portrayals of that time, my initial impression was affirmed. The Virgin was made bigger as a symbol of her importance to humanity.
In the initial stages of this paper, I have wondered about Duccio’s style as reflected in the Maesta. The disproportionate yet realistic portrayal of figures represents the ending of an era and the start of a brand new one. The symbolism of the Byzantine art is present but at the same time, the realistic foundation of the Renaissance period was already apparent. In a conflicting period, producing a masterpiece such as the Maesta is indeed worthy of its place in history.
Noticing the predominance of yellow and gold in the painting, I was also struck by its splendor and the costs of creating it. Upon reading about who and where the painting was to be placed, it became understandable why such opulence was merited. The Byzantine Empire was deeply grounded on Christianity, thus, an altarpiece for Siena’s Cathedral should not be spared the costs. As for the medium that Duccio used, it is not a wonder why he chose egg tempera and gold. Egg tempera was practical and widely used at that time, and gold provided the finish necessary to make the painting worthy to be placed in a cathedral’s altar.
Another thought that was answered was the dominance of religious scenes and objects in Duccio’s art. As I’ve stated above, the Byzantine era was controlled by religious and imperial people, which translates to religious symbolism and opulence in art. As for the people’s reaction to Duccio’s works, it is without a doubt that he was revered in his lifetime. Weber as cited in Olga’s gallery described how everything was put on a standstill the day the Maesta was unveiled to the public. From the lowliest craftsman to Siena’s highest official, they were all there with candles in their hands to venerate the Virgin Mother and the Child Jesus.
“Encyclopedia of World Biography© on Duccio di Buoninsegna.” 2006. BookRags. 23
“Life of Cimabue.” Olga’s Gallery. 23 December 2007
“Martini, Simone.” 2004. Questia. 23 December 2007
“Painting.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 23 December 2007
Rymer, Eric. “Byzantine Art.” 2004. 23 December 2007
“The Maesta by Simone Martini.” Web Gallery of Art. 23 December 2007