9 June 2017

The Maestà of Duccio

Masterpiece influenced the course of Italian art history

Duccio's altarpiece in the Duomo di Siena, the Maestà
Duccio's altarpiece in the Duomo di Siena, the Maestà
A magnificent altarpiece by the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna was unveiled in the cathedral in Siena on this day in 1311.

Duccio’s Maestà was to set Italian painting on a new course, leading away from Byzantine art towards using more realistic representations of people in pictures.

The altarpiece was commissioned by the city of Siena from the artist and was composed of many individual paintings.

The front panels made up a large picture of an enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels.

At the base of the panels was an inscription, which translated into English means: ‘Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus.’

Duccio's Madonna col bambino, which is housed  in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
Duccio's Madonna col bambino, which is housed
 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
When the painting was installed in the cathedral on June 9, 1311, one witness to the event wrote: ‘…on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession.

‘This was accompanied by all the high officers of the commune and by all the people; all honourable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind.

‘They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… the poor received many alms, and we prayed to the holy mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.’

The altarpiece remained in place until 1711, when it was dismantled in order to distribute the pieces between two altars. The five-metre high construction was sawn up and some of the paintings were damaged in the process. Some pieces went astray and are unaccounted for, while some pieces are now in museums.

The Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption in Siena
The Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption in Siena
Travel tip:

Siena’s Duomo, the Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption, was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure. It has a beautiful façade built in Tuscan Romanesque style using polychrome marble. In the attached Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Duccio’s Maestà can be seen in a first floor room.

Travel tip:

The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena, where the Palio di Siena takes place twice each year, was established in the 13th century as an open marketplace. It is now regarded as one of the finest medieval squares in Europe. The red brick paving, fanning out from the centre in nine sections, was put down in 1349.

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